Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The “War on Women” and the GOP’s path to victory

In my last (first?) post, I talked a little bit about the so-called “War on Women” and the effect that it had on the Virginia gubernatorial election. I also talked about how Ken Cuccinelli fared far worse than his counterpart in New Jersey, Chris Christie, in the messaging war to define him as a candidate. Today, I’d like to elaborate a little more on that point and what it means for Republican candidates in future elections.

First off, a few disclaimers: I’m going to keep this post relatively short because Mary Hasson over at the Federalist has basically already written the post I was planning. She asserts, quite correctly I think, that contextual factors accounted for much of the disparity between Cuccinelli and Christie in terms of how they were treated by pro-choice interest groups. Christie was the overwhelming favorite going into his campaign for reelection and as such his opponent attracted much less funding from organizations like Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List than say, a Democrat in a competitive open-seat race in Virginia. So, essentially, it seems that some Republican candidates can get away with not focusing at all on women’s issues and still get elected. In fact, Bill Whalen of RealClearPolitics recommends that all GOP candidates do just that, saying “Republicans would do well to de-emphasize social issues.”  

I think the key point that Mr. Whalen misses—and that Ken Cuccinelli proved quite clearly—is that not all Republicans have the luxury of pretending that social issues don’t exist and still get elected. Candidates like Cuccinelli—who was in a competitive race and (most importantly) had a voting record as a staunch social conservative—can’t simply keep mum on social issues and hope that voters won’t notice. They most certainly will, if for no other reason than simply because pro-choice organizations are going to spend a lot of money reminding them.

Obviously, there is a lot more to women’s rights than the abortion issue. But, like it or not, that is the one issue that will inevitably stand out the most in an electoral contest. Sadly, the abortion debate in the United States is almost completely dominated by what Ms. Hasson refers to as the “zealots” on both sides—those on the right who think that a single-cell zygote has Constitutional rights and those on the left who think that abortions should be added to the McDonald’s dollar menu. It’s no surprise that the majority of Americans don’t agree with either of these camps. But nevertheless, these are the people trying to define candidates for you.

And this is where the Republicans most often make the fatal mistake. They have nothing to say when those on the left portray them as woman-haters. Now, I know I asserted in my last article that the GOP’s gap among women voters is more a function of their problem with minorities, and I stand by that analysis. But at the same time, I recognize that it can’t be a good thing for Republican candidates to get hammered relentlessly with the “War on Women” label and have absolutely no rebuttal.

So what should they do? Mr. Whalen’s solution of simply downplaying social issues isn’t likely to pan out all that well in many cases. He cites Bob McDonnell’s big win in 2009 as proof that this strategy works: “Mr. McDonnell is pro-life, but he campaigned as ‘the jobs governor.’ He carried the women's vote by 8%.” But, again, this ignores crucial contextual factors. McDonnell ran for governor amid the build-up toward a massive GOP wave in 2010. The Republican base was fired up while their counterparts in the Democratic camp were demoralized, discouraged, and struggling to unite behind a no-name candidate (who, by the way, suffered a tragic turn of events today and should be in everyone’s thoughts and prayers). In that kind of environment, you can afford to ignore your baggage—and let’s not forget, Bob McDonnell had just as strong a record as a social conservative as Cuccinelli (remember his thesis from Regent?).

If I had it my way, I would just have the Republican Party abandon the pro-life position as one of its main planks. But I’m also a pragmatist who recognizes that such a move would lead to a revolt within their base, so it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. I’m not pretending to have a golden key that fixes this problem. I’m just pointing out that candidates like Cuccinelli need to at least play defense with their pro-life and otherwise socially conservative positions if they want to win. They cannot follow the Cuccinelli playbook, which was essentially to repeat the mistakes of the Romney campaign in Virginia. They both spent the entire summer idly sitting by as Democratic and Democrat-affiliated organizations spent loads of cash painting them as extreme candidates for whom mainstream Virginians couldn’t possibly vote. Maybe, just maybe, explaining to women voters their reasons for having these positions would be more successful than just ignoring them outright. While many moderate voters might still disagree with these positions, they at least might not revile them. And that could make a huge difference.

That actually wasn’t a very short post, was it? Sorry. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ken Cuccinelli, Chris Christie, and the state of the GOP

The mainstream media is, not surprisingly, already busy telling everyone what they should take away from the rather limited slate of 2013 elections. And I must say, I am so far very impressed that a great many writers have resisted the temptation to push the shallow conclusion that moderate Republicans win while Tea Party conservatives don’t. I certainly understand why such a conclusion at first seems easy enough to reach—after all, Christie ran in New Jersey as a pragmatic problem-solver while Cuccinelli tried to convince Virginians to elect a staunchly pro-life, anti-Obamacare conservative as their next governor. But many writers, like James Hohmann at Politico, have dug a little deeper and realized that perhaps there’s more to it than that. I would like to discuss my own takeaways from the 2013 elections—particularly the Virginia governor’s race—here.

1. Obamacare seems to have cancelled out the shutdown

Looking at the exit polling in Virginia, one thing is abundantly clear: the electorate that showed up on Tuesday doesn’t seem to like either major political party all that much. Both President Obama and his signature healthcare law had identical favorability ratings: 46% of voters supported the law and had a positive opinion of the President’s job performance while a majority (53%) opposed the law and had an unfavorable opinion of the President. On the other hand, a strong plurality of voters (42%) opposed the Tea Party movement, while equal-sized minorities (28%) were either supportive or neutral.

