When the votes are tallied in the Commonwealth of Virginia this coming Tuesday, few doubt that recent polls will bear out and that Terry McAuliffe will be named the state's 72nd Governor. What the analyses to date fail to show however, are the underlying reasons why he will win -- and the implications for Virginia long term.
In any election, the ground game matters. And in Virginia, the same "Field of Dreams" approach and theory that "if you build it, they will come" that helped propel then-Senator Obama to victory in 2008 and again in 2012 will do the same for Terry McAuliffe in 2013. On the Obama campaigns, the more offices we opened, the more supporters came. It gave people a sense of community, a place to get involved in the campaign, and ultimately proved effective in 9 out of 10 battleground states. By investing in the infrastructure to house the volunteer and staff organizers every electoral effort needs to be successful, the McAuliffe campaign has followed in the footsteps of the Obama campaigns -- and built on the winning gubernatorial campaigns of Mark Warner and Tim Kaine before it.
In an off-year election, when voter turnout is historically lower, the ground game is even more critical. Turnout this Election Day is not going to top 2012 -- which rivaled 2008 numbers at 70 percent -- but it doesn't need to. And the McAuliffe campaign isn't trying to get an "Obama-like turnout." They are simply using some of the best practices from the Obama campaigns to achieve an increase in turnout over other off-year cycles. In fact, led by 2008 Clinton campaign veteran and former DCCC Executive Director Robby Mook, the McAuliffe campaign set a clear goal from the beginning to increase voter turnout to 40 percent -- a margin wide enough to secure a win but also in line with expected off-year voter participation.
That has meant focusing on persuasion early and turnout in the end -- and activating a network of more than 12,000 volunteers in the final four days of the campaign alone. Throughout the race, the campaign has not only made a clear case for why Terry McAuliffe should be the next governor of Virginia, it has prioritized the face-to-face contact we know is most effective in engaging and persuading voters across the Commonwealth. As a result, heading into their final get-out-the-vote push, the campaign has already knocked on more than 1.5 million doors and mailed nearly 80,000 pledge to vote postcards.
The electorate also matters. In the past decade, the most remarkable demographic change in Virginia has been the dramatic population increase in the suburbs and the exurbs, which has been an important factor in both presidential and off-year races. This shift has meant focusing field resources in a way that narrows the margin in those areas even as Democrats continue to work on traditionally high-density democratic urban areas. In particular, Virginia's population changes have meant new opportunities in Loudon and Prince William counties. Thanks in part to these areas, the Commonwealth voted in 2008 for the Democratic candidate for President for the first time in 44 years, and in 2012, President Obama took 50.8 percent of the vote overall. This year, McAuliffe's campaign has focused its field resources in these areas as well, which should drive up voter turnout enough to put a Democrat back in the Governor's Mansion.
At the same time, Virginia is becoming more diverse, with the tipping point occurring during Mark Warner's election in 2001. According to Census data, Virginia's population grew by 13 percent from 2000 to 2010 -- an increase of about one million people. Meanwhile, the Latino population nearly doubled, the Asian population grew by 69 percent, and the African American population grew by 12 percent. It's no coincidence that Virginia has similarly shifted from a deep red to a solidly purple state over the same time period.
And of course any election is ultimately an exercise in comparisons. McAuliffe's team has chosen the right strategies to ensure their path to victory -- against opponents with a record of extreme social policies and intensely divisive rhetoric that are dramatically out of step with Virginians. Both Ken Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson have demonstrated with their comments time and again that they are drastically out of touch. From comparing abortion to slavery, to referring to homosexuals as "wrong" and "perverted," to claiming the president "illegitimately won" the election in 2012 -- both Cuccinelli and Jackson have represented the worst and most extreme elements of the Republican party, which should help motivate both Obama and moderate voters to cast their ballots this Election Day.
It's no wonder enthusiasm is high among Virginia voters, especially in key communities that have helped deliver victories to past Democratic candidates. The latest polls show McAuliffe up by as much as 24 points among women voters -- a group that played a significant role in Bob McDonnell's win in 2009. Perhaps more telling, internal campaign analyses show that when asked about their likelihood to vote, enthusiasm is higher this cycle than in 2009 - up 15 percent among African American voters, up 5 percent among voters aged 18-29, and with Democrats holding even with Republicans instead of drawing the 6 percent deficit that was seen in the last gubernatorial election. These substantial swings will not only make the difference this November, they suggest the electorate in 2014 will closely mirror the current electorate -- just as the 2010 cycle mirrored 2009.
Ultimately the biggest takeaway from Tuesday is simple: History can repeat itself - if the field and strategy allow. There's a lot of work still to be done, and Democratic candidates in 2014 and 2016 will have to put significant resources into Virginia. But if Democrats continue to invest in the ground game and Republicans keep backing polarizing candidates, the nation should expect Virginia to remain a key player in the electoral landscape for years to come.