VA Governor’s Race Overview
On November 7, 2017 the voters of the Commonwealth of Virginia decided who will be their 73rd Governor. In this analysis we look at Cost per Vote and candidate performance by media market. Sitting Lt. Governor Ralph Northam faced off against former RNC chair Ed Gillespie, who had narrowly missed defeating incumbent Senator Mark Warner in 2014. The race quickly became a bare-knuckle brawl with controversial ads, huge spending, and polls showing a tightening race in the days before the election. In the end, Northam defeated Gillespie by 8.5 points, the largest margin ever by a Democratic Governor in modern Virginia. This outpaced the 5.4 points by which Hillary Clinton won Virginia in 2016. This victory was driven by Northam’s strength in Richmond, Norfolk, and the densely populated DC suburbs, but it remains to be seen whether this race holds national implications, or if Virginia’s demographic changes are simply making it inhospitable to statewide Republican candidates.
In a race with $40.96M spent, Northam and his allies outspent Gillespie by a mere $571k. Overall, more than 90% of spending came from the candidates themselves. What issue group spending there was leaned heavily in favor of Gillespie, with 70% of outside dollars spent supporting him. This advantage came largely from Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the NRA, who each chipped in over $1M of capital. While total dollars spent by issue groups favored Gillespie, nine groups spent in favor of Northam, compared to four for Gillespie.
Each candidate’s base was reflected in their spending patterns. Northam focused on turning out his liberal base in the Northern Virginia suburbs of DC, outspending Gillespie by $2.5M in the Washington media market. Gillespie spent a far greater portion of his budget in the smaller, more rural markets, such as Harrisonburg and Tri-Cities, in which he was expected to do very well. This left Norfolk, Richmond, and Roanoke as the markets with the most even distribution of spending between the candidates. This reflects their status as medium sized markets with a more even divide between Democratic and Republican voters. The high cost of the D.C. media market, driven by its outsized share of the state’s population, led to it receiving over 50% of broadcast and cable spending alone.
Cost per Vote (CPV) by market makes readily apparent the challenges faced by Gillespie in this election. Gillespie spent heavily in the smaller, more rural markets, but the low numbers of voters in these areas drove up his cost per vote even though the people voted overwhelmingly in his favor. Northam, on the other hand, used very few resources in these areas, freeing himself up to spend heavily in areas more densely populated and favorable to him. He did extremely well in the DC market, as one would expect, where Gillespie failed to hold down his margin of victory. The biggest story of this election, however, is Northam’s performance in Norfolk. This market saw the second most spending, and was one of the most evenly contested between the two candidates. Despite this, Northam did extremely well here, picking up just under 58% of the vote.
Comparing the 2016 presidential results to this year’s Governor’s race it is clear that the political environment as a whole was more favorable to Democrats. Northam performed about 1% better across all media markets relative to Clinton in 2016, but Norfolk was his best market. He received 3% more of the vote in this market than did Clinton, a major bump in the second biggest market in the state. Northam was born in this part of the state and represented the area as a State Senator, giving him added name recognition and a base of support in this key area. Virginia Beach, in particular, looks to be a key county. The second biggest county in Virginia, it was won by Trump by four points in 2016, but swung to +3 for Northam in 2017. A second area that was key to Northam’s gains over Clinton was Roanoke, where Northam performed 2% better. He still lost the market as a whole, but picked up votes in the bigger suburban counties. Turnout was also up from the 2013 gubernatorial election. In Fairfax county, the biggest county in Virginia, turnout was up 25%. This offers support for Democratic hopes that the Trump effect will galvanize turnout amongst the liberal base.
The 2017 Virginia Governor’s race was expensive and controversial, with national media attention on it as the biggest race since President Trump’s surprise victory. However, it should not be seen as necessarily reflective of the national environment. It was clearly a political environment which favored Democrats, as Hillary did win here in 2016, and Virginia has moved steadily to the left over recent years. A trend to watch is whether Democrats continue to make gains in mid-sized, suburban areas such as Norfolk and Roanoke. Gains in these areas, along with high turnout in liberal DC suburbs, largely powered Northam’s margin of victory.