Just twice in 50 years has Va. seen dip in turnout for governor's race. Why it could happen again

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By Domenico Montanaro

There’s a reason Virginians are seeing the likes of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R), a Tea Party darling, and former Democratic President Bill Clinton in their state in the past few days. President Barack Obama and Vice Joe President Biden will also hit the trail, starting this weekend.

The Ken Cuccinelli (R) and Terry McAuliffe (D) campaigns for governor have brought in the big-name, out-of-staters in an attempt to rev up the base, because they fear low turnout.

"Political extremism does have one political virtue," Clinton said over the weekend. "Once you get people all torn up and upset, steam coming out of their ears, people will show up and vote."

In fact, just twice in the last 50 years has turnout in Virginia gone down from one governor’s race to the next four years later – 1985 and 1997.

And those elections have a couple of things in common that also resemble this year: Both were following the reelection of a president and involved candidates who, some would argue, didn’t start out or go on to be household names in Virginia politics.

The book “Virginia in the Vanguard,” for example, described Gerald Baliles’ (who is now head of the venerable Miller Center at the University of Virginia) tenure as “sandwiched between two celebrity governorships.”

Baliles, elected in 1985, was preceded by Chuck Robb and succeeded by Doug Wilder. Jim Gilmore, elected in 1997, was preceded by George Allen and followed by Mark Warner.

The one reason, though, that turnout could increase is a big one: money, as turnout guru Michael McDonald noted on Twitter.

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"Factors in favor of higher turnout: more $ being spent on mobilization and (potentially) closer race than '09," he wrote.

So far, $22 million has been spent on advertising alone.

Here's a look at the raw turnout data:

2009: 1,985,103 (McDonnell 1,163,651 to 818,950) (40% turnout)

2005: 1,983,778 (Kaine 1,025,942 to 912,327) (45% turnout)

2001: 1,886,721 (Warner 984,177 to 887,234)

1997: 1,736,314 (Gilmore 969,062 to 738,971)

1993: 1,793,916 (Allen 1,045,319 to 733,527)

1989: 1,789,078 (Wilder 896,936 to 890,195)

1985: 1,343,243 (Baliles 741,438 to 601,652)

1981: 1,420,611 (Robb 760,357 to 659,398)

1977 - 1,250,940 (Dalton 699,302 to 541,319)

1973 - 1,035,495 (Godwin 525,075 to 510,103)              

1969 - 915,764 (Holton 480,869 to 415,695)

1965 - 562,789 (Godwin 269,526 to 212,207)