Gillespie vs. Northam: The Story Ends Tonight

by Jim Geraghty

From the Election Day edition of the Morning Jolt:

Gillespie vs. Northam: The Story Ends Tonight

We’re used to political junkies analyzing and griping about polls. But in Virginia, the complaint is on stronger ground, at least looking back at the 2013 and 2014 elections, when the Republican statewide candidate finished significantly higher than the final polling results. One can even throw in Bob McDonnell’s 2009 landslide; the final RealClearPolitics average had him winning by 13.4 percentage points, and he went on to win by 17.5 points.

Today’s gubernatorial election in Virginia will let us know if pollsters have adjusted for the state’s quirks and changing demographics and response trends. Democrats can reassure themselves that the 2016 presidential results in the state were more or less in line with the final poll results.

This morning, the RealClearPolitics average shows Democrat Ralph Northam leading Republican Ed Gillespie by 3.3 percentage points. If the pollsters have an accurate handle on the makeup of the Virginia electorate and turnout, then Democrats will celebrate tonight. But if there’s a persistent “shy Tory” effect in Virginia polling, where a certain number of voters don’t want to say that they’re voting for the Republican, and this effect is worth another four, five or six percentage points as it was in 2009, 2013, and 2014… well, you can do the math. Last time Gillespie was on a statewide ballot in 2014’s Senate race, he performed nine points better than his finish in the RCP average.

If Gillespie loses, some Republicans will want to blame Trump, and he’ll deserve a share of the blame, but it’s a pretty limited share. Trump’s approval rating among likely voters in Virginia is at 40 percent in the most recent Fox News poll, 41 percent in the Monmouth poll, and 42 percent in the Emerson College poll. Those aren’t great numbers, but then again, the current Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, isn’t that much higher in the most recent polls.

Northam wanted to make the race a referendum on Trump, but he hasn’t succeeded the way he hoped. In the Monmouth poll, 27 percent said Trump was a major factor in their vote, 16 percent said a minor factor, and 56 percent said the president is not a factor at all. Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, concluded, “whatever impact Trump has on voters’ decision-making process was already baked in from the start of this campaign.” Virginia is one of the few states where Hillary Clinton won more votes and a higher percentage of the vote than Barack Obama four years earlier. Obama beat Romney in Fairfax County by about 87,000 votes in 2012; Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 197,000.

But much to the surprise of just about everyone, Trump has done more or less what most Virginia Republicans want him to do. He’s occasionally Tweeted out support for Gillespie – with more Tweets this morning — but otherwise he’s largely kept himself out of the race. (Right now, Trump’s in Asia, geographically about as far from Virginia as he can get.)

The Gillespie campaign won’t be able to argue that they were taking on the Democratic Party’s version of Superman. Northam may be a nice guy and a good doctor, but on the stump, he brings all the excitement of a boiled turnip. His biographical ads were soft-focus and forgettable, his attack ads cookie-cutter. His attack on Gillespie’s lobbying career focused on labeling him “Enron Ed.”

Pop quiz: Did Enron collapse before or after 9/11? Trick question, the stock collapsed in summer of 2001, and filed for bankruptcy in December. Gillespie’s firm did ten months’ worth of work unrelated to Enron’s financial fraud. How many Virginia voters remember much about a corporate scandal from sixteen years ago? How many even recognize the name Enron anymore? Some of the Virginians voting today were in preschool when the company collapsed.

Last night Northam’s campaign tried a last-minute knockout punch and injured itself. Rick Gates, Paul Manafort’s right-hand man who was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller, received permission from a federal judge to leave house arrest on Tuesday in order to vote in Virginia’s elections. The Northam campaign seemed to think they could score points and attempt to tie Gillespie to Gates and the Russia investigation, and issued a statement declaring, “If Ed Gillespie believes his fellow consultant, Rick Gates, should be allowed to vote after being charged with conspiracy against the United States, he proves once again he has no principles and no belief in what he campaigns on.”

Except… Northam’s said one of his proudest achievements is the restoration of rights for convicted felons, a policy that Gillespie has relentlessly attacked in campaign commercials. Now the statement from Northam’s campaign contends that Gates shouldn’t have the right to vote because he’s been accused of a crime, but not convicted. They later issued a second statement declaring that they do believe Gates should have the right to vote, but they believe Gillespie is being hypocritical.

But Gillespie’s position is as sound as it gets: he doesn’t think certain convicted felons should be allowed to vote, but those who have not yet been convicted should be allowed to vote.

Wait, it gets worse. Virginia elects sheriffs. Denying the vote to those accused of a crime but not convicted would give these elected officials with police powers the ability to deny the right to vote to those who might vote against their reelection.

Finally, has anyone told the Northam campaign that Senator Bob Menendez was indicted on federal corruption charges back in 2015? With both men still awaiting a legal verdict, what’s the difference between Menendez continuing to vote and Gates continuing to vote?

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