WASHINGTON (CNN) - In the battle for Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination, a race with many uncertainties, a major question has bubbled to the surface in the closing days of the campaign: How many African-American voters will actually show up?
If they do come to the polls in large numbers during next Tuesday's primary, former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe could very well be the beneficiary and move on to face Republican Bob McDonnell in the general election, a race that will be fraught with national implications. But if many of those voters stay home, McAuliffe’s lively and unconventional bid for the governorship might come to an end.
“At the end of the day, the African-American vote will be the decisive factor in this race,” said Bob Holsworth, the Richmond-based political analyst.
Although Virginia’s Democratic drift in recent years has arisen in large part from the population growth in left-leaning northern Virginia, next week’s three-way primary race may ultimately hinge on a very different part of the state - the stretch from Richmond to Hampton Roads along the southeast coast.
If the three candidates manage to divvy up the votes in northern Virginia - a growing possibility now that Creigh Deeds, a state senator from a rural district, is riding a burst of momentum following a key endorsement form the Washington Post - then the candidate who can best marshal voters downstate may have an edge.
It’s there where McAuliffe has been aggressively organizing in predominantly black neighborhoods, flooding urban radio stations with ads, and even campaigning alongside hip-hop performers like will.i.am and Biz Markie. As of Tuesday, McAuliffe had spent about $1 million on television advertising, with most of his ads purchased in downstate media markets.
“McAuliffe has a much better ground organization and get-out-the-vote effort,” said Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the state’s highest-ranking African-American elected official, whose district encompasses the east side of Richmond and a chunk of the Tidewater region. “My sense is that Terry McAuliffe will do very well," said Scott, who has not endorsed a candidate.
McAuliffe’s two rivals - Deeds and former House Democratic caucus chairman Brian Moran - are longtime legislators who have nurtured political relationships in all corners of the commonwealth. Political observers and strategists for all three campaigns believe that both men could benefit if statewide turnout on Tuesday is low, as it was during the 2006 Democratic Senate primary between Jim Webb and Harris Miller that witnessed just 155,00 voters.
If turnout remains under 200,000 voters, the contest will in all likelihood be decided by what Joe Abbey, Deeds’ campaign manager, called “the super voter” - the kind of Democratic activists who never miss an election. If the vote-count balloons beyond 200,000, the race becomes, in the words of one top Moran official, “a jump ball.”
McAuliffe, a newcomer to Virginia politics and a resident of populous Fairfax County, is gambling on a different strategy – “expanding the electorate,” particularly among the African-American voters who rallied to Barack Obama’s campaign last year. In last February’s Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton, 30 percent of the nearly one million voters were African-American.
“Our goal all along has been to capture some of the energy and excitement that all those new voters felt in the 2008 presidential race, to keep those people in the process,” said Mo Elleithee, a senior strategist for McAuliffe.
Aides to McAuliffe’s two opponents acknowledge that McAuliffe has built a muscular get-out-the-vote operation in black precincts in Richmond and Hampton Roads, but contend that his support is soft and waning down the stretch. They attribute McAuliffe’s operational strength to his deep pockets: the master fundraiser has raked in nearly $7 million since jumping into the race late last year. By contrast, Moran has raised $4.8 million, while Deeds has soaked up $3.8 million.
Moran - an Alexandria native who is depending on a large turnout from his northern Virginia base that would swamp his rivals no matter how well they perform elsewhere - has the backing of a number of local African-American officials throughout the commonwealth, including the Richmond’s mayor Dwight Jones. His campaign argues that kind of institutional support will help them win over black voters on Tuesday.
“The nice thing for our get-out-the-vote organization is that in a lot of places, our organization is the local mayor’s organization,” said Moran communication director Jesse Ferguson. “That’s a big part of how we make a GOTV program work, when we will be outspent.”
The Deeds campaign also believes they can perform well in Richmond and Hampton Roads, and that the race will be decided downstate. Deeds' path to victory relies on a broad coalition of supporters not just from northern Virginia, Richmond and in the urban areas along the coast, but also from Deeds’ base of support in rural and small-town Virginia.
“We definitely do well among those white rural voters, and those are places where we’re trying to turn out,” Abbey said, adding that his cash-strapped candidate will finish out the week by with a series of campaign stops in small towns “where we can boost turnout for free.” Hoping to finish strong in and around the Beltway, Deeds is also scheduled to appear later this week on two Washington area radio shows with broad reach.
Quentin Kidd, a political scientist a Christopher Newport University in Newport News, said there are too many variables in the race to make a definitive forecast. If turnout in northern Virginia is extraordinarily high, he predicted a Moran win. If turnout is mediocre across the board, he said, Deeds may escape with a come-from-behind win with support from undecided voters.
But he said McAuliffe alone has the kind of resources to actually get the bulk of his supporters to the polls on Tuesday, particularly in the African-American communities along the I-64 corridor where his organizers have targeted potential voters.
“I think McAuliffe has put together such a turnout machine that I think it’s going to be hard to overcome him,” Kidd said.