Tea Party favorite Ken Cuccinelli, abandoned by the Republican establishment as too “extreme” to win in Virginia, crushed Democrat Terry McAuliffe among independent voters by 9 percentage points, 47%-38%. The key to McAuliffe’s victory was that the Democrat–assisted by the ruthless data-mining operation that fueled Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election–turned out his party’s base, while conservative voters were divided.
Cuccinelli’s winning margin among independent voters was only slightly lower than Mitt Romney’s 12-point margin in 2012. Romney also lost the state, however, after failing to bring conservative voters to the polls and mounting a lackluster a get-out-the-vote operation that was badly understaffed. (While Project ORCA failed, Tea Party activists from out of state manned polling places for Romney on their own initiative.)
The McAuliffe campaign applied cutting-edge technology to Abraham Lincoln’s old advice “to make a perfect list of all the voters in their respective districts, and to ascertain with certainty for whom they will vote.” It even used private synagogue directories to find reliably liberal Jewish voters, risking controversy to ensure a win. Neither the Cuccinelli campaign nor the Republican National Committee matched that intense effort.
Cuccinelli was also outspent and out-organized, the result of major donors abandoning him, believing that he was doomed by his conservatism. A third-party libertarian candidate also split the conservative base. However, independent voters preferred Cuccinelli, despite his allegedly divisive social conservatism and Tea Party allegiance. With more resources and a focus on unifying and turning out the base, he might have won.