Ken Cuccinelli and the Fading of the Religious Right

GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli failed to sufficiently mobilize his long-time core constituency of white evangelical Christians.

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.

  • tunatofu

    It isnt that he couldnt get them to go to the polls its that there really arent that many of them. A handful of loud people cant compensate for several hundred thousand quieter people who dont agree. It is numbers not volume. Maybe I am too much in the NoVA bubble but the backward anti-science 1950s nonsense doesnt play up here where the educated working women and ethnically diverse folks live.

  • nsu1203

    Sore loser.

  • Bucker1

    Sheesh. Here they go again: “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.
    Doesn’t anyone at Wapo know the difference between “compose” and “comprise”? Apparently not T… this group COMPOSED 34 percent …..” but didn’t “comprise” it. Comprise means “embrace.” Guess there are no copy editors or proofers left down there. And getting worse with every passing day.

  • Secular1

    Are you nitpicking about word usage. You need to go get a life.

  • listeningpost

    Not to mention that Bucker1 is wrong. Every online dictionary, including the OED, says that the definition of comprise is “consist of; be made up of; constitute,” e.g., the country comprises twenty states. Or in this case, “…this group comprised 34 percent of the Virginia electorate….” Completely acceptable and accurate.

    I’m available for hire at the Post if they need one more copy editor to battle the ignorance of the commenters.

  • amelia45

    Okay. So evangelicals did not come out and vote in the same percentage as they did in the last race for governor. The question then is why? It is hard to imagine that Cuccinelli was not the ideal candidate for them, so it would be really interesting for there to be some surveys and focus groups to figure out what happened.

  • VaHillBilly

    Ive been a Dems activist for 20yrs, The Rights base wasn’t motivated this yr. At the polls out here in hillbillyville there wasn’t poll greeters. Our dems had all polls covered with greeters. If we (dems) had a better candidate at the top of the ticket. THis would have been a humiliating defeat for the GOP.

  • VaHillBilly

    Ive been a Dems activist for 20yrs, The Rights base wasn’t motivated this yr. At the polls out here in hillbillyville there wasn’t poll greeters. Our dems had all polls covered with greeters. If we (dems) had a better candidate at the top of the ticket. THis would have been a humiliating defeat for the GOP.

  • NY hummingbird

    Sorry, Bucker1, but so many people misuse the the word “comprise” that the true meaning has been obscured. I agree with listeningpost — WaPo used the word correctly. Either “comprises” or “is composed of” would be correct.

  • arnoldnet

    Had there been no third party libertarian candidate, many of those votes would likely have gone to Cucinelli, giving him the winning margin. It was also clear to me that some conservatives sat out this off year election and did not vote, perhaps because they viewed him as a flawed candidate. Again, these missing votes would have contributed to a republican victory. But I do not think that evangelicals all vote with one mind, at least no more than any other voting group.

  • arnoldnet

    Cucinelli was hampered by stunted fund raising, and as a result his field organization was not as strong as it might have otherwise been. A big reason why the conservative turnout was lower than he had hoped. He still lost a close one, and did very well for someone with such obvious handicaps as a candidate. Do not make the mistake of counting the conservatives out, they will be back, especially if Hillary Clinton is a national candidate,

  • WaitingForGodot

    Not so. If there had been no libertarian candidate, those voters would not have voted for Cuccinelli, they would have stayed home. Exit polls clearly established that the libertarian voters were there to vote for their libertarian candidate and no one else. Their absence would have hardly made a ripple.

    I am not about to write off the religious right as easily as this article does. Zealotry never goes away, it merely regroups and awaits another opportunity to disrupt and dominate. They’ll be back. They always come back, damn it…..

  • Constitutional.Reset

    Terry ‘Catfish’ McAuliffe adopted 18USC1343 felony as his campaign strategy.
    No Virginia Republican appears to have been prepared for a candidate like Terry ‘Catfish’ McAuliffe .
    That can change.
    Never again in our lifetimes would Va experience a campaign like that of 2013.

