Exit poll shocker: Conservative desertions sunk Cuccinelli

Paul Goldman and Norman Leahy Former Chair, Democratic Party of Virginia; Editor-at-Large, Bearing Drift
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The common refrain coming out of Virginia’s gubernatorial election is that the Republican establishment torpedoed Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign. “The GOP simply didn’t want a Tea Party candidate winning [in Virginia],” said nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh. Conservative talk maven Ann Coulter echoed the sentiment on the Sean Hannity Show: “the RNC, the establishment, let Cuccinelli down.”

It’s a comforting narrative for conservatives. But is it true? Exit polling from Virginia’s gubernatorial race reveals this shocking statistic: If Mr. Cuccinelli had been able to match the net winning percentage among conservative Virginia voters as outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell did in 2009, then he would now be Governor-elect! Cuccinelli won 83 percent of the conservative vote. Democrat Terry McAuliffe took 13 percent and Libertarian Robert Sarvis got 3 percent (rounding makes it less than 100). This equals a 70 percent net winning percentage for Cuccinelli over McAuliffe. By contrast, 2009 exit polls gave McDonnell an 82 percent margin among conservatives over his Democratic opponent, state senator Creigh Deeds.

Let’s deduct Sarvis’ 3 percent from the McDonnell number. This leaves a 79 percent net winning margin. Furthermore, in 2009, conservatives amounted to 40 percent of the electorate according to the exit polls, but only 36 percent this year. Had conservatives merely mirrored their 2009 participation for suspected RINO McDonnell [who actually did raise taxes and got squishy on certain social issues], then Mr. Cuccinelli wins easily — even with the lesser 70 percent net support level!

Admittedly exit polls can be wrong, although results in 2009 and again in 2013 were uncannily accurate. Since we write the only bipartisan column in America following our hero Abraham Lincoln’s advice, “charity for all and malice toward none,” we will not address the 40 percent vs. 36 percent drop-off issue. Instead we will focus on the 70 percent net-winning margin which a change in turnout would not impact significantly.

Why? First, the “missed voters” would be small statistical part of the overall conservative turnout. Secondly, there is no reason to assume they back Cuccinelli at 2009 net margin levels. Finally, even assuming they did, their small numbers would not combine with all the other conservatives to materially change the 70 percent net-winning margin statistic.

Therefore, comparing the 70 and 79 percent numbers is more sensible. It produces this politically inconvenient truth: Had conservatives voting on Tuesday backed Cuccinelli at 2009 levels, he would have won by 19,000 votes!

That’s right: He isn’t the victim of back-stabbing RINOS, mega-funded libertarian stalking horses, or a biased media. Self-identified Republicans voted overwhelmingly for Cuccinelli. The “gender gap” theory – Cuccinelli lost because Republican women deserted him – is not true. Statistically speaking, Republican men and Republican women were equally supportive. The “gender gap” is not what the media claims as another of our articles.

The statistical bottom line: Cuccinelli lost because Tea Party/talk show holier-than-thou swagger turns off Virginia’s middle class, independent, conservative voters. They don’t much like being lectured by the conservative movement’s sans-culottes as to who is, and is not, a “real” conservative. In the vernacular, just who the heck do Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, Ingram and Levin think they are?

These conservatives didn’t like Terry McAuliffe. But ever since the Limbaugh brand of conservatism began to dominate Republican politics, the Democrats have enjoyed unparalleled presidential voting success. Never before had four successive nominees – Clinton, Gore, Kerry and Obama – won a majority of the cumulative two-party vote.

Politics ain’t beanbag. It’s rough, it’s ugly and Virginia voters saw plenty of both during the nearly year-long gubernatorial campaign, but that’s no excuse for conservatives to play the victim card. The Limbaugh/Cuccinelli posse needs to man up and accept responsibility for what happened last week. The exit polls are clear: conservative desertions sunk Cuccinelli. Had he equaled or exceeded Bob McDonnell’s 2009 support from conservatives, Cuccinelli would have won despite everything the McAuliffe campaign, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and the biased media threw at him.

There is no more deadly political sin than arrogance and ignorance. As we wrote all fall, Cuccinelli faced a number of challenges beyond his control.

But his loss last week cannot be placed at the feet of the Republican establishment, Libertarians or fair-weather Republicans. His defeat came from defections among independent conservatives –  the very people he was supposed to have on his side no matter what.