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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Voter turnout and 'Trump effect' were major factors in Northam victory

High voter turnout and the “Trump effect” were major factors in Ralph Northam’s unexpectedly big win over Ed Gillespie in the election for Virginia governor, the managers of both campaigns agree.

Bradley Komar, the manager of the Northam campaign, and Chris Leavitt, Gillespie’s campaign manager, shared insights from the Nov. 7 election at a forum at George Mason University Nov. 14 hosted by the Virginia Public Access Project. The forum, “After Virginia Votes,” was moderated by Mark Rozell, dean of GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
Northam got 54 percent of the vote, versus 45 percent for Gillespie.

Voter turnout was up 11 percent over 2013, the last time Virginia elected a governor. Turnout in precincts with a large Latino population was double the average turnout, with the anti-immigration rhetoric from President Trump and Gillespie a major factor.

Counties that had high voter turnout and went overwhelmingly for the Republicans tended to have much smaller populations than counties in Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, and the Tidewater area where Northam had the strongest support.

The surprise victory of Donald Trump a year ago mobilized Northam voters, Komar said. “There was a lot of Democratic energy in response to what’s going on in Washington.”

“In terms of campaign strategy and messaging, Northam had a powerful story to tell,” he said, noting Northam’s background as an Army doctor resonated more with voters than Gillespie’s history as a corporate lobbyist.

The fact that Trump did not win in Virginia “made it much harder” for the Gillespie campaign, Leavitt said. “From day one of the campaign, we knew we had to make this race about Virginia, so the focus was on policy and issues.”

The primaries

The relatively late entrance of Tom Pierrello in the Democratic primary was an unanticipated challenge that forced the Northam campaign leftward. “We had a playbook; Northam had a strong record on women’s reproductive health, education, sensible gun laws, and support for democratic values,” Komar said. “We started with a strong lead. Pierrello kept chipping away on that.” Yet Northam’s labeling of Trump as a “narcissistic maniac” help clarify his role as the anti-Trump candidate.

“We were ecstatic when Pierrello entered the primary,” Leavitt recalled. “We thought it would push Northam further left, and that’s what happened. It was a pleasant surprise.”

Gillespie narrowly beat Corey Stewart in the Republican primary. Stewart campaigned strongly on preserving Confederate monuments, an issue embraced by Gillespie in the general election. Polling data showed a majority of people supported that position, Leavitt said.

Policy issues

While Gillespie was criticized for not fully embracing Trump – or wavering between seeking Trump’s endorsing and distancing himself – Leavitt said, “Trumpism without Trump was a win for us.” Becoming too closely allied with Trump would have “nationalized the race,” which he didn’t want to do.

Healthcare was a key issue in Northam’s victory, as many voters were concerned about attempts in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Northam’s profession as a doctor gives him credibility on the issue, Komar noted.

“Healthcare impacts people’s lives in a very concrete way. This was a disaster for Republicans,” as they control  both houses of Congress and the White House, he said. “They had no one else to blame. This was great for mobilizing Democrats.”

“We knew this would be a problem for us because of the situation in Washington,” Leavitt acknowledged. “It’s not an area we really wanted to debate. We wanted to turn the conversation to something else.”

Leavitt defended the Gillespie ad that attempted to tie Northam’s support for immigration reform to crimes committed by the MS-13 gang, calling it “an effective tool for winning swing, independent voters.”

“We had to pick avenues where you can go after your opponents,” he said. “This is one of them.”

Komar said a controversial ad put out by the Latino Victory Fund that portrayed Gillespie as a hate-mongering racist wasn’t authorized by the Northam campaign. “The Latino community felt it was under attack based on ads run by the Gillespie campaign,” he said. “They felt they needed to respond. It was not how I would have responded.”

Campaign strategies

When it comes to campaign strategies, Komar said texting supporters was a great way to engage individually with people, mobilize them, and get out the vote. The Northam campaign sent 1.3 million texts during a four-day period before the election.

Leavitt also lauded texts and found Snapchat and interactive chat sessions on Facebook – and even handwritten notes – highly effective.

Because “voters tend to be older than the average consumer,” snail mail and TV ads still take up a big part of the campaign budget, Komar noted. “That’s why it’s so expensive; you have to be everywhere.”

The huge amount of donors to the Northam campaign – more than 100,000 – shows Democratic voters were enthusiastic and motivated, he said. The Democrats had twice as many small donors and raised more than twice as much, $52 million versus $25 million, from outside groups.

The Democrats also benefited from the increase in early voters, a trend that started in 2008. “We should make it easier to vote,” Komar said.

Both campaign managers agreed that the Democratic sweep in Virginia – including the election of Justin Fairfax as lieutenant governor, the re-election of Attorney General Mark Herring, and the turnover of at least 15 seats in the General Assembly – is going to make it difficult for the   Republicans in 2018.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Leavitt agreed. “We have a Republican House, Senate, and President. We need to get some things done before the next election.”


  1. I have no faith that Northam and the Dems can give us any relief in Mason. Both parties do not to know that we exist and that the middle class is fleeing a declining quality of life, higher crime, nuisance crimes, drugs, terrible commuting issues, poor mass transit, filthy littered roadways, boarding houses, over crowded/lower performing schools, lack of leadership and public engagement/trust and I can go on but I am getting depressed. I don't think I will ever vote again.

    1. Do you have any data at all to support these claims? Because I haven't found anything that suggests the middle class is "fleeing." Or that crime is on the rise as the 2017 annual report hasn't been released. You cherry pick a few areas in our area that may be a bit seedy, and willingly toss away everything else. That shit is everywhere, in most counties, and certainly far worse outside of fairfax. You need to get out more.

    2. Dude get rid of those rose colored PG designer glasses and get yourself a pair of some real rims.

    3. Hear, hear, Adam!

      Anony 8:23: I am passionate about voters' rights, and believe that voting is a crucial part of a civilized democracy. It is a right and, especially for those of us whose predecessors (women, minorities) didn't have the right to vote, I see it as an honorable duty that I take seriously.

      However, I've also come to know some people who are stuck in the same mud-puddle mindset as yours, and have realized that such ignorant voters are a tremendous part of the problem. Indeed, one of the best things you can do for your country is to refrain from voting again. Thank you.

    4. Just what we need Eve, another Adam lover. Will Annandale every be spared its pain?

    5. And they're off!

    6. Out of curiosity 944, what is it about my post that's painful? Asking seriously because I obviously don't understand.

    7. Painful that you cannot see how Mason is spiraling as you continue to defend leadership that got it to the state it is in.

    8. I'm not defending leadership, I never have. A lot of people tend to conflate me liking where I live with endorsing crime and not ever wanting anything better, which simply isnt true. I like where I live, but sure - could use some work, what place doesnt? When people compare my house and the area to a slum, I think that's ridiculous and stupid. It's a natural reaction to defend one's home when someone makes an asinine comparison.

    9. If you don't think that boarded up buildings, vacant storefronts, shootings in restaurants and a decline in commercial interest in Baileys, Seven Corners and the rest of Mason is not symbiotic of the ghettoing of Mason, then you don't understand the definition of a slum.

      Culmore is a ghetto of lower class individuals forced into a situation by economic and social circumstances. It is a concentration of poverty that makes Mason District so unattractive to investment. That my friend is the result of a liberal agenda and/or stupdity with no understanding of the impacts brought on by capricious good will with no economic footing in sound sustainable urban policy. And yet the sheep in Mason continue to stand for it while its tax base shrinks and the remainder of us have to foot the bill encouraging a spiral in a lesser quality of life that may not be reversible in the foreseeable future.

    10. I don't want to get in a semantics argument over what constitutes a slum, if you truly think that the current condition of Annandale constitutes "slum" or "ghetto," then this conversation is going nowhere because you're delusional. The rest of your comment regarding liberal agendas and a shrinking tax base due to slum like conditions - once again - is not based on any fact.

  2. Voted thanks!