  • Constitutional.Reset

    Voting fraud exists in
    A ) Voting illegally,
    B ) wrongly counting the votes and
    C ) the process of gaining (or attempting to gain) a person’s voting choice by fraud or bribe.
    There are more counts with easily found conclusive evidence of C ).
    A ) & B ) need to be handled competently.
    A remedy for C ) can be fast and easy.
    And build momentum for a remedy to A) and B ) .

  • Constitutional.Reset

    Draft Sworn Application to Federal Grand Jury for Indictment of Terry McAuliffe on multiple counts of 18USC1343 Felony Perpetrated in His Ads “Schools” and “Bunch. The application is in a fully detailed pro forma indictment.

    Other video ads containing likely 18USC1343 felonies that do not yet have a proforma indictment are contained herein also.

  • Constitutional.Reset

    The gist is that no future political campaign in Virginia will boldly lie as McAuliffe’s did.
    A law enforcement authority of the Commonwealth whether Inspector General, State Police, orLocality Commonwealth Attorney petitions a Va Federal Court Grand Jury for indictment of McAuliffe for his 18USC1343 felony.
    If officers of the Federal Court in Va block the petition “Resisting the execution of the laws under the color of its authority” as defined by Va1-248s application on federal law then those federal court officials are indicted in state court for Va18.2-111/481(5) felony.

  • CCNL

    The VA voters are starting to see the light of rational thinking.

    Some results of said thinking noted previously:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

  • Secular1


  • Secular1

    The religious right which rails against the so caled victimology on the left, does not miss every chance to display it’s MO “When you can’t beat them, WHINE”. Bugger1 is a classic example of that.

  • Jawja100

    Cooch, McDonnell, Obersheim and EW should all be offered a trans-anal ultrasound probe as a consolation prize. Since they are all so keen on these probes.

  • Secular1

    The cooch is indeed the most despicable specimen of a candidate for governor of any state. He would be an ideal candidate for the county snake handler for the all the redneck churches in hickville USA.

  • cococo

    It’s a great thing that this narcissistic backward fanatical boy-man lost. But the religious right in this country is in no way diminishing.

  • cococo

    I hope Obershain loses.

  • cococo

    Cooch was hampered by his record as Attorney General: corruption allegations and the attack on the climatology prof at UVa, even if the religious right has the same obsession he does about women’s contraception and other reproductive issues. He’s not likeable.

  • crascal

    Cuccinelli claimed that the renowned climate scientist Michael Mann committed fraud against taxpayers when he allegedly manipulated his data in order to get federal research money.

    In fact, Cuccinelli fabricated “quotes” he used in his brief to the EPA. Cuccinelli cited the Kremlin’s official press agency RIA Novosti when they trashed western climate scientists. Cuccinelli “quoted” passages where the KREMLIN’S press agency claimed that a British climate organization manipulated data. Cuccinelli changed the name of the British organization the Russians trashed to a completely different organization called the Climate Research Unit (CRU). The CRU was victimiized by criminals who stole their emails and twisted what they meant on the Internet. Actually, the Russians never said CRU. Cuccinelli totally changed the quote TWICE in his EPA complaint so that it appeared that the Russians were trashing the CRU.

    I read other complaints that also made this same “mistake.” How did Cuccinelli get this manipulated quote? Does he get his climate science from the Kremlin?

    Doesn’t Cuccinelli look up quotes that political operatives give him to see what they actually say?

    Cuccinelli’s ridiculous brief to the EPA suggested that it was a coincidence that the Russians published their article on the very day that the EPA ruled that CO2 is a pollutant. The Russians published that article because they were not happy that the Americans were calling CO2 a pollutant. It was a Kremlin attack on the EPA.
    Cuccinelli used the Kremlin’s attack on the EPA as “proof” that our scientists are corrupt.

    As it turns out, Michael Mann has been exonerated by many scientific organizations and by several courts. Cuccinelli is the corrupt one who uses fabricated quotes in a brief that he submits to a Federal agency.

    Cuccinelli is a corrupt liar who takes money from gas and oil interests to smear great scientists who are defending our country from the national security risk of climate change.

