National Commentary

The ‘Daylight Theory of Elections’

bentonmugFor the first time in a decade, Democrats in Virginia are heading toward the start of the state’s annual legislative session not able to boast of gaining ground against their arch-conservative GOP foes. Some fundraising events, and a mobilization call for a special state senate election in western Fairfax County on Jan. 12, are now seeking retrenchment and a rebound from last month’s Republican electoral romp.

bentonmugFor the first time in a decade, Democrats in Virginia are heading toward the start of the state’s annual legislative session not able to boast of gaining ground against their arch-conservative GOP foes. Some fundraising events, and a mobilization call for a special state senate election in western Fairfax County on Jan. 12, are now seeking retrenchment and a rebound from last month’s Republican electoral romp.

With the benefit of a month’s worth of hindsight about the November election, which gained national attention as one of only two important ones in the U.S., was generally conceded not to represent a referendum, or a “no confidence vote,” on the Obama administration. That’s because the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, State Sen. Creigh Deeds, ran away from Obama, not with him, in his ill-fated campaign. Therefore, at least no one can argue that Obama was an issue in the election.

The real culprit in that election, from the Democrats’ point of view, was a significantly lower voter turnout than hoped for, certainly vastly lower than the year before when Obama won the state for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964. Had the voter turnout among both new and traditionally Democratic voters matched earlier levels in the decade, the Democrats’ winning streak in statewide races, beginning with Sen. Mark Warner’s election as governor in 2001, would have continued. Warner’s win was followed by Tim Kaine’s win as governor in 2005, Jim Webb’s win as U.S. Senator in 2006, Warner’s win as U.S. Senator and Obama’s a president in 2008. The Dems went 5-for-5.

The state was on the verge of being officially shifted to “blue” (from the GOP’s “red”) after November 2008, but given Deeds’ ineffective campaign last fall, it was instead declared “definitely purple” by Virginia native Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary, after the president was finally invited to speak at a Deeds rally only days before the election.

This leads me to coin my phrase, the “Daylight Theory of Elections.” That is, put simply, if voters do not perceive “daylight” on the issues between candidates in any election, they will tend to stay home and not vote. Therefore, the campaign that needs to rely more on a higher voter turnout must work harder to establish such “daylight.” By “daylight,” of course, I mean a clearly-perceived difference between the candidates, not in the eyes of political activists or insiders, but in the general public.

For last month’s election in Virginia, the failure to achieve this was the cause of the lower voter turnout that led to the Democrats’ defeat.

Deeds might have been a good guy and a paragon of virtue, but his stump speech was about formative experiences of his childhood, and not about his opponent’s over-the-top, right-wing history and voting record.

Even worse was the race for attorney general, where the Democrat distanced himself from key components of the traditional Democratic base, including the gay and lesbian component, such that the egregiously discriminatory and right-wing posture of his GOP opponent never gained traction in the public.

In fact, had it not been for some creative investigative journalism by the Washington Post, nothing of the GOP gubernatorial or attorney general candidates’ arch-right-wing positions would have surfaced in the election.

As a result, voters simply felt they had no compelling reason to bother to mobilize or get to the polls on election day.

A clear turning point came in late August, when Deeds failed to appear at the one seminal event of a critical component of the state’s Democratic base, hosted by the Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Club. While dozens of other Democratic elected officials were there, Deeds was not, and the level of activism and enthusiasm that could have been generated that night instead became deflated into passive, at best, support.

I wrote this in a letter to leaders of the Virginia Partisans after the event, which I copied to the Deeds campaign, and my prediction made in that letter proved too true in November.

Apparently, the lessons of Obama’s victory have to be re-learned again in Virginia. Principled Democrats should have no problem creating “daylight” between themselves and their Republican rivals.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*