2006 Primary: Breaking it Down

Jim Webb is halfway home in his goal to be the first politician to defeat the liberal establishment and conservative establishment of Virginia in the same election cycle.

On Tuesday, he defeated Harris Miller 53.5%-46.5% in a Democratic primary turnout of about 155,000 voters.

Looking at the vote numbers can tell you a lot about a campaign, where it succeeds and where it fails. Here are my observations:

Northern Virginia: Turnout was the highest here and Webb won every single jurisdiction by a 60/40 margin or greater. (I note that my hometown of Fairfax City had the highest turnout and brought in 67% for Webb). That was a shock to some as Harris is from Fairfax and well-connected here. Nearly every elected Democrat endorsed him. Mainstream observers credited Webb’s late endorsement by national Democratic senators such as John Kerry. Wrong. The Webb campaign was comfortably ahead in Northern Virginia from February due to its grass-roots base. It was the home of the “draft Webb” movement and it had “boots on the ground” at every major event. For example, Webb volunteers manned polls at the municipal elections in May. They marched by the hundreds in Memorial Day parades. This presence was matched in the Internet, where every major Democratic blogger stumped for Webb. This enthusiasm filled a void in the media coverage from the mainstream press and got the attention of ordinary voters. Due to the high cost of television in the D.C. market, Miller could not counter-attack except through direct mail which voters tend to discount. Webb’s campaign success was from the bottom up. One other aspect merits attention: the Democratic primary vote in Northern Virginia now reaches beyond party activists. It includes people of all stripes, such as business and military or even the Asian community, who tend to be more conservative, Therefore, the “I’ve never voted Republican” line means less to this wider audience. As the turnout spiked up, Webb benefited.

Hampton Roads: This was really a surprise for people like me that assumed a former Secretary of Navy like Jim Webb would clean up here. Instead, Harris ran an effective campaign, blowing out Webb in the black community and benefiting from low turnout elsewhere. With a late start and little money, Webb just did not get his message out and allowed the negative mail and ads to define him. That will have to change if he’s going to beat George Allen. Endorsements down here matter. I would recommend that Jim sit down with long-time leaders in Tidewater like Lionell Spruill, Mary Christian and Louise Lucas to get their help. He will need the next 4-5 months to get his arms around the Tidewater community and make it his. It can happen.

Richmond/Southside: Again, the same analysis as above. Harris effectively isolated Webb with his advertisements. He also did a good job of actually putting those votes in his pocket (Miller’s vote totals in Southside are similar to Viola’s last year — and she was a black woman legislator). Outside of some small pockets, the white Democrat primary turnout has pretty much disappeared in this part of the state. Whitt Clement in ’01 was probably the last to bring out a decent primary vote. That’s too bad but it’s reality. Kudos to Harris and his campaign team for a strong performance here.

Roanoke/Valley: The turnout was low but Webb got the better of it all along the key Rte. 81 corridor. Again, a strong grass-roots presence in the Roanoke and Blacksburg areas (according to my sources) made a difference in getting his message out, even while he was being outspent on the air and in the mailbox. He’ll need to keep this enthusiasm to stay competitive in the fall.

Southwest Virginia: OK, this was a surprise. Harris Miller actually defeated Webb in a few southwest counties (granted the turnout was less than many precincts in Fairfax). Again, two facts: (1) Webb did not have the money to get his message out and (2) the vote was restricted to party activists more receptive to the “I’m a loyal Democrat” message. Frankly, I think Webb can do much better here without changing his message. He just needs to get it out.

The bottom line is that Webb defeated a better-financed candidate in Miller because of his strong grass-roots base. In Northern Virginia, it made all the difference. And those numbers made up for his shortfalls elsewhere.

To win in November, Webb has to 1) build support in the black community, especially in Hampton Roads, and 2) raise a ton of money to compete with George Allen. If he can accomplish that, I think he’ll win.


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