Ken Cuccinelli Is Winning. Here's Why.

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The race between Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli isn’t as bleak as the fight between Godzilla and Moth-Ra (thanks, Jonathan Chait, for the comparison), but it’s close. Fairly or not, McAuliffe is seen as a soulless Democratic Party hack, with few supporters and nothing to connect him to the state or its history.

But he’s better than Ken Cuccinelli, whose entire reputation is for right-wing revanchism. He hates taxes, he hates abortion, and has used his position as attorney general to launch ideological crusades against health care reform and climate science. The only difference between him and a candidate like Todd Akin is that Cuccinelli actually stands a chance of winning.

To wit, according to the latest Washington Post poll, Cuccinelli holds a ten-point lead over McAuliffe among likely voters, and a five point lead among all Virginians. How is this possible in a state Barack Obama won twice? Demographics.

The drop-off between presidential and gubernatorial elections is much larger than the one between presidential and midterm elections. The 2009 electorate that elected Bob McDonnell was 46 percent smaller than the one which elected Barack Obama. This wouldn’t be a huge problem if the proportion of voters were the same. But, as Ben Tribbett—a perceptive Virginia political analyst—points out,  the voters who don’t fall off from election to election in Virginia are older voters (aged 65 to 85), with over 90 percent of that vote in Presidential elections coming to the polls in gubernatorial ones.

Overall, the gubernatorial electorates are substantially more conservative than what you’d see in any other election year. In 2009, for example, it was whiter (78 percent compared to 70 percent), older (52 percent of all voters were over the age of 45), mostly Republican (37 percent), and largely conservative (40 percent). Indeed, a full 51 percent of people who voted that year supported John McCain the previous election. A Republican victory was baked into the cake.

You can see this in regional turnout differences. The parts of the state that have the highest turnout during gubernatorial elections are also the ones with larger proportions of white and older voters. Likewise, the parts of the state with the greatest drop-off—Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads—are also the ones with greater proportions of younger and African American voters.

Terry McAuliffe doesn’t have to run a good campaign to win the election—he needs to run an excellent one, and there’s no indication he’s up to snuff. Yes, he has deep pockets, but—popular opinion aside—money doesn’t buy votes. To have a shot at winning the governorship, for example, McAuliffe needs near-unanimous support from African American voters. At the moment, only 69 percent of state’s black voters support his candidacy.

All of this raises a question. Couldn’t the state’s Democrats find someone stronger than McAuliffe to run for governor? The unfortunate answer is, no.

In Virginia, the most common path to the governor’s mansion goes through either the attorney general’s office, or the lieutenant governor’s. The problem for Democrats is that they’ve had terrible luck with winning either office. Virginia hasn’t elected a Democratic attorney general since Jim Gilmore resigned in 1997 to run for governor (he won), and the last Democratic lieutenant governor was Tim Kaine, who did the same to run for governor in 2005. Add the disaster of the 2010 midterm elections—where Republicans won all but three congressional seats—and you have a Virginia Democratic Party with a remarkably thin bench. The question isn’t “how could McAuliffe have won the nomination?”, it’s “who else was there to run?”

None of this is to say things are hopeless for Virginia Democrats, but they have huge obstacles to overcome. Including their own partisanship. It’s easy to dismiss Cuccinelli as someone who can’t win the election on account of his extremism. But the fact of the matter is that he’s winning, and Democrats are stuck with one of the most lackluster politicians in the country.

When you consider all the other problems Democrats have in Virginia—namely, a persistent disadvantage in redistricting and House of Delegate elections—the short-term picture looks terrible for the party.