For the guy who finished third in the Virginia governor’s race, Robert Sarvis had a pretty good night on Tuesday. Sarvis was the Libertarian candidate in the election who pulled in just over 6.5% of the vote. This wasn’t just a landmark achievement for a third party candidate in Virginia but in the entire American South.
As Richard Winger of Ballot Access News told the Daily Beast, no third party gubernatorial candidate in the South has performed this well in over forty years. The last time was in 1970 when the primarily African American National Democratic Party ran a candidate in opposition against Alabama Governor George Wallace. With no Republican candidate on the ballot, the National Democrats received 15% of the vote.
Sarvis received attention throughout the campaign, not just on election night. He polled above 10% through much of the fall and even received a newspaper endorsement.. Although he wasn’t included in any of the debates, he ran television ads and was considered a possible spoiler throughout the campaign. Republican Ken Cuccinelli was so worried about Sarvis that he focused his strategy in the final days of the campaign on appealing to wavering libertarians. In fact, Cuccinelli’s final rally was headlined by Ron Paul in an attempt to appeal to these voters. But who were the Sarvis voters?
Based on the exit polls, the average Sarvis voter was a younger, well-educated, pro-choice white who did not identify with either political party. In particular, Sarvis did well in suburban Richmond and in the Shenandoah Valley. Sarvis’s weakest areas were in coal country in southwest Virginia, where the biracial software developer from Northern Virginia struggled to get much more than three percent of the vote.
The question, which was heavily debated before, during and after the election was where Sarvis pulled his supporters from and whether his campaign drew more votes away from Democratic governor-elect Terry McAuliffe or from the socially conservative Republican, Cuccinelli. Based on the crosstabs of a CNN exit poll, it appears that statewide, Sarvis voters leaned toward McAuliffe as their second choice. However there was a lot of regional variation.
According to one Democratic operative, the Sarvis voters in suburban Richmond were true swing voters, although leaning Republican. They were “mainly high information voters in the wealthier neighborhoods who felt Cuccinelli was too extreme and McAuliffe was kind of a typical politician” who ideologically were “conservative on business and economic issues but socially moderate to liberal.”
In contrast, Sarvis seems to have drawn disproportionately from McAuliffe in the southern Shenandoah Valley and the area around Roanoke. According to data compiled by Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, these are the counties where McAuliffe underperformed the most. These areas include both rural Republican counties and fading blue-collar Democratic cities. Sarvis did well in each.
It’s hard to draw long-term conclusions about the chances for future third party candidates from Sarvis’s performance. After all, he was taking advantage of a field where almost 30% of the voters thought neither McAuliffe or Cuccinelli had high ethical standards. This was on top of the fact that many socially moderate and liberal voters were turned off by Cuccinelli’s stance as a militant culture warrior. However, it is striking that he did this well with a barebones campaign that had next to no field organization and was severely underfunded.
The niche Sarvis occupied is one that many third parties have aimed for: independent voters alienated by the GOP on social issues but still uncomfortable with the Democrats. The question now is whether there will be any attempt to keep these floating voters in the fold or if they’ll just return back to their traditional political roots in next year’s federal elections.