What Happened In Virginia?

Trying to explain one of the biggest surprises of Election Night 2014.

Virginia Flag Map

As I noted in a post in the early morning hours of November 5th, one of the biggest shocks of the 2014 midterms came in Virginia where Senator Mark Warner, who had been leading in the polls with a very healthy margin all the way up until Election Day, found himself at the end of the night locked in a tougher than expected battle with former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who was running his first actual campaign for office in a bid that nobody outside of his campaign seemed to believe had any real chance of succeeding or even coming close to making it a race against a man who was by all measures the most popular statewide political figure in the Commonwealth. All of that changed as the result rolled in on Tuesday night, though. While Gillespie did about as well as every expected in the traditionally Republican parts of the state in the south, central, and southwest, the expectation was that the early lead he was showing wouldn’t last very long once results started pouring in from Northern Virginia and elsewhere, where Democrats have dominated these last several years. Warner did indeed eventually take the lead, but it was far narrower than anyone expected, and by the end of the night the result was close enough that nobody was willing to declare a winner.

As things stand right now, the numbers from the Virginia State Board of Elections show Warner with 1,071,049 votes (49.12%) to Gillespie’s 1,054,509 votes (48.36%) for a difference between the two of 16,540 votes. As occurred last year in the race for Governor, Libertarian Party nominee Robert Sarvis garnered more votes (52,984 votes) than the gap between the two major parties although his percentage of the vote (2.43%) was below where he ended up last year when he received 146,084 votes, a 6.54% share of the total votes in the 2013 Gubernatorial election. As to the race itself, it’s unlikely that Gillepsie will concede the race until the official vote certification process is completed next week, but given how that process has typically gone it is likely that the gap between him and Warner will grow slightly rather than that it will shrink to any large degree. This is significant because, while Virginia law does allow for a recount if the difference between the top two candidates is less than 1%, reality dictates that it is highly unlikely that any recount would find enough uncounted votes, miscounted votes, counting errors, reporting errors, or misreported votes to make up a difference as large as the one between Warner and Gillespie. If anything, a recount would likely end up finding more votes for Warner and thus end up increasing the gap. This is what happened last year when the race for Attorney General between Republican Mark Obenshain and Democrat Mark Herring started out with a 165 vote lead for Herring, one of the closest elections in the modern history of the Commonwealth of Virginia. By the time the recount was over, that gap had grown to 810 votes in Herring’s favor. This wasn’t unusual, since it has historically been the case in recounts that a re-canvas of the votes ends up following the trend that existed on Election Day in favoring the person who was in the lead at the end of the day. Most likely that’s what would happen in the case of a Gillespie-Warner recount. This is likely the reason we are already seeing calls from many Virginia Republicans for Gillespie to let the certification go forward, but to decline to seek what would likely be a fruitless recount that is unlikely to change the actual outcome of the race. Instead, they are suggesting that he concede graciously at that point and, if he wants to, move forward to 2017 when he would arguably be the front runner for the Republican nomination for Governor.

Whatever Gillespie does, though, it’s clear that the results are something of a political shock. Most everyone, including me, saw Warner as among the safest Democratic Senators running this year, and yet he has come withing a hairs breadth of losing his first race for re-election. The Virginia Senator was, after all, the most popular statewide politicians in Virginia, had been briefly courted to run for his old job as Governor before the 2013 elections, and has been on the short list of potential Vice-Presidential running mates for the Democrats in 2016, the last item in no small part due to his popularity in a state that will be crucial to Electoral College victory for any candidate in 2016. Much of that veneer seems to be stripped off now, of course, and even if Warner wins he will have done so in a chastening manner that will likely trim back much of the national enthusiasm for him going forward.

There are many theories about what happened in Virginia this year, but at the very least it’s clear that the polling was very, very wrong yet again, and the people who analyze these things for a living are starting to wonder why. Nate Silver offered some of his own theories yesterday, and pointed to turnout as part of the key:

Turnout in Virginia this year is projected to 37 percent of the voting-eligible population — in line with the figure nationally in a year where turnout is down across the board. But this is low in comparison to other states to have held competitive Senate races, where turnout averaged about 44 percent instead. Virginia’s 2014 turnout was also well below its figure in 2006 (44 percent), when the state hosted a competitive Senate race between James Webb and incumbent George Allen. It’s even lower than 2010 (39 percent) when it had neither a Senate nor gubernatorial race.