  • crascal

    I think Cuccinelli should explain why he thinks that the Kremlin’s press agency is telling the truth when they trash western climate scientists.

    The Kremlin’s report is based on an article that appeared in the Russian business paper Kommersant. The person who defamed the western climate scientists is identified as a former Putin adviser Andrei Illarionov. This guy is not a scientist. He is an economist. He also used to work for the former head of the Soviet Gas Ministry Chernomyrdin.

    These days, Illarionov is an adviser on climate change for the libertarian Cato Institute. It is pretty hypocritical of the Cato to attack America’s big government while ignoring the fact that their operative Andrei Illarionov is a former servant of the Russian petrostate.

    The Cato gets money from the Koch brothers. Their daddy made his money building Stalin’s oil refineries. Later, he was a John-Birch type person who attacked the CIA and FBI for supposedly being like the KGB. He criticized America’s big government after he made his fortune working for the Soviets.

    Cuccinelli is not a religious person. He is a selfish, greedy, power-hungry, corrupt politician who wants the votes of religious people.

    Well, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which has many Nobel-winners, has conferences on climate change. The Vatican says that climate change is impacting the planet and will be especially hard on the poor.

    Climate change is increasing instability and poverty. The rising seas are flooding great cities. Even in Russia, the real scientists–unlike Andrei Illarionov—write about this, and the KGB hired outside experts in order to study the effects of climate change on Russia. For one thing, their gas and oil installations are sinking in the thawing permafrost.

    Cuccinelli should go away! He should find some sustainable way of supporting his wife and seven children that does not require him to persecute our scientific heroes!

  • noplutocracy

    Laughable and a total waste of “electrons”

  • Annandale

    Given the governors in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Florida. Never mind. It is quite a group he is with. Is there a Republican governor who is not a theocratic fascist? Don’t give me that Christie stuff either.

  • larryclyons

    You’re using a facebook posting. Is that the best you’ve got?

    How pathetic.

  • larryclyons

    Secular – I wonder if Bugger1 would like some Cheese with that Whine.

  • raywilliams

    “Republican Ken Cuccinelli holds back tears as he gives his concession speech in Richmond, Va.”


    Did he EVER call Terry McAuliffe to congratulate him?

  • raywilliams

    “Had there been no third party libertarian candidate, many of those votes would likely have gone to Cucinelli ..”

    Here we go again …

    Does ANYONE believe that Bill Bolling would have lost to Terry McAuliffe because there was a ‘third party libertarian candidate” running?

    Bolling would have won so you can’t blame Sarvis for Cuccinelli’s loss.

  • raywilliams

    And if Bolling had run instead of Cuccinelli, we would have lost. Keep it in perspective.

  • larryclyons

    Exactly. because Bolling was not a teahadi.

  • likestoread

    I do think our personal geography plays a huge role in our perceptions of where the majority opinion falls. I’m a Democrat, but grew up about an hour west of DC in Northwestern VA. I went to college in Richmond and have since lived in Charlottesville and in Waynesboro, and my experience is that VA is a different state once you step outside of the urban/suburban sprawl of DC, Richmond or even Charlottesville. Things get really red, really quickly. It’d be interesting to me, personally, to see some stats that compare the higher density urban area (typically more democratic) population with those in the more sparsely populated (and commonly more conservative) areas. Are the urban centers of VA becoming populous enough to sway the elections on the basis of sheer numbers, or is it just that they turn out to vote in higher proportion? I realize that the non-urban areas of VA are sparsely populated… but let’s face it, this is a BIG state… and conservatives (esp. VA Bible Belt conservatives) have tendencies towards breeding prolifically. Living in Richmond for 8 years, I definitely experienced the “bubble” effect tunatofu talks about, but moving westward in the state since then has shifted my perceptions of where the “majority” opinion lies… something that makes me wonder even more about the decline in white evangelical votes. Perhaps the “backward anti-science 1950s nonsense” I hear spouted around me on a regular basis is all just jaw-wagging? At the very least, this article definitely got me thinking…