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Terry McAuliffe: Three Reasons Why He Is the New Governor-Elect of Virginia

REUTERS/Gary Cameron -Virginia Democratic governor-elect Terry McAuliffe speaks at his election night victory rally in Tyson's Corner, Virginia November 5, 2013. McAuliffe defeated Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli in today's governor's election in Virginia.

On paper, Terry McAuliffe has a number of significant negatives that should have dragged down his campaign.  He has never held elective office; his entrepreneurial career raised some ethical red flags; his platform could be described charitably as broad, or less charitably as vague; and his appeal to Independents and young adults was modest.  During the closing weeks of the campaign, the furor over the Affordable Care Act gave his opponent a cutting issue. 

Despite all this, McAullife is the governor-elect of Virginia.  Three key factors explain why:

  1. The ideology gap.  The conventional wisdom proved correct: Ken Cuccinelli was simply too conservative for a majority of Virginians to stomach.  While 41 percent of the electorate deemed McAuliffe too liberal, significantly more—48 percent—said his positions are about right.  By contrast, only 37 percent of voters thought Cuccinelli’s stance on the issues was about right, compared to fully 50 percent who found them too conservative.

    This made a difference at the polls.  While McAuliffe did as well among moderate and conservative Democrats as he did among liberal, Cuccinelli did 17 points worse among moderate and liberal Republicans than he did among conservatives.  If he had performed as well among non-conservative Republicans as McAuliffe did among non-liberal Democrats, he would be governor-elect.

  2. The education gap.  Cuccinelli ran up a substantial margin among voters with less than a BA and held McAuliffe to a tie among college graduates.  But among voters with post-graduate education, who constituted a remarkable 29 percent of the electorate, Cuccinelli trailed by 22 points (57 to 35 percent).  Highly educated professionals will continue to increase their share of the population, and no national party can afford to trail among them by such large margins.  If Cuccinelli had done even as well as Mitt Romney did among highly educated voters, he’d be doing transition planning this morning.

  3. The marriage gap, which was far more important than the gender gap.  Cuccinelli carried married women by 9 percentage points, 51 to 42.  But he lost unmarried women--18 percent of the electorate-- by a remarkable 67 to 25 percent.  Memo to Republicans: it’s fine to be pro-life the way Chris Christie is, but you can’t be pro-life the way Ken Cuccinelli is and expect to do well among young women.

The national implication: if the Republicans want a rerun of 1964, they should nominate Ted Cruz.  

  • William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.

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