Plenty of Monday morning quarterbacks attended a recent seminar where a political adviser to Democratic incumbent Mark Warner and one for Republican Ed Gillespie looked back on Virginia’s surprisingly close U.S. Senate election.
A woman in the audience at George Mason University asked if Warner’s margin of victory -- less than 18,000 votes out of almost 2.2 million cast -- would have been greater if the senator had spent less time campaigning in rural areas and more time stumping in populous Northern Virginia, a haven for statewide Democratic candidates. The woman was echoing a question raised by many pundits after the election.
David Hallock, a Warner adviser, replied that rural votes helped Warner win.
"You look at the kind of Republican areas, the rural areas, Senator Warner ran 8-10 points ahead of a traditional Democrat -- ahead of Senator Kaine, ahead of Governor McAuliffe in those areas -- which is more than the margin of victory at the end of the day," he said.
Warner has long prided himself as a vote-getter in rural Virginia, pursuing a so-called "Bubba strategy," attending NASCAR races and even commissioning a blue-grass campaign song during his successful 2001 run for governor.
We examined whether Warner this year really did top the past rural vote performances of two stalwarts in his party -- Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Terry McAuliffe -- by the 8-10 percent margin Hallock cited.
The first step was to define rural Virginia. We relied on a state map highlighting 52 localities that the federal government defines as rural. Then, we compared Warner’s 2014 votes in those places to the results from McAuliffe’s 2013 gubernatorial election and Kaine’s 2012 Senate contest.
Here’s how the statewide rural vote broke down:
Warner, 2014: 39 percent
McAuliffe, 2013: 35.6 percent
Kaine, 2012: 41.4 percent
The rural localities form six regions. Here’s how Warner’s performance compared to the other Democrats in each of those areas:
Eastern Shore: Warner, 44.2 percent; McAuliffe, 42.8 percent; Kaine, 50.3 percent.
Northern Neck: Warner, 41.2 percent; McAuliffe, 39.1 percent; Kaine, 45.8 percent.
Shenandoah: Warner, 33.3 percent, McAuliffe, 34 percent; Kaine, 39.9 percent.
Alleghany: Warner, 37.1 percent; McAuliffe, 33.4 percent; Kaine, 38.5 percent.
Southside: Warner, 48.5 percent; McAuliffe, 45.3 percent; Kaine, 51.3 percent.
Southwest: Warner, 35.9 percent; McAuliffe, 29.7 percent; Kaine, 35.3 percent.
The 39 percent overall rural vote for Warner this fall was considerably below the level he achieved during his other successful campaigns. Warner got 61.2 percent of the rural vote in his 2008 landslide victory for the U.S. Senate over Republican Jim Gilmore; he got 51.2 percent in his 2001 gubernatorial win over Republican Mark Earley.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said the decline in Warner’s vote percentages this year -- not just in rural areas but across Virginia -- may be due to the senator’s positioning as a centrist.
"The moderate strategy that worked so well for Warner back in the day, just doesn’t work as well today," Farnsworth said. "The real polarization of politics means there’s just not as many people interested in a moderate politician. The strategy of winning over moderate rural voters doesn’t work well when there aren’t many moderate rural voters."
As we mentioned, a number of pundits question whether some of Warner’s time courting rural voters would have been better spent wooing Northern Virginians. We’re not taking sides in this debate, but thought we’d offer a few statistics to put it in perspective.
Unofficially, Warner won by 17,723 votes. The State Board of Elections is scheduled the certify the final results on Monday.
In rural Virginia, Gillespie got 163,608 votes and Warner received 108,772. Gillespie won a 54,386-vote edge.
In Northern Virginia, Warner gained 358,878 votes, 57.4 percent, and Gillespie got 252,584 votes, 40.4 percent. Warner won a 106,294-vote advantage in the region.
Hallock said Warner, in this fall’s Senate election, ran "8-10 points ahead" of past performances by fellow Democrats McAuliffe and Kaine in rural Virginia.
He’s flat out wrong. McAuliffe’s portion of the rural vote, in his 2013 gubernatorial victory, was 3.6 percentage points below Warner’s. Kaine’s slice of the rural vote, in his 2012 Senate win, was 2.4 percentage points above Warner’s.
We rate Hallock’s statement False.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said Hallock did not respond to three emails seeking data for his claim. Our requests were sent to an incorrect email address for Hallock.