The Virginia gubernatorial election is traditionally the first electoral check on a president’s term—it falls on the odd-numbered year following a presidential election. Since 1977, Virginia has elected a governor opposite the party of the sitting president in every election. The 2013 race broke this pattern. Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli began the campaign with a lead, but fell behind Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the later months of the campaign, ultimately losing on Election Day. In this campaign, both candidates had underwater approval ratings, resulting in a “distasteful election.”
However, the Virginia gubernatorial election is not unique, even with its specific set of circumstances. Distasteful elections where voters dislike both candidates are on the rise in modern politics as a result of increasing political polarization, and the negativity of these campaigns only exacerbates its effects. Voters disengage from elections, and only the most negative messages from the candidates break through that apathy.
Disapproval on All Fronts
The 2013 Virginia race is an outlier in recent Virginia politics. The past three governors—Bob McDonnell, Tim Kaine, and Mark Warner—all enjoyed high approval ratings upon their election. Yet in July 2013, approval/disapproval ratings for the gubernatorial candidates Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe were at 32/47 and 34/36, respectively. This shift in Virginia politics raises questions over the broader implications of this distasteful election: are elections with two unpopular candidates on the rise?
Disapproval ratings in American politics have reached record highs. An October Gallup poll found that both parties are at or near historic records: the favorable/unfavorable ratings for the Democratic Party and Republican Party were 43/49 and 28/62, respectively. The same poll found that a mere 11 percent of Americans approve of Congress’ job. In the history of the Gallup poll surveying congressional approval rating, only once between the beginning of the poll in 1974 and 2007 did congressional approval fall below 20 percent: March 1992, at the tail-end of the early 1990s economic recession.
Plummeting approval ratings cannot be attributed to a general decline in the public’s view of elected officials. Instead, Marc Hetherington, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, told the HPR, “Republicans and Democrats have basically a constant view of their own party, or maybe just a little bit less positive recently. But, what has really happened is they have a incredibly negative view of the other party.” The recent rise of distasteful elections has not been a consequence of disillusionment in politics, but rather a symptom of it. Political polarization has been the engine driving the high disapproval ratings.
With the increasing polarization of the electorate, voters are less likely than ever to cross party lines and vote for an opposing party’s candidate. When voters dislike their own party’s candidate while enduring a barrage of negative ads about both candidates, they’re likely to disengage. John Brehm, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, told the HPR, “Voters would shut down. They’d be less interested in the campaign, less likely to be paying attention to the campaign.” As campaigns become more negative, voters disconnect from the electoral process and become numb to the campaign happening around them.
Political polarization has become its own catalyst in modern electoral politics. As voters view the other party with more antipathy, disengagement with the political process grows when they dislike their own party’s candidate—they see no options. With this disengagement, voters are “less influenced by any positive signals, and much more likely to pick up negative information,” said Brehm. The negative qualities of the campaign make voters solely receptive to negative messages, and what are already highly negative sentiments grow further, resulting in a discontented electorate.
The Difficult Choice: Moving Down the Ballot
A unique case of distasteful elections is the distasteful down-ticket election. The most obvious of these cases are senatorial and gubernatorial elections that fall in presidential election years. Because of the highly publicized nature of presidential elections, these races rarely overshadow the presidential election, and voters ultimately turn out. In effect, the presence of the presidential race forces voters to make a choice in the down- ballot election. How do these voters then behave?
Voters react in a unique manner to down-ballot unpopularity. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at University of Virginia told the HPR, “This is a polarized era, and by and large, voters stick with the party they identify with or lean to from top to bottom of the ballot.” This modern polarization means that voters are unlikely to cross their party affiliations, so down-ballot elections with unpopular options can experience voter fatigue. This phenomenon occurs when “a certain percentage of voters will vote for the top office and then skip some or all lower ballot offices,” explained Sabato.
The 2012 election provides several clear cases of such voter fatigue. In Indiana in 2012, 2,624,534 votes were cast for president, but only 2,560,102 votes were cast for senator, a difference of 64,432, or nearly 2.5 percent of voters. Similarly, the Missouri 2012 elections had a difference of 43,700 between ballots cast for president and senator, or 1.6 percent of voters.
It is difficult to attribute motive to voter fatigue, as similar results can also occur in uncontested races, where taking the time to check the box could seem unnecessary. In Minnesota in 2012, 3.3 percent of people voting for president declined to cast a vote for senator. In this case, however, Sen. Amy Klobuchar was a heavy favorite and elected by a 35 percent margin. For comparison, the 2012 Massachusetts Senate election only had a difference of 11,214 out of 3,167,767 votes cast for president, or a mere 0.35 percent voter fatigue.
Through these elections, we can discern the effect of disapproval on voter fatigue. Massachusetts provides a good example of a highly competitive Senate election where both candidates had high approval ratings, and voter fatigue was consequently low. In comparison, the Missouri and Indiana elections indicate a high level of distaste in the electorate. The elections were both highly contested and highly public in nature, so voter ambivalence as in the Minnesota case cannot explain the relatively high voter fatigue. Instead, the results point to a situation where voters declined to vote in down-ballot elections because of distasteful choices. Some voters chose to leave the ballot blank instead of voting for either their party’s unpopular choice or the opposition party’s candidate.
The 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election is not unique in modern American politics. The distasteful nature of the election is not a special result of the two candidates; rather, the candidates’ qualities are indicative of modern political polarization. Polarization has caused voter disengagement with the political process; disengagement subsequently renders any positive political messages inaudible to voters, and the received negative messages reinforce said polarization. Action must be taken to reverse polarization or the political gridlock of the past few years will prove much more than a transient phase in our shared political history.