Could the next 30 days decide the 2013 Virginia governor's race? What follows is hard whiskey, with everyone at the bar having a carry permit. So drink up. Bill Bolling says he will decide whether to run by March 1. Is there a 200-proof political play to maximize his chances of running? There could be. But it would take one of the biggest, multi-million-dollar bets in Virginia political history.
The Conventional Wisdom (CW) says the McAuliffe campaign or the DNC should wait until the spring before making a significant investment in expensive, positive TV advertising. The operative word: positive. But what about negative? The CW stays that would be a huge mistake to start with negative ads before anything else, especially in February. The historical data is clear: with Terry being relatively unknown, such a move will damage not only Cuccinelli but also Terry. That's clear. But that might actually be the best 200-proof play in recent VA political history.
Here's why the CW is right about going positive too early: but maybe not on the negative side. The problem with McAuliffe going too early with his positive TV: the result is likely to not only raise Terry's positive ratings, but also pull independent, or Democratic leaning, anti-Cuccinelli voters from the Bolling column to the McAuliffe column. T-Man doesn't want to do this, because it will reveal Bolling as mostly just a "spoiler" with no chance to win, only a chance to make it harder for Republicans to win the governor's race. Bolling can not run if this is the story line for his candidacy in the media.
In other words: If Terry starts his positive advertising right now, it could have the perverse effect of both helping him (image improvement), but also pushing Bolling so low in the early polls as to force him not to run. This, then, is the quandary for T-Man, who wants Bolling to run, yet likewise wants to improve his own standing relative to Cuccinelli.
It is fascinating that Cuccinelli doesn't have a flip-side worry. If early positive advertising helps Cuccinelli, then he too will take hypothetical votes currently going to Bolling. This in turn would tend to make Bolling not want to run, which is what Cuccinelli wants. It would also, if successful, make Cuccinelli more formidable against McAuliffe, again what the Republican wants.
Bottom line: Early advertising is all upside for Cuccinelli. But he can't afford it. What about negative advertising at this early stage? If Democrats hit Cuccinelli hard enough to have the public backlash against both major party candidates, this would presumably drive votes to Bolling. This result is precisely what McAuliffe would want, as it would help pull Bolling into the race -- quite a bank shot in the side pocket!
If Cuccinelli goes negative early, it would drive people from McAuliffe and undecideds to Bolling in some numbers, precisely what the Republican doesn't want. So the K-Man ain't going negative, no way no how.
Thus the bottom line: Bolling says he will decide to run by March 1. A February attack on Cuccinelli might hurt McAuliffe temporarily. But it will make Bolling more likely to run. That means a sure McAuliffe win if the CW is right about Bolling getting mostly anti-Cuccinelli GOP votes in the end.
Crazy? Or crazy like a fox? President Obama gambled on an early negative attack on Mitt Romney. It worked brilliantly. Would a replay against Cuccinelli also work? There is some considerable statistical logic to suggest it would. But it would be the most expensive political bank-shot gamble in VA history.
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