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7 Election Lessons We Should Have Seen Coming

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, appearing with his family, waves goodbye to supporters after conceding the Virginia governor's race to Terry McAuliffe. Cuccinelli's stronger-than-expected run became the dominant story on Election Night.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, appearing with his family, waves goodbye to supporters after conceding the Virginia governor's race to Terry McAuliffe. Cuccinelli's stronger-than-expected run became the dominant story on Election Night.

In the end, they pretty much all won. The people who were expected to prevail Tuesday night wound up in the winner's circle. In New Jersey and New York, of course, and in Virginia, too, in the end. The ballot measures also went according to script.

Yes, there was enough suspense in the Virginia marquee race to remind everyone of how fragile the practice of political prognosticating really is. But on further reflection, the premier lessons of the night look like big billboards we all should have seen from miles down the road.

Among the time-honored wisdoms we saw demonstrated anew:

1) Expectations rule impressions.

This holds especially true when expectations are confounded. When anything happens that we (the media) didn't expect, our dominant story line gets flipped on its head. The shock, or even the apparent shock, of the unexpected induces hours of derangement. Sometimes days of derangement.

On this occasion, the dominant story was the surprising strength of Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia's gubernatorial race. Always controversial, Cuccinelli was counted out in recent weeks because his Tea Party affiliation was seen as anathema among Northern Virginians in the Washington, D.C., metro area. The October government shutdown cemented this narrative and seemed to pave the way for Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe. Yet the Republican led in the count Tuesday night from the earliest returns until more than 90 percent of the precincts were in. In the end, the margin was only half what the narrowest polls had predicted. And that provided the only genuine suspense of the night, the only reason for most people to pay attention to the live programming.

2) Go big or go home.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got re-elected with the trophy margin he wanted so badly. Three voters out of five took him up on his offer to hug the entire Garden State. Although rumors circulated about a woman named "Barbara Buono" having been the Democratic nominee in the race, these rumors could not be confirmed. Lacking big dollars and big names from the party firmament pitching in, she scarcely broke the surface of media consciousness. She also neglected to provide such basics as a candidate statement for every county's sample ballot. Nonetheless, Christie and his remarkably effervescent campaign style barely made it to 60 percent. That was a gaudy enough number, though, and Christie gave a well-covered acceptance speech late Tuesday that sounded at least as much like a presidential candidacy announcement.

3) Money talks.

McAuliffe outspent Cuccinelli by $15 million this fall, demonstrating the power of uncommon wealth in the commonwealth. Christie so swamped his Democratic opponent financially that her efforts scarcely qualified as fundraising. And in Alabama, veteran state legislator Bradley Byrne had the backing of the Chamber of Commerce (among others) as he heavily outspent Tea Party upstart Dean Young in a special congressional election runoff in the Gulf Coast district anchored by the city of Mobile. Around the country, various ballot measures easing restrictions on marijuana or allowing casino gambling rose and fell largely on the fundraising muscle of their sponsors.

On the counterpoint side, the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York made this the first mayoral election in a dozen years that was not overshadowed by Mike Bloomberg's checkbook. In a sense, de Blasio's anti-Bloomberg landslide was the exception that demonstrated the rule.

4) Issues matter.

The fortunes of the candidates in Virginia rose and fell with the news. The race had been close at one time, but it became McAuliffe's to lose when the shutdown of the federal government angered thousands of affected federal workers (and thousands more who depend on the feds economically). But the lead McAuliffe opened up in October dwindled rapidly in the last 10 days as the national and local media focus shifted abruptly to Obamacare, the nagging dysfunction of its digital infrastructure and the shortfall of its promises. Cuccinelli had been among the law's earliest and loudest challengers, in court and in the media. He exploited the recent troubles effectively in the closing hours of the campaign and seemed to re-energize his state's conservative coalition.

5) Republicans usually come home.

No matter how divisive some of Cuccinelli's more ideological positions may have been, and no matter how much GOP regulars may have feared the prospect of him in office, Republicans voted for him. Exit polls showed more than 90 percent party unity, despite the presence of a Libertarian option (who actually did better among moderates and liberals). There will be many in the Tea Party wing who blame this loss not on their man but on the failure of establishment conservatives to embrace him and keep him financially competitive with McAuliffe. But in the end, the Republican collapse some had foreseen did not happen. Cuccinelli's loss was not about weakness in his base but rather his inability to reach much beyond it.

6) City folk vote differently from country folk.

The map of Virginia on Election Night was almost entirely red as scores of counties went Republican. But when you looked at the actual vote totals from those counties, you often saw numbers in the hundreds or low single-digit thousands. McAuliffe was able to swamp the vast swaths of rural Virginia with big wins in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Richmond and Hampton Roads on the Atlantic Coast. In that Alabama contest for a seat in Congress, the Tea Party insurgent carried every county save one — the one that is home to Mobile. It was the only county in the district with a claim to being urban, and here the establishment choice won handily.

7) Polls can be misleading, and that includes exit polls.

The latter's chief value is in dissecting the vote on the morning after. While the voting polls are still open, those "early exits" can create misimpressions in close races. Back in 2004, the initial waves of exit polling showed Democratic Sen. John Kerry winning that day's presidential election over incumbent George W. Bush. (Even the Bush White House was briefly convinced.) Later data and revisions told a different story. This year, the early exits pointed to a McAuliffe win more or less in line with the polls, built on a huge lead for the Democrat among women and a virtual tie among men. But with later polling data and an adjustment of the weighting, McAuliffe's overall lead all but disappeared. In the end, he prevailed by about 2 percentage points, well below the results of any poll done prior to Election Day and below the early waves of exit polls of actual voters on Election Day.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.