Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman

Part 2 of a 3-Part Analysis

Election 2002:

A New Era in Virginia Politics


First Skirmish

The pundits say Mark Earley's stand against the NoVa road-tax referendum hurt him in his losing campaign against Mark Warner.  The evidence is less than convincing.


In the gubernatorial election of 2001, the anger in Northern Virginia over the perceived anti-NoVa bias in Richmond bubbled to the surface. Democratic candidate Mark Warner, a resident of Alexandria, became the first gubernatorial candidate to agree to sign legislation putting a Northern Virginia regional transportation tax referendum on the ballot. In 2000, then Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore had vetoed a bill allowing individual NOVA localities to conduct a referendum for the purpose of imposing a local income tax for transportation and education needs.

Warner took the "populist" position, rejecting Gilmore's perceived top-down obstructionism. Mark Earley, the Republican candidate to succeed Gilmore, vacillated on the referendum issue. He first backed the concept of letting Northern Virginians have a vote, but eventually switched and took Gilmore's hard line saying he couldn't support any measure that might lead to such a large tax increase.

Many normally Republican-leaning members of the region's political/business establishment used this flip-flop to justify their public support for Democrat Warner, saying their area had the right to decide its own destiny.

Boiling the politics of the issue down to its 2001 race essentials: To the Earley people, support for the referendum issue was symbolic of Warner's tax and spend liberalism; to us Warner people, support for empowering citizens through direct democracy was Jeffersonian conservatism in action.

Desperate to tack the "tax raiser" label on Warner, but having been blocked so far, the Earley campaign seized on the referendum issue as the linchpin for negative TV attack ads. But the electronic make believe failed to move voters, at least in terms of how NoVa would vote between the two candidates for Governor.

However -- and again, this is another key for my analysis -- the results of the 2001 election in NOVA have not been understood by Virginia's media. Typical is the recent column by Jeff Schapiro for the Richmond Times Dispatch, saying Warner's position on the referendum won him the Governor's Mansion by generating support in Northern Virginia.

Unfortunately, there is no empirical data to back up this claim. My strategy analysis for the Warner campaign, made months before the referendum battle, predicted a big win in NoVa, exceeding by good measure the Chuck Robb victory in the region during his losing Senate race to George Allen. This analysis was based on an evolutionary history of Virginia elections, using a similar intuitive and statistical review I had used to map Wilder's strategy for his two big upsets.

On election night 2001, Warner's actual winning NoVa margin was consistent with these projections, made LONG BEFORE the referendum issue became the focal point of the Northern Virginia campaign. However, it was far smaller than the margin predicted in several public opinion polls.

Thus, there is no statistical way to know whether the actual Warner margin would have been far less had there NOT been local tax option fight between the candidates. But since the polls expected Earley to lose far bigger in NoVa, the weight of the evidence is that the pundits are still believing their 2001 rhetoric a year later, having never bothered to let the best data interfere with their positions.

Indeed, the fact that Earley's anti-tax referendum message may have done much better in NoVa than predicted in the election polls was never mentioned this past Tuesday by these same reporters and pundits. But for those who want to understand politics, not just pontificate, it bears remembering, as this circumstance of polls badly understating public opposition to local road tax measures has now been repeated several times in 2002.

So the question must be asked: While NoVa residents clearly resent the "Richmond Knows Best" attitude of Mr. Earley, why didn't the issue produce meaningful evidence of a sizable impact on the actual vote in the general election? The polling data for several years now says it should have, but yet it hasn't. Why the disconnect?

At the time, what little thought I gave it led to this tentative conclusion: The referendum issue, as often happens with populist measures, operated more as a protest vehicle than as a substantive issue involving a definite vote on transportation policy. Clearly, NOVA voters were angry over traffic congestion and blamed Richmond for the maddening problem. They were eager to find a way to make this point.

But at the same time, the referendum operated on other levels, with these different angles sometimes in direct, confusing conflict with each other.

Candidate Mark Warner at least seemed to realize that Richmond was part of the problem, not the solution. This all sides could agree on. Yet it is often forgotten that candidate Warner never said he would vote for the tax increase. This strategy was attacked as wishy-washy at the time. But I still maintain it was the right approach.

I have not spoken to Governor Warner since midsummer. So I don't have his take in Part 3, entitled ANATOMY OF A DEFEAT.

But as I close this Part 2, we have brought the discussion from a winter tropical vacation for Governor Baliles in late 1988 all the way to the summer of July, 2002. In my view, the ground beneath the NoVa tax referendum started to shift on account of what seemed a minor decision debated in the press at the time but not mentioned in the post-election analysis that I read.

Back in July 2002, the public polls showed the referendum winning easily, the predicted landslide margins unchanged since the Washington Post polls taken during the campaign.

Then, suddenly, the resignation of Fairfax GOP Sen. Warren Barry gave Virginia Democratic Party leaders in NoVa visions of sugar plumps dancing in their heads. They believed a special election, called for August, would give them a chance to win another Senate seat, narrowing the Party's margin deficit to 21-19. NoVa Democratic Senators had their hand-picked candidate, she was pro-referendum. The Republicans figured to be split after a tough nomination battle, with the chance that an unknown anti-referendum candidate named Ken Cuccinelli might win. He was opposed by the business elite backing the referendum and seen as easy to beat, especially since Senator Barry could be counted to back the Democrat in such a case.

Looking back from the post-November 5th perspective, the debate over the Cuccinelli candidacy, and the game theory analysis of whether or not to call a special election, is a political case study one will not get in Professor Sabato's class at UVA or from Dr. Holsworth at VCU.

But it teaches a lot, and in this business, everyone always has a lot to learn, whether they are right or wrong, whether they win or lose.

Politics is just a learning experience until that moment when you get your chance to play in the big game. As they say, all the rest is foreplay.

-- November 18, 2002

Bring Home the Bacon

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Paul Goldman, the Rebel With a Cause, was chief political strategist for the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was credited with leading a "revolution in American politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics.