Can a white, wealthy political operative and businessman emulate President Obama's historic success at turning out voters who don't regularly participate in elections? Terry McAuliffe is betting on it.
Even the most optimistic Democrat knows that for McAuliffe, ginning up turnout to presidential levels in an off-year election is near impossible.
Behind the scenes, however, the Democratic frontrunner has been trying to build an Obama-style, technologically savvy, grassroots campaign to crank out voters who helped the president carry the state twice but don't normally vote in gubernatorial elections. The November vote will be the first statewide election since the 2012 vote to test whether the Obama campaign model can be applied to candidates other than the president. In Virginia, turnout has seesawed from 45 percent in 2005 to 75 percent in 2008, and from 40 percent in 2009 to 72 percent in 2012.
"You're going to see the same huge dramatic drop from 2012 to 2013," said Joe Abbey, a Democratic strategist who served as the campaign manager for 2009 Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds. "To employ the Obama tactics and tools that were used in 2008 and perfected in 2012 is something Terry should try to do, but it's more of a two or three percent kind of game. Even a small percentage difference could make a huge difference."
First Lady Michelle Obama's appearance at a fundraiser for Terry McAuliffe Thursday night will be the first and most explicit sign of the White House in the Virginia governor's race.
The McAuliffe campaign boasts top field coordinators from the Obama campaign in North Carolina and Wisconsin as well as the president's digital advertising and direct mail consultants. It has a database with information gleaned from the Obama campaign about voters' preferences in the 2012 election and top issues. The campaign can also guide supporters who use Facebook to share information with friends who are likely to be persuaded to vote for McAuliffe.
"Many of the volunteers and neighborhood leaders who made the Obama field effort a success stayed engaged in Virginia and are the basis of Terry's grassroots campaign in 2013," said McAuliffe spokesman Brennan Bilberry. "Because they have experience and networks built throughout 2012, Terry's volunteer-driven organization is uniquely suited to explain the stakes in this election."
Just as Obama hit the ground running in Virginia in early 2012 while Mitt Romney was still sewing up the Republican primary, McAuliffe plans to get a jump start with 75 staffers in 34 offices by mid-June. That would represent a huge advantage over Deeds, who had a bare-bones staff and little money at the same point in the campaign cycle four years ago.
The Republican nominee, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, currently has 10 campaign offices, according to his website. His campaign would not release the number of staffers, but with half as much money as McAuliffe, the operation is likely to be smaller. Cuccinelli raised $2.2 million in the last two months and reported $2.7 million cash on hand, while McAuliffe collected $3.7 million during the same time period and has $5.4 million.
When it comes to investing that money in the field, McAuliffe is taking his cue from Obama, who had roughly double the number of field offices as Romney in Virginia in 2012.
"The philosophy we had regarding field offices was if we build it they would come," said Mitch Stewart, who served as Obama's battleground states director in 2012 and ran his Virginia campaign in 2008. "It shows that you take the community seriously and gives people a home where they can go and build a campaign organization."
Cuccinelli boasts the advantage, however, when it comes to voter turnout in governor's races in Virginia, especially when compared to presidential turnout. The electorate in 2008 and 2012 was only 70 percent white. Roughly 20 percent of the voters were 29 years old or younger. Democrats made up 39 percent of the vote.
Compare those figures to the 2009 electorate, which was 78 percent white. Only 10 percent of the voters were 29 years old or younger. Democrats comprised only 33 percent of the electorate. The older, whiter and more conservative crowd typical of gubernatorial elections tends to favor Republicans.
"If Obama ain't on the ballot, they ain't showing up," quipped Cuccinelli's campaign consultant Chris LaCivita. "Democrats tried the same thing in 2009. What makes them think they're going to be more any more successful when you consider that the Democratic base is not entirely enamored of this guy?"
The latest Quinnipiac University poll found McAuliffe leading by five percentage points but noted that only 38 percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion of him, while 58 percent don't know enough to form an opinion. In contrast, the attorney general is viewed favorably by 64 percent of the Republican voters; only 31 percent don't know him well enough.
"The challenge for McAuliffe in trying to use Obama's campaign strategy is that Obama was a known quantity," said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. "Terry has to get into people's living rooms and introduce himself, which much tougher to do in a gubernatorial election."
Without competitive primaries, both of the nominees have been able to get early starts on their general election advertising. McAuliffe began airing his first television spot on May 1, more than five weeks before Deeds defeated him in the Democratic primary four years ago. "We emptied the tank to win the primary in 2009, so Terry is leaps and bounds ahead of where we were," said Abbey.
So how does McAuliffe get those Obama voters to the polls in November? The strategy is similar to the one Obama used against Romney: scare voters about the opposition's record on social issues, like abortion. The McAuliffe campaign plans to remind voters of the inflammatory language Cuccinelli has used when he has talked about his opposition to abortion and gay rights, as well as the disparaging remarks he and the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, have made about Obama.
"The voters in the middle who turned out in 2012 but don't necessarily turn out in gubernatorial elections are uniquely concerned about the extreme social agenda of Cuccinelli," Bilberry said. "A Democrat like Terry who is focused on opportunity for the middle class and education is what they want to hear."
Cuccinelli's campaign is skeptical that the attacks will work. In fact, they could backfire by depressing turnout and creating an even friendlier electorate for Cuccinelli. "That they can't provide their voters a reason to vote for their guy and have to present voters with a reason to vote against Ken is indicative," LaCivita said. " 'Vote against the other guy' has never been a successful premise and narrative for a candidate for governor."