Forget the Candidates; the Real Story of 2013 Is Changing Electorates

by Kristen Soltis Anderson

Today and for the next few weeks, a great deal of ink will be spilled dissecting Christie and Cuccinelli’s dramatically different gubernatorial campaigns. I myself am among the guilty punditocracy. But I also acknowledge that, for all the lessons that the Christie campaign could teach to the GOP, they are largely things we already knew, namely, that we need to expand our appeal beyond the usual suspects in order to win outside the usual states.

Far more interesting than the fates of Christie and Cuccinelli are the ways that the Virginia and New Jersey electorates look different than they did just four years ago, and what lessons that ought to teach to a Republican party seeking victory in the future.

Take Virginia first: a state where Obama won by six in 2008, followed by an 18-point McDonnell blowout in 2009. In 2008, Virginia was also more Democratic than Republican by a six-point margin, and by 2009 that margin had been turned on its head, with 37 percent of voters identifying themselves as Republican compared to 33 percent identifying themselves as Democrats.

The shift toward a more Republican electorate in an off (or off-off) year election is no surprise. The demographics of these elections have tended to favor the GOP recently – which makes the 2013 Virginia electorate all the more interesting and troubling for Republicans.

In 2012, Virginia’s partisan makeup tilted back toward the Democrats, who held a plus-seven party identification advantage over Republicans. Yet in 2013, the flip back to a Republican landscape did not occur like it did in 2009. Democrats maintained an advantage, and a five-point advantage at that. Ken Cuccinelli was able to win far more votes among self-identified independent voters than Terry McAuliffe, but with Democrats holding the lead in party ID, it was not enough.

Driving some of this shift may have been the change in the racial makeup of Virginia’s electorate. In “on year” elections in 2008, and 2012, only 70 percent of Virginia voters were white. However, in “off year” elections in 2006 and 2009, 78 percent of voters who turned out to the polls were white. In yesterday’s election, the racial makeup of the Virginia electorate looked much more like a presidential year than an “off-year,” with only 72 percent of voters saying they were white.

Younger voters also turned out in higher numbers than in 2009; some 13 percent of voters were under age 30, compared with only 10 percent four years earlier. While a far cry from the nearly one-out-of-five voters they comprised in 2012, the uptick in young voters in an off-year election is a sign that the Obama coalition is not just fading away and only returning in presidential years.

Virginia is not the only state where Republicans were a smaller slice of the electorate compared to four years ago; in New Jersey, Republicans went from 31 percent of the electorate to 28 percent. In 2009, some 73 percent of voters were white; that ticked downward slightly to 72 percent. Voters under 30 went from 9 percent to 10 percent. While the changes were not nearly as dramatic, it is instructive that the popularity of Chris Christie did not actually come paired with a more Republican-friendly electorate; he simply won on a difficult battlefield that has only grown tougher for Republicans.

As Republicans look to 2014, the expectation is that they have the winds at their back; between a more demographically Republican electorate and the “midterm of a president’s second term” element, there is certainly an assumption that Democratic members of the U.S. Senate who swept into office in the 2008 Obama wave will find a much tougher battle given the contours of this particular off-year. They may ultimately be right. But the shifts in the way the 2013 electorates compare to 2009 in terms of makeup should signal to Republicans that they should take nothing for granted.

— Kristen Soltis Anderson is the vice president of The Winston Group.