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Virginia Primary Post-Mortem

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on June 10, 2009

So what really happened in yesterday's Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary? In a sentence, Creigh Deeds trounced the two early front-runners in nearly every part of the state, despite notable disadvantages in organization and (versus Terry McAuliffe, at least) money. His campaign saved the money it had, spent it on well-placed TV ads, and peaked at exactly the right time, winning the bulk of undecided voters down the stretch and battening on growing voter dissatisfaction with his rivals.

As Ari Berman points out today at The Nation, there was almost certainly an element of the old murder-suicide scenario at play: Brian Moran spent a lot of time attacking Terry McAuliffe, driving up T-Mac's already high negatives and souring voters on himself as Deeds quietly went about campaigning.

But it's not enough to intone "murder-suicide" and forget about the whole thing. The remarkable aspect of the contest was that Deeds defied the heavily-subscribed-to belief that the "ground game" is what matters most in low turnout primaries. Yes, turnout was a bit higher than expected (320,000 votes instead of 250,000), but was still low by almost any standard other than VA's weak history of competitive primaries. Moran was all about "mobilization" and McAuliffe threw lots of his money into the "ground game," even as Deeds was laying off field staff. Yet Deeds won ten of eleven congressional districts (losing narrowly to the Macker in the majority-black 3d district that runs from Richmond to Hampton Roads), winning NoVa against two rivals from that region. Some pundits attribute Deeds' success in NoVa to his endorsement by the Washington Post, but while that endorsement was well-timed and helped provide a psychological boost to the Deeds campaign, everything we know about elections suggests that newspaper endorsements don't matter a great deal.

In other words, what the candidates actually had to say in their ads, their mailers, their debates, and their personal appearances actually had a lot to do with the results--an once-popular idea that deserves a second look now and then. (See Amy Walters' breakdown on the percentage of candidate expenditures on direct voter contact via ads and mail, where Deeds excelled).

Was there an ideological twist to this primary? That's hard to say, without exit polls. Moran definitely tried to position himself as the "true progressive" in the race, opposing a big coal plant in southeast VA, stressing his eagerness to overturn the state's gay marriage ban, and hiring some high-profile netroots figures like Joe Trippi and Jerome Armstrong. Moran also tried to identify himself with those who supported Barack Obama against McAuliffe's candidate, Hillary Clinton, in last year's presidential primaries (not very successfully, given T-Mac's relatively strong showing among African-Americans yesterday). And both Moran and McAuliffe went after Deeds very hard during the last week or so on Deeds' record of opposition to gun control measures.

In a state like Virginia, though, even self-conscious progressives tend to cut statewide candidates a lot of slack, so the ideological issues with Deeds may have helped him marginally.

The silliest conclusion I've heard since last night, though, is that McAuliffe's defeat somehow represents the "end of Clintonism" in the Democratic Party. Sure, the Big Dog himself campaigned for McAuliffe to no apparent avail, and if "Clintonism" means no more than the personalities connected with the Clintons in the past, then maybe the results were a blow to "Clintonism." But if, as I suspect is the case, those who are celebrating the "end of Clintonism" are talking about "centrism" or efforts to appeal beyond the progressive Democratic base, it's kinda hard not to notice that the winning candidate yesterday seems to most resemble that profile. And there's no question at all that the areas of Virginia actually won by HRC in 2008 went heavily for Deeds.

If you missed all the very brief excitement over VA last night, you can check out the liveblogging that Nate Silver and I did over at 538.com. And I also did some analysis of turnout patterns in VA today. Now it's on to November, and no matter what you think of Creigh Deeds, he does enter the general election contest with some momentum and a demonstrated ability to pull votes from pretty much everywhere.

UPDATE: John Judis povides a more thoroughgoing analysis of the "end of Clintonism" interpretation of yesterday's results than I did, but reaches a similar conclusion. In the meantime, given the prominent roles played in Brian Moran's campaign by netroots gurus Trippi and Armstrong, and his adoption of many elements of netroots CW on how to win a low-turnout primary, you have to wonder why nobody's asking if Moran's third-place finish signals the "end of the netroots." Maybe that's because this whole "death by association" theme is ridiculous, whether we are talking about Moran or McAuliffe.