The Lottery That Elected Bob McDonnell

Republican Bob McDonnell won a smashing, 345,000-vote, 17-point victory in the Virginia governor's race last week -- and he wouldn't have won had ...
by | November 9, 2009
 

Republican Bob McDonnell won a smashing, 345,000-vote, 17-point victory in the Virginia governor's race last week -- and he wouldn't have won had it not been for the luck of the draw.

Three months ago, Larry Sabato wrote a column about how the order in which candidates are listed on the ballot affects the number of votes they receive. He noted that research indicates that candidates listed first receive additional votes and that this effect is most pronounced for elections in which voters don't know much about the candidates.

That brought Sabato to a point about the 2005 Virginia attorney general's race between, yes, Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds:

Attorney general is the third of three statewide offices listed on the ballot. As determined by lottery the prior June, McDonnell was put first on the ballot, Deeds second, and there were no other candidates. Party labels were listed on the ballot. After a recount, McDonnell won with 970,981 votes to 970,621 for Deeds, an astonishingly small difference of 360 votes--the closest statewide election in Virginia's history.

...

However, the McDonnell-Deeds contest was not highly publicized, certainly compared to the race for governor. Few would argue that a sizeable percentage of the voters on Election Day knew little about either candidate. Given our principles of first-listing bias, it is highly probable that first-listed candidate McDonnell gained considerably more than his 360-vote margin from the luck of the June drawing.

It's not clear that Creigh Deeds would have been elected governor had he won the attorney general's office in 2005. He would have benefited from the name recognition that comes with being a statewide officeholder and it seems likely he wouldn't have had to deal with a contested Democratic primary. Still, being attorney general wouldn't have changed his failings as a candidate or the national mood that led Republicans to be more motivated than Democrats.

What is clear, though, is that had Deeds won the 2005 race, Bob McDonnell would not have been elected governor last week. Rather, Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling would have been the almost-certain Republican nominee. While we don't know how he would have performed on the big stage of a governor's race, there's a good chance that, had that lottery gone the other way, we'd be talking today about Governor-elect Bolling's smashing victory.

None of that takes anything away from the disciplined, focused campaign that McDonnell ran this year. Rather, it's a reminder that while politics certainly is a game of skill, it's also a game of chance.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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