Gavin Newsom’s recall election strategy – sadly – worked.
Weighing the California landscape, feeling assured of extremely compliant (complicit) media coverage, and knowing he would have a funding advantage of essentially $100 million dollars to zero, he took an informed gamble and did not run a campaign for Gavin Newsom but against Donald Trump.
Seeing this success, the Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Terry McAuliffe has attempted to, in large part, replicate the main themes and concepts of the Newsom effort.
But McAuliffe seems to have forgotten one rather important fact: Virginia is not California and that is why he could very easily end up on the short side come next Tuesday.
Beyond the vast cultural differences (you can still smoke indoors in some places, proudly attend a pig roast, and actually laugh at a joke without being worried that your life will be destroyed), the two states have very specific structural political differences that makes McAuliffe’s mindless mimicry misguided.
First, the voter registration. California is about 50 percent Democrat, 25 percent “No Party Preference” (Independent), and 25 percent Republican. That built-in advantage is essentially unmatched in the nation.
Virginia is 38 percent Republican, 35 percent Democrat, and 25 percent independent, setting up a very different message target environment. Couple that with the vast difference between the two state’s attitude towards the former president – Virginia being one of “we don’t like him” to California’s “we loathe him and everyone who ever even thought about voting for the fascist scum” – and the core of Newsom’s strategy becomes not only untenable but counter-productive.
It must also be noted that while Newsom was able to garner the support of about 90 percent of all Democrats who voted, he did not carry the “independent vote,” and obviously, lost overwhelmingly on the Republican side. Even if the percentages of support stay the same in Virginia – which they will not – by relying on the Newsom strategy, McAuliffe put himself underwater as even identical percentages put the result at 52 to 48 percent in favor of Youngkin.
The obviousness of this effort has even prompted a media observation that no one would have ever dared broach to Newsom: “You’re not running against Donald Trump. You’re running against Glenn Youngkin.” McAuliffe’s reaction to the question was far from reassuring.
Second, the money. In California, the Newsom camp had all of it. Period. Full stop. In Virginia, both the McAuliffe and Youngkin campaigns have raised/spent nearly the same amount of money (about $45 million for McAuliffe and $43 million for Youngkin) so far. One can only imagine the outcome of the California recall if the expenditures had been this even.
Third, the diversity. While California prides itself on its facile surface diversity, the actual socio-political environment is far less so than in Virginia. The (rich, well educated, government-connected) counties that surround Washington, DC do mimic the San Francisco/west side of Los Angeles regions in many ways, but, unlike in California, there are other politically-divergent centers of power, votes, and money that can be tapped to counter-balance this influence.
Fourth, the voter engagement. Virginia residents – especially at the local level – are more engaged than is typical in California. One can only look at the travails of Loudon and Fairfax Counties outside of DC to see the simple fact that richer, more sophisticated (for lack of a better term) tend to involve themselves in community governance more than others. Usually, this has been a great boon for the Democratic candidate, but the unconscionable conduct of those two local school boards has ignited a well organized firestorm that seriously imperils McAuliffe, and simply had/has no comparative event or movement in California. This is largely due to the make-up of the public schools: in California (especially in LA and the Bay area) everyone who can even remotely afford it sends their kids anywhere but the public schools (for good reason); that is simply not true in Virginia.
Fifth, the race card. Since California is by definition less racist than any southern state, the treatment of Larry Elder in the campaign could therefore not have been racist. Period. Full stop. Of course this is an absolute lie and the Newsom campaign and its collaborators smeared Elder constantly with apparent ease. From the overt “black face of white supremacy” Los Angeles Times headline, to the covert pitch that “we must protect the virtue of our white women” of Alexandra Datig’s dubious to the point of being passed on by multiple state newspapers before finding a home at “Politico” story of the big black drugged-fueled man threatening the nice upper middle class white lady, the Newsom campaign played the race card with impunity. In Virginia – that evil Southern hotbed of inbred bigotry – the story simply would not have played out that way. While it may not have made the final difference, the Datig story did put a damper on recall enthusiasm, especially among the key Newsom support demographic of upper middle class white women (even if only sub-consciously) and there is no corollary situation in Virginia.
Sixth, the different formats. Recall and regular elections are not the same thing and regular contests are, counterintuitively, less personality driven. That has given the Virginia voters the ability to weigh between two very different, but very specific, visions being offered. The subject of a recall can use the fear of the unknown and the “shadowy” reasons behind the recall itself to their advantage. Newsom was able to stay focused on “Trump bad” throughout the campaign, even when criticizing Elder – all his staff had to do was vary the name, not the message. That scenario is not possible in Virginia.
Seventh, the media. Unlike California, Virginia still has one. As has been noted before, California’s media coverage of the recall went beyond bias to the point of literal complicity in the Newsom campaign: the governor of California managed to get through an entire election without being asked a serious question about California. That is not happening in Virginia where the press appears to be holding both campaigns accountable and where the two candidates have even had a debate or two.
Eight, the images. Terry McAuliffe does not have the inexplicable Teflon of Newsom. Voters also actually listen to what McAuliffe is saying as if he means it, while most Californians tune out Newsom’s gravelly jargon-salad knowing that it will be some combination of incomprehensible, self-serving, misleading, oddly detailed yet ultimately silly gobbledygook. McAuliffe is actually taken seriously by people and is expected to have real answers to actual questions, so when he says “I don’t think that parents should be telling schools what they should teach” it actually matters.
There are many sports analogies in politics – the playbook, home-field advantage, last minute comeback, etc. It appears the McAuliffe campaign has decided that running a campaign is like playing football and since the game is always played on an acre-and-one-third field with the same lines on it no matter where it is played, the Newsom strategy can simply be taken on the road.
But politics has more in common with golf than football. Each and every course is different, each and every player has strengths that match some courses that turn out to be weaknesses on others, and that where the tournament is played is almost as important as who is playing.
And by opting for the Newsom three wood instead of going with his own five iron, McAuliffe has blasted his campaign over the green and into the water.