Multicandidate primaries are always tricky to predict. Turnout is usually low. Candidates have different bases of support. Each needs to decide which of their opponents they should attack and how. As a result, the final outcome is oftentimes completely out of whack compared to pre-voting polls and expectations. Such was the case with yesterday's stunner in the Virginia Democratic Governor's primary (see coverage here, here, here, and here). Prior to the vote, polling suggested an extremely tight race between Terry McCauliffe, Brian Moran, and the eventual winner Creigh Deeds. While Clinton booster and former DNC head McCauliffe was the early favorite in the race, based largely on his fundraising prowess and ties to the establishment Democratic machinery, downstate State Senator Deeds had been gaining momentum in recent days. Moran, a former state legislator from vote rich northern Virginia, was counting on a huge turnout among his suburban base to put him over the top. With three relatively evenly matched candidates one would have expected a nail biter. The result???--a Deeds landslide as he captured 50% compared to McCauliffe's 26% and Moran's 24%.
As I was reading the commentary on the race and looking at the results, something about this contest seemed awfully familiar to me. It hit me that yesterday's outcome, and the campaign leading up to it, mirrored almost exactly a campaign that I witnessed firsthand back in Wisconsin. In 1992, Democrats were looking for a nominee to challenge incumbent GOP Senator Bob Kasten. The three Democrats who emerged were 1) Joseph Checota, a wealthy Milwaukee attorney and former head of the Wisconsin Democratic party; 2) Congressman Jim Moody, a multi-term House member from Milwaukee, the state's largest vote center; and 3) Russ Feingold, a relatively unknown State Senator from Middleton, a suburb of Madison. Checota and Moody were by far the best funded and best tied to the party establishment and supporting interests. Feingold, while respected in the State Senate, was seen as the weakest of the three and least likely to win. The campaign quickly devolved into a nasty and expensive spat between the Checota and Moody. Checota was able to contribte considerable sums of his own wealth to the race and Moody was able to tap into numerous reliable sources of Democratic donors. As these two spent months attacking each other, Feingold plodded on, an afterthought to most. When the early September vote was held, Feingold scored a massive upset, capturing 70% of the primary vote, with Checota and Moody evenly splitting the remainder. See some coverage of the race here).
Fast forward to Virginia's race this year and the parallels are striking. You have a wealthy former party head (McCauliffe/Checota) with no previous elective experience, a well known legislator from the state's largest bloc of voters (Moran/Moody), and a relatively unknown, folksy, yet respected, State Senator (Deeds/Feingold). In Virginia this year, as in Wisconsin in 1992, McCauliffe and Moran spent much of the race focusing their fire on each other, especially given how much of the vote was expected to come from the place both resided--northern Virginia. Checota and Moody fought heavily over the Milwaukee area's bounty of voters in their back yards. The candidate most expected to trail far beyond the frontrunners was left to develop his own campaign, almost in isolation of the others. In doing so they were able to court a bloc of voters seemingly being ignored by those at the top. In '92, Moody and Checota were both seen as somewhat distant from Wisconsin's progressive tradition--Checota for his wealth and Moody (though sporting a generally liberal voting record) for his tenure on the Ways and Means committee. Feingold, on the other hand, came to the race with unblemished progressive bona fides. In Virginia, Moran and McCauliffe positioned themselves toward the left end of the spectrum while Deeds, hailing from the rural western part of the state, espoused a more Blue Dog-like platform.
While there are no doubt some differences between these races--most notably the fact that Deeds had run, and barely lost, a state-wide race previously whereas Feingold had no such state-wide exposure--the commonalities are worth noting for no other reason than how much the highlight the unpredictability of primaries. With each additional candidate in the race, the tactical calculus becomes much more complicated. While focusing attention on one candidate might seem obvious, such a decision may in fact present opportunities to those being ignored. When nobody is paying attention to a particular candidate, that candidate not only evades some scrutiny and bloodying, they also don't have to worry about their campaign devolving into a series of reactions and tit for tat responses. They can, in a sense, define their own candidacy, something that is no doubt how most candidates would like to appeal to voters.
When it comes to making predictions in these contests, perhaps these examples suggest that, when in doubt, pick the candidate running last. They oftentimes win.