Virginia is one of two states that holds its gubernatorial elections during odd-numbered years, including 2017. That, in addition to being right next-door to so much of the nation’s political media in Washington, makes the upcoming contest closely watched.
Also, as a genuinely purple swing state, Virginia can be taken as a bellwether of broader trends to come.
Recent statewide elections, however, have introduced a new wrinkle to the equation. In the 2013 governor’s race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat out Republican Ken Cuccinelli 48 percent to 45 percent. In the 2014 U.S. Senate election, Democrat Mark Warner narrowly defeated Republican Ed Gillispie 49 percent to 48 percent. Last year’s presidential election in the Old Dominion saw Clinton defeat Trump 49 percent to 44 percent.
In each of these elections, the winning candidate failed to clear 50 percent of the vote. The remainder went to Libertarian candidates: Robert Sarvis in 2013 and 2014, and Gov. Gary Johnson in 2016. In a very real sense, Virginia’s recent elections have been decided by Libertarian and Libertarian-leaning voters.
Libertarians are the marginal vote
It is a well-known concept in economics, political science and campaign studies, that the most important vote in an election is the “marginal vote.” It is that one single theoretical vote that pushes your candidate into first place. And that’s the vote candidates most chase after.
In reality, things can’t be narrowed down to a single vote. But they are, however, narrowed to a category of swing voters.
Libertarians hang a bright lantern over the swing votes in the middle in closely-contested elections, such as in Virginia.
Republican and Democrats must compete not just with each other, but also to peel votes away from the third-party candidate. A Democrat who concedes some issues on criminal justice reform, or marijuana legalization, may well pick up votes that otherwise would have gone Libertarian. Likewise, a Republican who ignores social-conservative wedge issues to focus on taxes and spending, is more likely to pick up votes from the Libertarian bloc.
A game-changing 2016 election
Conventional wisdom has long held that Libertarians only play spoilers for the Republicans. The 2016 election changed that perception in some respects. The Clinton campaign, panicked over narrowing margins entering the final stretch of 2016, responded with a coordinated series of attacks on the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld.
That included a reported $50 million pledged by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer to attack both Johnson and the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.
Democrats have started to learn the lesson that an anti-war, civil-liberties, pro-legalization campaign can eat into their base from the left, just surely as Libertarian fondness for smaller government and lower taxes can “steal” votes away from Republicans.
Republicans and Democrats are not unaware of this race to see which of them gets “spoiled” by third-party campaigns. Moreover, they often do not appreciate the competition. In Virginia, Sarvis found himself the subject of vicious last-minute smears from conservative Republicans trying to drive down his vote totals.
Many blamed him after the fact for the defeat of Ken Cuccinelli, the far-right firebrand who boasted of endorsements from Glenn Beck and Ron Paul.
Opening and closing the debates
And, when they can’t keep Libertarians off the ballot, they often collude to keep them out of the debates. For example, even though Libertarian Cliff Hyra is the only lawyer of the three candidates on this year’s gubernatorial ballot, but was still excluded from the state bar association’s debate at the insistence of both major-party candidates.
Debate exclusion can backfire, however. Voters have a fundamental sense of fairness, and some will react with hostility to the sight of the major-party candidates refusing to debate an opponent.
That’s particularly the case when the issue is noted in the state’s media, as happened with papers such as the Washington Post and Richmond Times-Dispatch objecting to Hyra’s exclusion. The Times-Dispatch editorial page was an enthusiastic supporter of the Johnson-Weld ticket in 2016.
The last gubernatorial election saw the Democrat’s former national party chairman, McAuliffe, take the race. This year, we might be potentially see another one, with the GOP nominating former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. Because the state constitution forbids governors from serving consecutive terms, the Democrats are being represented by incumbent lieutenant governor Ed Northam.
Whether Northam or Gillespie spends the next four years running Virginia’s state government, will likely come down to a simple equation: Who loses more votes to Cliff Hyra?
(Photo montage of 2013 Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, Robert Sarvis, and Ken Cuccinelli.)