Virginia and the “Falloff Factor”

Yesterday RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende, a conservative election analyst whose work I respect, offered his take on the argument that I (and others like Ruy Teixeira) had made that Terry McAuliffe’s win in Virginia owed a lot to what sure looked like an unexpected surge in African-American voting (as compared to the last off-year election in 2009).

Trende’s piece is long and somewhat complicated, and you should read it all if you can. But his essential argument–aside from some valid if inconclusive warnings about the accuracy of exit polls–is that in close elections performance within demographic groups is as important as the composition of the electorate. Thus, if Ken Cuccinelli had been even nearly as popular as Bob McDonnell among white voters, he’d have won despite an electorate with fewer of them (relatively speaking).

That’s true, of course, and it’s always good to remember a vote’s a vote, and that in close elections, you can find all sorts of alternative scenarios that could have turned defeat into victory.

There were two reasons I focused on the African-American vote in Virginia, knowing full well that a better GOP candidate than Cooch could have won anyway. The first is that the composition of the 2013 and 2009 electorates was so uniformly similar except for this one demographic that you’d have to figure something unusual and instructive was going on (again, unless the exits were just wrong). But the second involves a subject I’ve talked about an awful lot here and elsewhere: the falloff in minority (and youth) voting in non-presidential elections is a really big problem for Democrats at present, and overcoming it somehow could be crucial in 2014. So the fact that African-Americans were as large a component of the Virginia electorate in 2013 as they were in 2012 struck me as worth some serious scrutiny. And so it remains.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.