Pre-Mortem: How Did Deeds Get Into So Much Trouble?

I could just as easily have titled this post "Why Bob McDonnell is winning." Let's start with the candidate. As Virginia uber-blogger Not Larry Sabato points out, to be a governor is to be a manager. Voters intuitively understand this, and so they look to the candidate who seems to be the best manager. Creigh Deeds (D) doesn't come off as a confident, crisp, efficient manager; Bob McDonnell does. The dynamics of an open seat, with a much narrower pool of voters, a re-energized Republican Party -- these conditions were expected, and they were satisfied. Deeds's climb would be uphill. Also: Virginians fell in love with Mark Warner. They fell in like with Tim Kaine. They seem underwhelmed by Creigh Deeds.

Here are six other reasons why Deeds is losing among, for goodness sakes, even women.

  1. Poor definition.  The Washington Post poll shows that voters think Creigh Deeds is too liberal. Too liberal? There's nothing liberal about Deeds. He's as conservative a Democrat as can reasonably be expected to win, and more conservative than Tim Kaine or Mark Warner. That he's been defined as something he isn't is the fault of both his campaign and the consequence of a solid media campaign of his opponent.
  2. GOP Preparation.  McDonnell has been the candidate-in-waiting; his strategists are smart, and figured out that a centrist platform would play well in this election, and kept a consistent message.
  3. African American problems.  Deeds has had exceptional difficulty attracting black voters. The endorsement of BET co-founder Sheila Johnson sapped all the energy from his efforts to reach out. Why didn't Gov. Tim Kaine throw himself in front of Johnson's ambitious decision to endorse McDonnell? There are different theories. Assuming that racial pride plays a role in enhancing black turnout, Obama's links to Deeds are few; and it's hard for black voters, per se, to see how their lives would be made any better, or worse, by having Deeds in power. Democrats haven't yet figured out how to campaign for black votes without responding to an archetypal "black voter." Doug Wilder's endorsement? Wilder always plays Hamlet, but his eventual nod seems to have been assumed and not worked for. That was a mistake.
  4. Women.  The abortion issue has lost its relevance in Northern Virginia. Why? Because a pro-choice Democrat is in power. Practically, there's not much a state governor like Bob McDonnell can do to restrict abortion, even if he wanted to. There's no appetite in the legislature for abortion legislation. Appealing to women on the basis that McDonnell threatens their rights just isn't going to work very well. Bob McDonnell's graduate school thesis was full of anti-modernist rhetoric about women, and the Deeds campaign has tried to gainfully exploit it. But McDonnell responded quickly, talking to reporters that first day, disavowing some of it (not all of it), and putting up a commercial featuring his working daughter. Good PR management by McDonnell -- and the Deeds campaign's inability to come up with new ways to attack him on it -- made the issue seem smaller than it probably should be.
  5. Taxes.  It's on page 1 of the GOP playbook: cast your opponent as a tax-hiker. Virginia Democrats have found different ways to handle this inevitable charge. In a recession with a growing deficit, it's harder to endorse tax increases. Deeds has been careful -- too careful. He doesn't have the political skill to be nuanced. But Deeds still could have had a much better answer, and the back-end work of a campaign -- the tracking of the trackers and the controlled media appearances -- is one way to prevent impromptu musings by candidates on vulnerable issues.
  6. The Democratic Party.  They're in power now, and they're not popular. Liberals are seen as hijacking Congress. There's frustration with priorities and general polarization and discontent. Deeds doesn't have a brand to stand against, and Republicans have been effective at making sure to link Deeds with the national Democratic brand, rather than the specialized Warner/Webb/Kaine brand in the state.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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