Experts expect higher election turnout than 2009

Experts expect higher election turnout than 2009
File photo

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Despite the much-reported lack of enthusiasm for gubernatorial candidates Ken Cuccinelli (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D), political experts predict a higher voter turnout Tuesday than Election Day 2009, when Bob McDonnell was elected Virginia’s governor.

Geoffrey Skelley, an analyst and spokesman for the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said off-cycle elections like the commonwealth’s gubernatorial race have seen a steady drop in voter participation since 1997. But he believes the roughly 40-percent turnout in 2009 was an aberration.

“I think we’ll see somewhere between the 2005 [45-percent] mark and 2009,” Skelley said. “One of the reasons turnout was that low last time was that it was a 17-point blowout. It looks like McAuliffe may win by 10 or more points by Election Day, but that’s not quite at the same level.”

Skelley believes voters’ distaste for Cuccinelli will lead them toward McAuliffe.

“A Washington Post poll said that of the 51 percent in favor of McAuliffe, a good chunk — 64 percent — of McAuliffe voters said they were specifically voting against Cuccinelli,” Skelley said. “[The] whole reason he’ll win the election is that he’s the guy running against Cuccinelli.”

While both candidates face enthusiasm issues, Skelley said there is greater discord within the Republican Party. The conservative-leaning Richmond Times-Dispatch, which usually endorses Republicans, refused to back Cuccinelli. Meanwhile, Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, a Republican, came out in support of McAuliffe last month.

Dak Hardwick, chairman of the Alexandria Democratic Party, said that his camp is working hard to ensure turnout remains high in traditionally blue Northern Virginia. Earlier this month, volunteers knocked on 9,000 doors across the city over the course of a weekend.

Organizers, Hardwick said, intend to reach even more residents this weekend.

“I would say we have the most robust field operation that I have ever seen,” Hardwick said. “We have volunteers willing to give their time to talk to as many voters as they can to get out the vote.”

Hardwick said he is using a “blind taste test” tactic to rally support behind McAuliffe because of apathy toward the candidate.

“You can just go through the list of things that we’re supporting,” Hardwick said. “From access for women to quality health care and contraception to ensuring a solid way forward on transportation, a vote for McAuliffe is a vote for those issues.”

As an outsider to the two major parties, Robert Sarvis might get lost in the shuffle, Skelley said. But the Libertarian could pull 5 or 6 percent of the vote, the strongest showing by a third-party candidate in almost 50 years.

“What’s amazing is he’s done this having raised almost no money,” Skelley said. “In 2005, Russ Potts ran as an independent and won only 2.2 percent of the vote, and he raised almost $1.5 million. Sarvis hasn’t even raised $200,000 and probably won’t raise more than $300,000.”

With the exception of Henry Howell, who won 49 percent of the gubernatorial vote in 1973 as an independent, no third-party candidate has attracted more than 3 percent since 1965.

“I think the line you’ll start to hear is people who say that Sarvis is the reason Cuccinelli is going to lose, but that would be an exaggeration,” Skelley said. “That Washington Post poll asked [about Cuccinelli versus McAuliffe] straight up and got 53-42 percent in McAuliffe’s favor, so that’s not the reason the race is going the way it is.”