So … turnout it explains it all? It’s a big part of the story. As The Washington Post reports, the turnout drop-off was higher in Democratic-leaning counties. And pollsters may have had trouble modeling the Senate race in Virginia: There was no precedent from 2010, and they would have overestimated it if turnout had been pegged to 2006.

But a few things are still hard to reconcile. If turnout were the whole story, you’d expect substantial differences between the demographics in exit polls and pre-election surveys. Instead, they closely match one another.

The Christopher Newport University poll projected black turnout at 16 percent, for example, and the Roanoke College poll had it at 19 percent — compared to 19 percent in the exit poll.1 Partisan and age demographics were also similar.

And as I mentioned, Warner’s favorability rating was 56 percent even among voters on the exit poll. Candidates with those sorts of numbers don’t lose — or come so close to doing so — very often.

So, what explains the result? I don’t know, but I have a theory — one that ties the race together with the ones in New York and Michigan. It’s that some voters who would otherwise be inclined to vote for Warner went for Gillespie because they didn’t think Warner needed their vote.

That Warner and Bloomberg were quite popular among voters in the exit polls contributes to the theory. Some voters may have been perfectly willing to vote for them if they thought they’d needed to. But because they didn’t see the races as competitive, they felt free to use their vote in other ways. They might have voted for Gillespie as an expression with their overall dissatisfaction of the direction of the country, for instance, or Thompson as a protest against Bloomberg’s change to term-limit laws.

There may be a danger zone when a candidate leads by about 10 percentage points in the polls, as Warner and Blanchard did. That’s a big enough lead that the news media may not portray the race as competitive — Blanchard’s re-election was thought to be quite inevitable, for example, as was Bloomberg’s. Another example is Barack Obama’s lead of about 8 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in polls of the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary in 2008. The media seemed to regard another win for Obama as a sure thing after his victory in the Iowa caucuses.

But a 10-point lead isn’t completely safe. If the polls were a bit wrong to begin with, and turnout is a bit lower than expected, and a few voters change their mind in the ballot booth, the leading candidate can lose.

Nate Cohn is even more adamant that turnout, specifically low turnout among Democrats, was the reason Warner nearly lost and, in any case, has ended up with a result that has significantly blunted his political career:

Some weak Democratic performances in the midterm elections Tuesday are hard to explain. Virginia is not.

Senator Mark Warner, the Democrat who unexpectedly finds himself aheadby just 16,000 votes in a race he was expected to dominate, received the weakest turnout of any Democratic candidate in a competitive Senate race.

Just 2.2 million votes were counted in Virginia (with some absentee and provisional ballots still remaining), or about 57 percent of the 3.9 million votes cast in 2012. No other competitive Senate race had turnout beneath 64 percent of 2012 levels.

The largest declines in turnout were in Democratic-leaning areas. Turnout in Republican-leaning areas in Virginia was at levels fairly typical for a competitive midterm election.

There was barely a race in Virginia. Mr. Warner was thought to have a significant edge, and the state was not a top priority for Democratic turnout efforts. The Republican, Ed Gillespie, didn’t even have the money to air television advertisements throughout October.

Cohn provides this chart showing just how far off Virginia turnout was compared to other states based on preliminary data:

Virginia Turnout

So does this mean turnout explains it all?

Well, as Silver says you can’t pin the explanation solely on one factor but we know for certain that the outcome of an election can turn significantly on who comes out to vote. If it really was the case that voters inclined to vote for Senator Warner stayed home because they figured he would win, then that would go a long way toward explaining how it came to be that a candidate who was leading by double digits has ended up within less than a percentage point of an opponent who was a virtual unknown when the campaign began. If that’s what happened, then the blame for what could have been an historic and embarrassing loss lies squarely at the feet of the Warner campaign and a Democratic Party that didn’t have a good enough Get Out The Vote effort to make sure that the people who supported them came out to vote. After all, half the job of a campaign is to make sure the people you know support you actually show up to vote, and if that doesn’t happen then it isn’t going to matter how flawlessly the rest of your campaign may have been run.

