This article is a response to a question posed to my comment on a Bearing Drift article reporting the results of the latest Quinnipiac poll on the 2013 GOP Gubernatorial primary election. I said that it was quite interesting that Ken Cuccinelli, known to be a hardcore/principled (depending on your perspective) conservative, was leading Bill Bolling 45% – 15% among moderates. I will attempt to interpret these numbers.
I have successfully worked for candidates, causes, and public officials on both sides of the aisle. I believe that my continued willingness to work for individuals I respect regardless of party affiliation has opened me to a lot more learning opportunities than if I was exclusively aligned with one party. With that in mind, I don’t know all the answers.
I have three answers to offer in an attempt to explain these numbers. The first answer is superficial. We are visual beings and we are attracted to good looking individuals. Do you honestly believe that Sarah Palin would have as large a fan base if she looked like Haley Barbour? Do you really think Barack Obama would have the same star power if he looked like Henry Waxman? Richard Nixon beat John F. Kennedy in the Presidential debate if people listened to it on the radio, but the people who watched the debate on television thought JFK won. Ken Cuccinelli is a better looking guy than Bill Bolling. Sorry. It is what it is. We like beautiful people. Good looks poll well across ideologies.
The second answer I can offer is more substantive. Good looks can only carry you so far. Take Mitt Romney for example. The low enthusiasm level of Mitt Romney’s supporters continues to be his liability. Mitt Romney is not a conservative’s favorite conservative. He is not even considered conservative by others. “Flip-flopper” is a frequent descriptor of Romney. Ken Cuccinelli’s is a conservative’s favorite conservative and he is your favorite conservative’s favorite conservative.
The second answer is that principled candidates can sometimes perform well among moderates because they know what to expect from them and respect them for that. Ronald Reagan was a good looking dude who was fairly* principled in his conservatism. He had no trouble winning moderate support. People knew where he stood and what to expect. Known moderates who stay true to their moderation can succeed too. Scott Brown is another good looking dude who is moderate in his rhetoric and record. While Bill Bolling is just as conservative as Ken Cuccinelli, Cuccinelli has been perceived, for good cause, to be more firm and unyielding in his conviction.
* (Ronald Reagan would be too liberal for today’s GOP if you are intellectually honest about how his record fits with the demands of today’s GOP base. More on that later.)
The third answer deals with the nuts and bolts of grassroots organization. Few people can match Ken Cuccinelli in retail politics and grassroots organizing. Cuccinelli continually wins elections while being outspent by his Democratic and Republican challengers alike because he intimately knows the grassroots. As a State Senator, Cuccinelli knocked on thousands of doors, built relationships with church leaders across denominations, held numerous meet and greets, and performed quality constituent services. His rhetoric was partisan, but he got the job done.
As a candidate for Attorney General, he built the statewide operation that he is now marshaling for his gubernatorial campaign. He appointed volunteer spokespersons in virtually every county in Virginia. At local GOP events, there is never a problem for the Cuccinelli campaign to find a volunteer spokesperson to speak on behalf of Ken and deliver his message, on message. The Cuccinelli team knows about every local RPV unit meeting, event, and rubber chicken dinner in advance and will send their local guy to deliver remarks. “And now for an update from the Office of the Attorney General, we have our neighbor Joe…” People believe in Ken. In turn, Ken believes in his people. Loyalty runs both ways. It may seem like a small thing, but giving volunteers talking points straight from the top for them to deliver remarks on behalf of the Attorney General makes volunteers feel valued and important as if they were a regional press secretary.
Meanwhile, for several years now, Bill Bolling has sent his political director across the entire Commonwealth to deliver updates from his office. Bolling can’t cover the same amount of ground as Cuccinelli. Ken Cuccinelli’s grassroots operation is peerless. At some point in time such efforts will yield dividends beyond the conservative base and influence moderates as well.
Now is time for the wild card. Perhaps the survey participants are misidentifying themselves? Let me explain. There is a perception that the GOP has swung harder right in the last few years than they have ever done before. I happen to be one of those people who believe that from an objective standpoint, but I don’t want to digress from this topic.
My hypothesis is that there might be a small, but significant number of people would are conservative by any measure, but have been turned off by the hardline ideology, perpetual anger, and manufactured outrage directed at the Obama Administration. These conservatives are more conciliatory in tone and hope for “Morning in America” instead of visions of the apocalypse. Perhaps there are people in the polling sample who are embarrassed to call themselves “conservative” for this reason. It is a wild idea and I know there are other sources out there that can be interpreted to say that conservatism is stronger than ever among the people, but think outside the box for a moment. This hypothesis might anger some of my more partisan readers, but I believe it objectively merits some consideration as there might be at minimum, a hint of truth behind it.
In the end, I want to focus the answer to the question of why Cuccinelli is leading Bolling among moderates on three items – good looks, solid principles, and peerless grassroots operations.