Sunday, June 07, 2009

Interview with Dr. Bob Holsworth

Shortly after I interviewed Corey Stewart last weekend at the Republican Party of Virginia's state convention, I encountered former VCU political scientist Bob Holsworth, now president of Virginia Tomorrow. I interviewed him for The Metro Herald about the 2009 Virginia elections, with an emphasis on the gubernatorial race.

With the Democratic primary just two days away, I thought it would be timely to post the text of the interview here, even though it has not yet appeared in print in the newspaper.

The Metro Herald Interviews Bob Holsworth
Rick Sincere
Special to The Metro Herald

Dr. Bob Holsworth is one of the most quoted political pundits in Virginia. Until recently, he was a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is founder and president of Virginia Tomorrow ( , a company that examines emerging trends in politics, society and business. Holsworth was at the Republican Party of Virginia’s state convention on the weekend of May 29-30, observing the proceedings and doing his own reconnaissance, when The Metro Herald’s Rick Sincere cornered him for an interview.

Metro Herald: What do the Republicans have to accomplish this weekend?

Bob Holsworth: I think what the Republicans, more than anything else, want to show is that they are a unified party behind this ticket, in particular, Bob McDonnell, who will be at the top of the ticket.

Secondly, I think what the Republicans want to show each other, in some ways, is that they are hungry for this win. There is a general feeling out there among some observers that the Republicans might be a little hungrier than the Democrats this year, that they really want to win, and I think the Republicans can demonstrate that over this weekend.

Metro Herald: Who do you think Bob McDonnell will prefer to be running against in November?

Bob Holsworth: Oh, I’m not so sure I have a clear answer to that.

My sense is that McDonnell probably believes that Brian Moran had to shift quite to the left in order to try to obtain this nomination and that on the issue landscape, it probably gives him some openings.

Secondly, I think, there’s also a sense that Terry McAuliffe (a lot of Republicans believe) carries some baggage in this race, and if he’s the nominee, they’ll be able to exploit that successfully in the campaign.

I think there’s some sense that maybe Creigh Deeds is a tougher candidate because of the fact he can go to rural Virginia and do pretty well. At the same time, Bob McDonnell beat Creigh Deeds once, and while it was only by a few hundred votes, he ran six points above the top of the Republican ticket at that time. So I think he has to feel pretty good about that, as well.

My sense is, what Bob McDonnell really wants is a very tight, three-way race on the Democratic side. He wants whoever wins, to actually come in with less than 40 percent of the Democratic vote. I think what he’d really prefer is to have the Democratic candidate not receive the vote of some 60-odd percent of the Democrats who participate in the primary. That’s what Bob McDonnell wants.

Metro Herald: Now the Democratic primary is only 10 days away. Do you think that’s a possible outcome?

Bob Holsworth: I think it’s very possible. I’m not sure at that level. But I think most people who are watching the Democratic race would be surprised if any candidate actually got a total majority of the vote here.

A lot of people think right now that Terry McAuliffe is the front runner but there are a lot of negative ads being run against him, against his character, against his personality, against his business dealings. You don’t know how that’s going to play out in the campaign. My sense is that the Democratic primary is getting very personal and very bitter, and that is something the Republicans probably don’t mind watching.

Metro Herald: Do you think the fact that Bob McDonnell is running TV ads already, in advance of the Democratic primary, is going to have any effect on that race?

Bob Holsworth: Well, I think one thing the Democrats have done that is relatively skillful is that they’ve had this division of labor, you might say, during the last month, so while the Democratic candidates are tearing each other apart, Tim Kaine and the national governors’ association are trying to tear Bob McDonnell down.

I think that McDonnell has been compelled in some ways to run these television ads in order to respond to the two million dollars that the Democratic Governors Association has already put in the race against him, which I think also presages what’s going to happen come November. There’s going to be an awful lot of national attention to this race, and national money put in on both sides. My sense is that McDonnell made a smart move in going up on television, largely because it was right to respond to what the other side is saying about him, even if it wasn’t the candidates, but the national Democratic Party funneled through an interest group.

Metro Herald: Four years ago, Jerry Kilgore had a lot of Monday-morning-quarterbacking criticism for not running the kind of biographical ads that Bob McDonnell is running now. Do you think the McDonnell campaign learned from that mistake?

Bob Holsworth: I think so. I think that the public wants to know your issue positions, but I also, at the end of the day, believe they want to know who you are. I think the public wants to be able to have a story about you that they can feel comfortable with: who you are, what your values are, what you’re going to do when you get in there.

Very often, one way of doing that is sort of the wonkish issue positions, but the other way is by telling people who you are and what you care about. I think if they know that, and if they feel they know you, they are likely, in some instances, also to forgive the fact that you may not be absolutely with them on every issue position.

My sense is that it’s incredibly important in the modern world for candidates to have a compelling story that expresses who they are, what their values are, and what they want to do in a way that people feel that they have some insight into what your character really is.

Metro Herald: Taking a cue from Chris Matthews: Tell me something I don’t know. What prediction or insight might you have that no one else is talking about right now?

Bob Holsworth: I don’t think I have too many insights that no one else is talking about right now.

My sense is that the real question, I think, for Bob McDonnell that no one has spoken too much about – but Norm Leahy actually has, as well, so I’ll give him credit also – is, what kind of campaign is he going to run?

Is he going to run a fairly cautious campaign, based on the fact that he looks like he’s ahead in the polls and has high favorable ratings? Or, is he going to try to come out with a big idea that ultimately defines this race? Is it going to be an idea about taxes, or an idea about cutting spending, that the public can really grab hold of and say, “this is what this race is about”?

My sense is that the one potential problem for the McDonnell campaign is that, if all of his advisors and everybody believes these early polls, and thinks that he can somehow coast in – which I don’t think he can against the Democratic machine in Virginia today – I think, from my own perspective, that he might be well-off thinking about some big idea that can help shape the public understanding of this race.

Metro Herald: Thank you for your time.

(The photograph above shows Delegate Rob Bell on the left with Dr. Bob Holsworth on the right.)

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