But here’s where things get really interesting: voters were split almost evenly on who they blame for the recent government shutdown. 45% of respondents blame President Obama while 48% blame Congressional Republicans. If I had to guess, I would say that whatever advantage Democrats might hope to gain from the bare 3% “blame gap” regarding the shutdown is more than neutralized by the fact that a majority of the electorate have an unfavorable opinion of President Obama and his healthcare law.

2. Having that said, Obamacare is not what “tightened the race”

Polls leading up to the election in Virginia had Terry McAuliffe up by consistently commanding margins—as much as 17 points just two weeks out. On Election Day, RealClearPolitics gave McAuliffe an average polling lead of 6.7 points. Nevertheless, after all the votes were counted that same night, Terry McAuliffe had emerged the victor by just 2.5 points. What happened? At first, I wanted to blame this considerable tightening on Obamacare—after all, that’s what both Politico and CNN were pushing.

But in reality, there is scant evidence for this hypothesis. The major news outlets were pointing to two different items from the exit polling to prove their point: namely, that 53% of the electorate opposed Obamacare and that 81% of those opposed voted for Cuccinelli. But this, of course, is a no-brainer that proves nothing. Cuccinelli voters would have been overwhelmingly opposed to Obamacare no matter what. Dig a little deeper and this is what you see: only 27% of the electorate cited healthcare as their most important issue. What’s more, Cuccinelli only won this subgroup by four percent—49% to 45%. While it may be significant that Cuccinelli won this group of voters, the narrow margin of victory as well as the fact that these voters made up only about a quarter of the electorate means this wasn’t enough to tighten the race by four full points. I’m more inclined to go with Sean Trende’s hypothetical “Shy Cuccinelli Effect”—namely, the idea that voters were literally shy about admitting to pollsters that they planned to vote Cuccinelli.

3. The key difference between Chris Christie and Ken Cuccinelli is how they were defined (both by themselves and their opponents)

Many opinion writers, such as Carter Eskew at the Washington Post, will try and tell you that a Christie win coupled with a Cuccinelli loss means that only “moderate” Republicans win. These pundits exist in some kind of parallel universe where Chris Christie is apparently a bipartisan wonder boy who differs wildly from his national party. I just don’t think this is the case. Look at his record: as governor, Christie has cut taxes, cut spending, and taken a stand against public employee unions. That’s the same kind of activity that prompted Democrats to attempt a recall against Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Furthermore, Christie is unapologetically pro-life and against gay marriage, so I fail to see how he’s all that different from a run-of-the-mill Republican.

The fact of the matter is that Christie won the war to define himself to voters whereas Cuccinelli lost it. Christie did what you have to do to win as a Republican in a solidly blue state: he spent plenty of time and money distancing himself from the national Republican Party. He ran a very candidate-centered campaign, convincing voters that he was a “New Jersey politician” who knew what needed to be done to accomplish things in his state.

Cuccinelli, on the other hand, was massively outspent by his opponent (more than 3:2) as the McAuliffe campaign flooded the airwaves with attack ads defining Cuccinelli as a right-wing ideologue who wanted to ban abortion and contraception and introduce no-fault divorce. Not only did Cuccinelli spend his entire tenure as attorney general behaving exactly like the right-wing ideologue McAuliffe said he was, but he made no real effort to redefine himself throughout the campaign. (Let’s not forget that Bob McDonnell was able to do just that in 2009 despite being just about as conservative as Cuccinelli). The national Republican Party must take some of the blame here, as they and their donor base basically abandoned Cuccinelli from the get-go. What’s more, he found himself running in a state with a scandal-embroiled Republican governor, loads of federal employees angry about the shutdown and blaming his party, and a lieutenant governor candidate who managed to be even more conservative than him. The two situations are hardly comparable. No wonder he lost the messaging war, which brings me to my next point…

4.  Never mind the so-called “War on Women”; Republicans’ number one problem is their deficit among minority voters

So much in the Virginia campaign was focused on women’s issues. This was largely due to the aforementioned ad blitz by the McAuliffe campaign to define Cuccinelli as a fundamentally anti-woman candidate. Essentially, Democratic operatives were attempting to replicate the Obama campaign’s success in Virginia at turning out the “Coalition of the Ascendant”—the alliance of young people, women, and minorities who all vote overwhelmingly Democratic. And, working against an underfunded opponent who gave them way too much ammunition, they succeeded.

But, to go back to the exit polling for a minute, here is a very interesting data point: Cuccinelli won white women by an astonishing sixteen points—54% to 38%, even as he lost the overall woman vote by nine (42%-51%). What does this mean? Well, quite simply, it means that Cuccinelli must have lost the non-white woman vote by stunning margins. Indeed, the polling corroborates this: 91% of African American females voted for McAuliffe (data for Latino and Asian women was not available). Overall, Cuccinelli lost the African American vote by an overwhelming 82 points (8%-90%), all while winning the white vote by a commanding 20 points (56%-36%).

Up until recently, it would have been unthinkable for a candidate to win the white vote by 20 points and still lose. But, as the Obama campaign demonstrated in 2012, winning the white vote is no longer synonymous with winning the election. Nevertheless, it seems that white women are not buying into the “War on Women” hype—the GOP’s deficit among women voters seems to be merely a function of their massive deficit among minorities. This has significant implications for any future winning strategy by Republicans. More on that in my next post. 

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do we do this to ourselves?