Deeds Beats McAuliffe And Moran – Another Classic Example Of How An Underfunded Underdog Can Win A Three-way Primary

Yesterday, Creigh Deeds (R) beat two well-known and better-funded candidates – Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran – to win the Democratic Nomination for Governor in Virginia. For a candidate who started in the early campaign polls in third place with just 11% five months ago, it seems like a stunning turnaround. In the end the vote wasn’t even close – Deeds ended up just shy of 50% with McAuliffe at 26% and Moran at 24%. Deeds won 10 of Virginia’s 11 Congressional Districts and 125 out of Virginia’s 134 counties and cities.
Pundits have been telling us for years that money and name recognition are vital for winning elections. So does the Deeds victory shatter those rules? Not really. There is one election situation that is the exception to the rules – three-way elections where the top two candidates go negative against each other.
We are familiar with two-way races where candidates pummel each other with negative ads with virtual impunity. Voters are often given the choice of the lesser of two evils and that is all. In a three-way primary, however, there is a third non-negative option and that candidate often charges from the back of the pack to win on election day going away.
The Deeds candidacy followed this pattern – McAuliffe and Moran battered each other for months and then in late May the Washington Post endorsed Deeds. From that point on undecided voters felt they had a legitimate third choice and moved to Deeds. The Pollster.com summary of the polls shows the rise in Deeds corresponding to the drop in undecideds in the last three weeks of the campaign.
I’ve stored numerous examples of this dynamic in my mental archives, and it’s refreshingly more common than you might think. In the 1987 Louisiana Governor’s race, Buddy Roemer parlayed a late endorsement from the New Orleans Times Picayune to beat better-known candidates Edwin Edwards and Bob Livingston in a come-from-behind victory. In 1992, little-known state senator Russ Feingold won 70% of the vote in a three-way Democratic Senate primary against two well-funded opponents (Joseph Checota and Jim Moody) who destroyed their candidacies with negative advertising. In 1998, Jesse Ventura became the choice of Minnesota voters for Governor after Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Hubert Humphrey III battered each other with negative ads. In 2002, a little-known state senator named Mike Rounds won the South Dakota Republican Primary for Governor after his two better known and better financed opponents – the incumbent Lieutenant Governor and incumbent Attorney General – damaged each other with negative campaigns. And in 2007, city councilman Michael Nutter started at 8% in the polls to win a convincing victory over two incumbent congressmen, Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady, and businessman Tom Knox, who had spent millions of his own money on negative campaign ads.
So keep an eye out for this election pattern. It only occurs once every election year or so but it is satisfying to see voters actually choose the little guy when the two big guys go negative against each other.

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