Did Obamacare Pivot the Race in VA?

Republican gubernatorial candidate, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, speaks during a gubernatorial forum at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. Cuccinelli is facing Democra... Republican gubernatorial candidate, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, speaks during a gubernatorial forum at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. Cuccinelli is facing Democrat Terry McAuliffe in November's election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) MORE LESS
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We’re looking at the poll numbers, exit polls and final horse race polls out of Virginia this morning to see whether there’s any real evidence that opposition to Obamacare helped Ken Cuccinelli close the margin against Terry McAullife pretty dramatically on election night, as Republicans are now claiming. The evidence for this seems thin on its face. But, as we’re culling the numbers I wanted to take a moment to provide some guide to how to approach the question.

Start with the fact that Cuccinelli significantly overperformed the polls. Why? Did the polls just partly misjudge this race or did a late push on Obamacare help close the gap? That should be evident with a close look at the final polls which sometimes get lost in the rushed final days of a campaign. And it’s really a key question because Cuccinelli moved hard on to Obamacare in the final days.

Second, is Obamacare really a drag on Democratic candidates right now? Given the relentlessly negative press, it’s hard to imagine how it’s not. But even the most recent polls nationwide show no evidence that public opinion has changed on the core question which is repeal/keep/expand. But what about in Virginia? We’re digging into the final polls and exit numbers to see whether we can get a handle on that question.

A number of commentators pointed last night to exit polls showing that Cuccinelli overwhelmingly won anti-Obamacare voters as evidence that rising opposition to Obamacare helped Cuccinelli come close to victory. But this argument doesn’t make sense. Basically all Republicans and conservatives are deeply anti-Obamacare. There are now, were two years ago, were one year ago. So of course Cuccinelli, running a base-oriented campaign, won them by huge margins. How could he not? Pointing to this as the basis of Cuccinelli’s almost-comeback makes no sense when you take a clear-eyed look at it. There may be other evidence but this ain’t it.

Finally, a friend and reader notes this Politico report which shows that Cuccinelli actually won independents by a 9 point margin. On its face, that hints at a move from the center on behalf of Cuccinelli. But we need to remember the crystal clear lesson of 2012, which is that a substantial number of conservatives, often the most right-leaning and ideological, have seceded from the GOP and now self-identify independents. So the days when “independents” could be a proxy for the non-ideological middle are really over.

As I said, we’re looking at the numbers. The most probative one I’ve seen so far is from the CNN version of the exit poll. 27% said “health care” was their most important issue. But the two candidates basically split those voters, with Cuccinelli holding a 4 point margin. In my mind that makes for a pretty thin argument that opposition to Obamacare drove this outcome. (Overall 53% of Virginians opposed Obamacare and 46% supported it – though most other polls would suggest that a significant proportion of the opponents oppose it from the left and believe it should be expanded.)

One other point that’s clear in the polls is that pollsters seem to have somewhat underestimated the share Cuccinelli would get of the Republican vote. So there might be a reasonable supposition that hammering Obamacare, in this hellish climate, helped him consolidate Republican voters. It’s not conclusive evidence but it is suggestive of that theory.

We’ll keep looking at the numbers because I don’t think we yet have a sufficient handle on the data and the question. Send us what you come up with too. My initial sense is that Virginia as a bellwether on Obamacare is at best greatly overstated. And remember, at the end of the night, Cuccinelli lost.

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