Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Virginia Politics is (Mostly) Local

The Virginia gubernatorial election appears to reflect local forces more than a referendum on President Bush or demobilization of Republican voters. Republican margins in some of Virginia's larger counties and independent cities shrank substantially in the 2005 governor's race compared to the 2004 presidential election. But these margins shrank considerably less in the Attorney General's race, suggesting that rather than a uniform loss of Republican votes, the Virginia results were driven more by candidate and campaign specific forces.

Seven large Virginia counties and independent cities showed especially dramatic reductions in the Republican margin, as shown in the figure. Five larger counties/cities shrank from substantial Republican margins in 2004 to pro-Democratic margins in 2005. (Virginia Beach and Chesapeake cities and Henrico, Loudoun and Prince William counties.) Four of these had provided President Bush with margins over 10,000 votes in 2004, but shifted to 1,000 or more Democratic margins in 2005. Even where the Democrat, Tim Kaine, failed to win, the loss of Republican margin was damaging to Republican Jerry Kilgore. The Bush margin of over 34,000 votes in Chesterfield county was reduced to a Republican margin under 8,000 in the gubernatorial election. And in the Democratic bastion of Fairfax county a Democratic lead of 34,000 in the Presidential election was nearly doubled to a 60,000 vote advantage in the Governor's race.

In the figure, the purple line is the local regression fit between presidential and gubernatorial vote. The relationship flattens dramatically in counties/cities won by Bush. The Republican gubernatorial margin only modestly rises with Bush margin. In places won by Kerry, the relationship is much closer to the 45-degree line, representing equal margins in both elections. This shows that the Republican vote was much less strongly related to the Bush vote in those counties Bush won. On its face, this is consistent with a claim that Republican's failed to mobilize their voters, possibly because of disaffection with the President. That could be due to a weak President. It could equally be due to a weak gubernatorial candidate. Which is it?

Here the Attorney General's race (currently with a margin of some 410 votes) provides a crucial point of reference. If Virginia Republicans stayed home due to unhappiness with President Bush, then that effect should be clear across races. If on the other hand "all politics is local", then the Virginia vote is more a function of the appeal of the candidates and the short term campaign forces, and this should vary from race to race.

The Republican vote for Attorney General is much more strongly related to the 2004 Presidential Republican vote than is the case for the gubernatorial vote. The green line in the figure plots the local regression fit of Republican margin in the Attorney General race with the presidential vote. Among counties/cities won by Bush in 2004, there is a much stronger relationship between the AG vote margin and the presidential margin than was the case for the governor's race.

If Republicans had responded primarily to national forces, we'd expect the green and purple lines to run roughly parallel to each other. It is clear from the figure that this doesn't occur. The AG race margin is close to (but not quite) linear across all presidential margins. This contrasts with the strongly non-linear relationship of the governor's race margin. As a practical matter, the AG Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell, ran well ahead of gubernatorial Republican Kilgore's margins in the most Republican counties. McDonnell also did relatively much better in Fairfax county, losing by only about as much as Bush had in 2004, rather than twice as badly as did Kilgore. (I've not included the data points for the AG race in the figure because it makes an already complicated figure even harder to read. The AG margins cluster quite closely to the green fitted line however. In particular, the six highlighted counties/cities are considerably closer to the AG fit than they are to the governor's fit.)

There is still some modest evidence that Republicans suffered a decline in their voting base relative to 2004. Even in the AG race, the slope of the local fit is a bit smaller in Republican localities than it is among Democratic majority areas. The difference is not large, but could reflect some demobilization of Republican constituents, possibly due to President Bush's low approval ratings. However, the much larger declines in gubernatorial votes cannot be accounted for by this general decline. Most of that loss in Republican margin seems due to the candidates and the campaign. That effect could be due to a failure by Kilgore to mobilize his partisans or the effective stratgey of Democrat Tim Kaine to appeal to religious (and Republican leaning) voters. Thanks to the lack of exit polling we must be left to speculate about the reasons voters had for the votes they cast. But the county returns do cast serious doubt on the claim that Virginia's gubernatorial vote was primarily a repudiation of President Bush.

Data: The data are taken from the Virginia State Board of Elections website here.

Thanks to the "econometrician who must not be named" for helpful conversations, even if he/she didn't want to be associated with my analysis.