It strikes me, though, that turnout may only be part of the explanation for what happened in Virginia. As I noted, this is the second election cycle in a row where a race that was supposed to have been in the bag for a Democratic candidate ended up being a nail biter. Like Governor McAuliffe, Senator Warner seems likely to win his race in the end, but it will be by a much closer margin than anticipated, and much closer than the polls predicted. That suggests to me that many of the assumptions that have been made about politics in Virginia in the wake of President Obama’s wins here in 2008 and 2012 may have been overstated. It’s true that the President did something in those two campaigns that no Democrat since since combination of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964 had been able to do when he won the Commonwealth twice in Presidential election. However, that may mean less than some political observers have assumed. Virginia is still a purple state, of course, and the influence of voters in areas like Northern Virginia are likely to benefit Democrats well into the future. However, the assumption that Virginia is a purple state turning blue that many seem to have made appears to be incorrect. Instead, Virginia is likely to be much more competitive going forward than Obama’s two victories may have suggested. Bob McDonnell’s win in 2009 showed that Republicans could still win statewide notwithstanding Obama’s historic win the year before. In 2010, Republican victories at the Congressional level showed that to an even greater extent, and the GOP’s continues success at the state legislative level reinforces that idea. Now, we have two elections in a row where Republicans did far better than polling had said that they would and, indeed, there is plenty of reason to believe that Republicans would have had a much better 2013 if they’d chosen better candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor. This tells me that the state will be more competitive in 2016 than some are assuming, and that those who may have declared the Republican Party of Virginia dead and buried will need to reassess their conclusions pretty quickly.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, 2009 Election, 2012 Election, 2013 Election, 2014 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Rebecca says:

    I watched Gillespie’s campaign from the beginning and it’s pretty easy to see why he got the turnout that he did. He criss-crossed the commonwealth and held events in places I had never even heard of. He was out shaking hands and knocking on doors, doing the types of things that too many politicians feel are beneath them. In fact, I didn’t hear of a single campaign event that Warner held. I suppose he could have had one of those high dollar dinners up near DC but that’s not something that resonates with anyone outside of the political class up in noVA. Southern Hampton Roads (particularly Va Beach and Chesapeake) are always forgotten in the campaign season but not by Gillespie. It blows my mind that I live in the largest city in Virginia but year after year, no one even shows up to ask us for our votes, let alone to listen to the concerns of residents. I keep thinking back to the last time that I contacted Senator Warner. I sent an email with specific concerns that I had with the proposed health care law. For 2 months, I kept looking for a reply when finally it came. It was a generic form letter explaining why he supported the ACA which he had already voted for by that time. Nowhere did he even come close to addressing my concerns and any time I called his office, I left a message on a machine that was never returned. I could not wait to vote against him.

  2. stonetools says:

    The Presidential year electorate is so different from off year electorates that it’s as if seperate countries were voting. As I said elsewhere, in off year elections blue states turn into purple states and purple states turn into red states, and this does not seem something that we can change through vigorous GOTV.
    Virginia, by having its elections in off years, definitely helps the Republican Party-which is why I’m sure they intend to keep it that way.
    For Mark Warner, he’ has survived his most dangerous election-till 2026. He should start thinking about that now.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    The nationwide performance of Democrats can largely be pinned to turnout…so Virginia is simply the prime example of what went wrong for Dems on Tuesday night.
    Turnout was pathetic and those who did turn out were predominately old…seniors outnumbered the young by 3-1….the Fox News audience, whipped into a frothy frenzy of fear and hate, came out to vote…practically no one else.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    But lucky for us we elected a bunch of Republicans…the economy added 244,000 jobs in October thanks to them.

  5. DC Loser says:

    Voters on Dem mailing lists were bombarded with desperate sounding emails begging for money. I had put my name on the mailing list from the Obama campaign, and the last couple of months I received approx. 20 emails a day from various Dem candidates and PACs begging for money. I was sick and tired of the constant begging of money. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned off many Dem voters and kept them home, since they figured Warner was going to win anyway and didn’t need their vote.

  6. Senyordave says:

    @C. Clavin: I think you should prepare for real live people willing to say, without a hint of irony, that the good economic news there last two quarters (good GDP growth, decent to good jobs reports) is because a GOP victory in the midterms was expected.

  7. Scott says:


    It was a generic form letter explaining why he supported the ACA which he had already voted for by that time.

    I get generic form letters all the time from my two Texas Senators. They never address the specific concern. I once had a idea to set up a website called “Letters from my Congressman” that would publish the constituent’s letter and the non-response. Would highlight the fact that we are all ignored.

  8. Pinky says:

    Doug, what do you mean, unexpected? From everything I’ve read here in the past two days, the election went exactly as predicted. On a less sarcastic note, I’ve said before that I think that Virginia is overhyped as an indicator and as a power player. It simply doesn’t have a record of producing national candidates in the past 150 years or so. Their gubernatorial election one year after the presidential race makes for an interesting conversation, but rarely serves as a predictor of the national mood. (VA politics is all about pavement and who pays for it.) Also, the one-term limit on the governor means that there’s always a new narrative, and a lot of political reporters who live in northern Virginia can squeeze a lot of column inches out of it.

  9. Moosebreath says:

    OT, but it is amusing to see the Monday Morning Quarterbacking of one of the Democrats few bright spots, the PA Governor’s race.

    Tom Corbett gave an interview saying one of the factors in his loss is that he was too harsh on Joe Paterno in the Jerry Sandusky scandal:

    “Many critics who challenged those findings used social media this week to organize an effort to vote against Corbett. In the interview, the Republican governor acknowledged that his role in the case might have been one factor in his loss to Tom Wolf. He called it “one additional coal” on the fire.

    Exit polls Tuesday showed that nearly 40 percent of the voters considered Corbett’s handling of the investigation a very or somewhat important issue.”

  10. Mark T says:

    Doug, I can’t believe you don’t t mention, as another potential cause for Warner’s thin margin, Virginia’s restrictive Voter ID law. It is a FACT that more than 700,000 registered voters in Virginia — predominantly Democrats — lacked the types of Voter ID that were required under Virginia’s law. This is a huge story in Virginia (and also in North Carolina and Florida, which had exceptionally close races) that nobody in the media seems to be paying attention to. Restrictive Voter ID laws, and other voter suppression methods (like cutting down on early voting, closing precincts and understaffing those that were open in minority areas, etc.) effectively prevented 2 million plus voters in those three states, collectively, from voting. And Voter ID was adopted to address a problem that does not exist. Nobody has ever been accused of “in person voter fraud” in Virginia, and it has come up only a handful of times nationally. How many more net votes would Warner have gained if only 20% of those people voted . . . at least 50,000+ in Virginia, assuming only 2 out of 3 of the disenfranchised were Democrats (i.e., 20% of 700,000 x 1/3). Virginia election officials said before the election that they estimated that more than 700,000 registered voters lacked the proper ID. How many provisional ballots were there in these states that have not yet been counted, and may never be counted. Why isn’t the media reporting on that?

    The laws that disenfranchised all of these registered voters, and which made it more difficult for those with proper ID to vote, were allowed to take effect by the 4th and 5th Circuits so as not to “confuse” voters and election officials so close to the election — pretty lame basis to disenfranchise 700,000+ voters in an important national election in which turnout is key. This is nothing less than a travesty and a scandal, and the fact that conservatives who proclaim themselves sons and daughters of freedom and liberty and the US Constitution are willing to enact laws which disenfranchise millions or tens of millions of voters nationally in order to win elections is testimony to their hypocrisy.

    Honestly, running away from Obama’s successes, which were many, and, in doing so, failing to energize their base, was the #1 reason the Dems went down to such a decisive defeat, but (1) gerrymandering and voter suppression, and (2) unlimited spending on political contributions, come in a close second. Why the media looks the other way is beyond me.

  11. DrDaveT says:

    If turnout were the whole story, you’d expect substantial differences between the demographics in exit polls and pre-election surveys

    I’m missing something here. Both exit polls and pre-election surveys are fixed stratified samples. If they sample a fixed number from a given district, then changes in turnout are invisible to them if the mix among the people who DO turn out is unchanged.

    I vote in a deep blue district in Northern Virginia. The lines were nonexistent at the polls, compared to out-the-door-and-around-the-block two years ago, and out-the-door four years ago. That suggests a sizeable number of mostly Dem voters staying home. I don’t see how exit polls of those of us who did vote would spot that.

  12. SAL says:

    Call me paranoid, but I’m going to harp on this until the cows come home . . . Solid evidence has shown that electronic voting machines CAN be hacked. I don’t know how many are used in Va., but anytime that pre- and post-polls agree, but disagree with the actual vote “count,” there is always the suspicion of mischief.

    Chances are it’s usually something else legitimate, but this voter is in favor of a return to the paper ballot. People these days assume too much. There is rarely questioning of the possibility of outright fraud . . . except in situations where self-serving conservatives are trying to curtail voting rights by creating false scenarios of risk where none statistically exist.

  13. SAL says:

    BTW, Ralph Nader nailed it here:

  14. DC Loser says:

    I had paper ballots in Fairfax County. The retired the electronic ballot machines years ago.