The 'Obama Model'

How High Black Turnout Gave Terry McAuliffe His Win in Virginia

African American voters turned out in huge numbers for the Virginia gubernatorial election, giving Terry McAuliffe a win and proving the "Obama model" can work without Obama.

One of the big questions of the next few years of politics is whether Democrats can replicate the “Obama model” of minority turnout without the presence of Obama on the ballot. If the Virginia gubernatorial election was a test case, then the early answer is a clear “yes.”

After all, the winner in last night’s election—Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe—is a sleazy, corrupt influence peddler who pushed the boundaries on fundraising and enriched himself in the process. He’s the walking embodiment of Washington’s loose relationship with ethics, and an avatar for everything unseemly about the Clinton administration. There’s no reason he should have been a viable candidate for governor in Virginia. But, in a race against the state’s unpopular attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, McAuliffe had a shot. And he won by a narrow margin of two-and-a-half percentage points, 47.7% to 45.2%. It was a dramatic shift from pre-election polling, which had McAuliffe up by seven points for most of the last week.

The explanation for that decline is straightforward. Overall, the electorate is broadly similar to where it was in 2009, when Virginians gave Republican Bob McDonnell a landslide victory of Democrat Creigh Deeds. It has the same proportion of older people to young people (nearly two-thirds of voters were over 45), and the same proportion of women of men. Likewise, the ideological profile of voters is close to where it was in 2009. Then, the electorate was 18 percent liberal, 42 percent moderate, and 40 percent conservative. This year, it was 20 percent of the electorate called itself liberal, 44 percent moderate and 36 percent conservative.

What’s more, Cuccinelli maintained the GOP’s traditional advantage with white and married women, winning the former by sixteen point spread of 54 percent to 38 percent, and the latter by a solid margin of 51 percent to 42 percent. This was a real change from the polls, which had the former Democratic Party leader with a huge lead among all women. McAuliffe’s actual advantage was with unmarried women, who he won 67 percent to Cuccinelli’s 25 percent.

Where the change from 2009 was most significant was among black voters. Then, African Americans were 16 percent were of the electorate, a significant drop from the 2008 election. This year, blacks were 20 percent of all voters, which means their turnout was exactly where it was in 2012. Put another way, for the second year in a row, African Americans turned out at a rate above their percentage of the population, and supported the Democrat by a 9-to–1 margin.

This is huge. For McAuliffe, what it meant is that—for almost every black voter who went to the polls—he could count on a vote, giving him crucial support in a tight race. To wit, more than 37 percent of his vote total came from African Americans. It’s not hard to see what the race would have looked like with 2009 numbers; a four percent drop in black turnout would have slashed roughly 80,000 votes from McAuliffe’s total, turning Ken Cuccinelli’s narrow loss into a slim victory.

It’s important to note that exit polling isn’t the most precise data, and all of this is up for revision as we get more information. To know what the full situation was, we’ll have to check the exit polls against turnout in majority black precincts in areas like Hampton, Norfolk, and Richmond.

If this holds, however, it’s a great sign for Democrats in states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where high black turnout is critical to competitiveness in national and statewide elections. In other words, a Democratic Party that can reproduce Barack Obama’s numbers among African American voters is one that starts the game in a strong position. And it should be said that this fits with along-standing trend, of higher black turnout, beginning with the 2000 election.

As for the other side? If Republicans can’t count on fewer black voters at the polls, then their push for the presidency becomes much more difficult. With that said, it also provides an opportunity for any Republican who understand that just a small gain with African Americans is enough to damage Democratic chances. And so far, the only lawmaker working that angle is the other person to win a gubernatorial election last night—Chris Christie.