The dominant narrative about the 2013 gubernatorial elections suggests an obvious reason for a Republican handily winning a blue state (New Jersey) and another losing a purple state (Virginia): The party fares best when it nominates candidates with moderate and cross-over voter appeal, it loses when it leans too far right.
Yet a stark and largely overlooked finding in the exit polls in the close race in Virginia suggests that GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli lost for another reason: He failed to sufficiently mobilize his long-time core constituency of white evangelical Christians. Whereas in 2009 this group comprised 34 percent of the Virginia electorate, this year it was only 27 percent, a drop large enough to have made the difference in the unexpectedly close contest.
To be sure, some of this drop-off is due to the shrinking of the white share of the state population. But that demographic shift doesn’t nearly explain a more than 20 percent drop in white evangelical turnout from what it was four years ago. Something else is going on.
The social conservative and tea party wings of the GOP have blamed Cuccinelli’s loss, predictably, on defections by moderate Republicans who allegedly didn’t want a true conservative to win. Culture warrior Cuccinelli even wore the tea party label proudly, at times boasting that he was tea party before there ever was one.
But could it be that disaffection within the conservative ranks – not moderate Republican defections – is the actual reason that Cuccinelli lost?
Cuccinelli himself has said that conservative support for his campaign peaked at the end. But the very large drop in white evangelical turnout tells a different story. According to the talk show/tea party conservative nation, their legions were supposed to actually come to the polls in record droves if only the GOP would nominate a true blue conservative such as Ken Cuccinelli. They have said Barack Obama won twice only because many conservatives stayed home when the GOP nominated “moderates” John McCain and Mitt Romney. The outcome in Virginia gives this claim little credibility.
And to be fair, Democratic attack-ad gurus have wrongly claimed their electronic missives sunk Cuccinelli and they have promised to replicate their “war against women” campaign coast to coast in 2014. Self-described pro-women’s groups on the left are naturally endorsing this strategy, since it increases their leverage, hence better fund-raising and paid media gigs.
But the exit polls don’t support this view either, showing that Republican pro-choice women didn’t desert Cuccinelli. And independent conservative women also didn’t desert the GOP’s tea party nominee.
Yet in a twist predicted by no one, Cuccinelli could not persuade enough religious conservatives to go to the polls.
Long story short: if white evangelical Christians had merely been near – not even equal – to the same percentage of the electorate as four years ago for Bob McDonnell, then Cuccinelli would have been elected as Virginia’s next governor.
Admittedly exit polls are not infallible. But even if there were errors, this basic level of white evangelical Christian support couldn’t have been materially missed since it would have changed the outcome. This is why the statistic showing the 20 percent drop jumped off the page to us.
Cuccinelli, according the tea party/talk show conservative nation, is precisely the type of candidate they have long promised would maximize their vote. But in this past election shows instead that their brand of conservatism can’t mobilize enough of their own to win in a purple state such as Virginia, much less the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency in 2016. The religious conservative component of the electorate is not only declining in numbers, it is losing its fervor to make a difference in elections.
Mark J. Rozell is acting dean of the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and Paul Goldman is former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore.