What a night: Two lessons from the Virginia campaign

Last night was amazing for Democrats, and for the millions (or should that be billions) of people around the world who want to Stop Trump. In an off-year, in cold, wet weather, turnout for local elections was high and Democratic candidates won out by comfortable or huge margins in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere. The signs are good that voters are not only angry, but motivated. However, there are still some lessons to learn for the coming year. Northam won handily in the end, and his colleagues further down the ticket did even better, but the fight next year will be much harder. This is the time to double down.

But let’s just recap how good a night this was via a couple of choice tweets.

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Feels good, doesn’t it?

Despite a satisfying win it is definitely fair to say that Northam himself was in a flat spin by the end of the campaign. I even laid a bet on him losing that race – d’oh! The Republican party definitely have a strong playbook for unsettling candidates and sowing division and hogging media attention. It worked like a charm on Northam, and once again it sucked in all the available media attention, but fortunately voters were not distracted.

Here are our two key lessons from the Virginia campaign:


Lesson one: Real issues win

For voters, issues matter more than anything else unless you have an especially charismatic or dreadful candidate. Yesterday NBC ran an exit poll asking voters to rank the issues that they cared about. Healthcare and Gun Control topped the list and accounted for exactly 50% of responses. Gang warfare and statues are notably absent from the list.



When you look at that data, it starts to seem obvious why the Democrats won up and down the ticket. Gillespie’s healthcare policy ran to less than a page, while Northam is an actual doctor with an excellent record defending health coverage for Virginians. The Economic Policy Institute calculates that dismantling the Affordable Care Act would have an estimated $1.6 billion impact on Virginia’s budget and remove coverage for over 700,000 people. You cannot vote for that.

Gun control is even more of a consensus issue. Signify ran an analysis in May looking at candidate messages on gun control and over five thousand responses from Virginia voters. This analysis clearly showed bipartisan support for tighter gun controls. Since less than 5% of respondents rejected gun control outright and all of those were Republicans or libertarians anyway, we argued that there was zero risk in espousing better gun controls. Northam was proud of his F rating from the NRA and the Democrats had the courage to run ‘Gun Sense’ candidates all over the NRA’s home state. Their courage and conviction matched the public mood after atrocities in Vegas and Sutherland Springs.


Signify post-Primary analysis, May 2017

Signify post-Primary analysis, May 2017




Unable to match policy with voter needs, the Republicans tried to change the focus of this contest. In terms of the media, they had a lot of success – manufacturing controversies around confederate statues, sanctuary cities and miring Northam in an exhausting web of self-contradiction. But while voters are interested in the news cycle, and unimpressed by candidates who flip flop, their underlying concerns move at a much slower pace and they will vote based on policies, if they believe a candidate will follow through.


Lesson two: You can’t play the GOP at their own game

Ed Gillespie didn’t benefit from the support of the Alt Right, Brietbart, Fox News or President Trump, but Ralph Northam still found himself outnumbered and shouted down online. The Republicans used digital and mainstream media to drag the agenda of the race in confusing directions, and when Northam tried to respond he turned the last two weeks of his campaign into a car crash.

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I wrote at length about the effective tactics used by Gillespie’s team to build online support, and how effective it is. Republican spend on private one-to-one messaging and online networks gave them roughly twice the reach of Northam in terms of social media. Fortunately, this race wasn’t won on the popularity or coherence of the lead candidates. But there is absolutely no doubt that in next year’s mid-terms Democrats will face an online campaign powered by a huge activist network, partisan media channels and click farmers attracted by Trump’s outrageous pronouncements.

The solution to this isn’t to simply give up. Democrats will have to build their own online base, and put some of their budget into spreading their message online.

Other Democrat candidates gave a better example of how to combat distraction tactics and negativity. Justin Fairfax was subjected to intolerable pressure during the campaign, some of it manufactured by his own side, but he won comfortably by ignoring the controversies around how he was treated and relentlessly focusing on policy and getting out the vote.



Danica Boer, the first openly transgender delegate who was elected in the 13th district, faced a barrage of online hatred from a much wider audience than the rest of the Democratic slate. She also faced an arch conservative candidate who insultingly referred to her as ‘him’ throughout the campaign, and sponsored legislation during the campaign to ban transgender women from using public bathrooms. Boer is a striking figure with a penchant for heavy metal and could have held her own in a war of words. She also has no way to ‘stop’ offending the sensibility of her opponent or fudge her identity. Instead of engaging with intolerance, Boer focussed her campaign on local infrastructure, an issue that the incumbent could not possibly defend, and won handily.

In the end, the best use of online data is to find out what matters to your constituents as a group. And the best way to combat negative tactics is to base your campaign on helping the most people you possibly can, and on getting that message out.

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