Election Day, it seems, might prove to be a case of the biter bit — at least when it comes to political attack ads.
The clues, some political scientists say, can be found in the unusually large numbers turning out for a gubernatorial election and exit poll data from the National Election Pool suggesting that a significant fraction of those voters made up their minds in the final week of the campaign.
Not about who to vote for, said Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy.
About coming out to vote, instead of doing the usual and staying home for a state election, he added.
“I think people saw those ads and it just made their anti-Trump feelings that much stronger,” he said. Most voters decided early on who they liked — based on what the student pollsters at the Wason Center were hearing, “those numbers were baked in four or five weeks in,” Kidd said.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie’s ads trying to link Democrat Ralph Northam to the brutal MS-13 gang and campaign messaging about Confederate heritage reminded Virginia opponents of President Donald Trump of how much they disliked him, he said.
Gillespie “was just looking for a Hail Mary pass; they were taking a chance and it backfired,” said John McGlennon, chairman of the government department at the College of William and Mary.
He said the same thing may have happened in the Williamsburg-to-Denbigh House of Delegates district, where Republican challenger Heather Cordasco’s TV ads and mailers accused Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, of being soft on crime and campaigning at the expense of taxpayers, prompting a sharp rebuttal from his boss, Suffolk Commonwealth Attorney Phil Ferguson.
“I heard a lot of people talking about them … there was a sense that they crossed a line,” said McGlennon, who was re-elected to the James City County Board of Supervisors in 2015 after narrowly defeating Cordasco.
Up in the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, Republican candidates’ fliers attacking opponents on immigration and Confederate statue-related issues upset many Republicans already uneasy about Trump, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.
And while many pundits felt Northam’s campaign was stumbling because of reaction to an outside group’s attack ad featuring a truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker and a Confederate flag running down young people, the late decisions to vote and the distaste many Virginians feel for Trump seem to have had a bigger impact, Kidd said.
Preliminary exit polls reported that nearly 1 in 5 voters said they made up their mind in the final week of the campaign and that 60 percent of them voted for Northam. A bit more than 40 percent said they were Democrats.
“Trump was undoubtedly a factor in driving interest and the surprising results across the board,” McGlennon said. The relatively large percentage of people in the exit poll describing themselves as Democrats reflects that, he said.
Turnout at 47 percent of registered voters — the highest percentage in two decades — was not up everywhere, he noted.
On the Peninsula, the reliably Democratic Greenwood and Lee Hall precincts in northern Newport News saw increases of 23 percent and 20 percent over turnout for the 2013 gubernatorial election. The result was a jump in Democratic votes — in Lee Hall, for instance, Northam’s share jumped to 79 percent of votes compared to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s 71 percent.
In Newport News’ strongly Republican Sanford precinct, turnout was up by just four, to 610 votes. Gillespie’s 57 percent share of the vote was below GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s 63 percent in 2013.
And a healthy 11 percent jump in turnout in what had been the reliably Republican Charles precinct in Newport News — swung that area Democratic, giving Northam a 52 percent to 47 percent margin, compared with Cuccinelli’s 48 percent to 45 percent edge in 2013.
Elsewhere in Virginia, Richmond had a big jump, and so did Fairfax County and other Democratic strongholds while Republican areas saw little growth, McGlennon said. In the heart of Virginia’s Trump Country, Tazewell County’s turnout slipped to 10,088 from 10,135 in 2013, state elections department data show.
Kelly Harvey-Viney, director of Hampton University’s Center for Public Policy, said she was surprised by the turnout.
“Based on the numbers, Democrats were able to get their people to come out and vote,” she said. “This really turned out to be the year of local elections … this election was all about Virginia — independent of national politics.”
The exit polls show about one-third of voters came out Tuesday to express opposition to Trump, about one-sixth to show support for him, with roughly half saying he was not a factor.
“Whether voters say that was their motivation or not … may be obscured by exit polls that only interview those who did vote, McGlennon said. “Did Trump depress GOP turnout? Pretty likely that it did.”
Polls ahead of the vote generally seemed to miss this.
Of the past dozen polls sampling Virginia’s political climate, only two were in the right range for the strength of support for Northam — the student pollsters at CNU and the survey by Quinnipiac University.
The CNU students’ final poll found Northam’s support among likely voters was somewhere between 47.5 percent and 54.5 percent. Northam won 53.9 percent of votes, according to the state Department of Elections’ unofficial count. Gillespie’s 45 percent was within the range most polls reported.
Their poll found only 2 percent of likely voters hadn’t picked a candidate, far lower than the 27 percent Hampton University’s Center for Public Policy reported late last month in a poll giving Gillespie an 8 percentage point lead. If a bit more than 60 percent of those undecided voters opted for Northam — percentage of voters who told the exit polls they made up their minds in the final week — that would have Northam’s support at the upper end of the range of support the Hampton poll suggested.
“The CPP poll did signal uncertainty and the outcome proves that was the case,” Harvey-Viney said. “However, in this election, the undecided voters went Democratic.”
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