Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and Republican… (Elise Amendola/AP and Mark…)
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II has an early lead over businessman Terry McAuliffe in their race for governor, a new Washington Post poll shows, even as most voters in the commonwealth have yet to engage in the nationally watched contest.
Six months before Election Day, Cuccinelli (R) has a slender 46 to 41 percent edge over McAuliffe (D) among all Virginia voters and a significant 51 to 41 percent lead among those who say they’re certain to cast ballots in November. But those numbers may change before then: The poll found that barely 10 percent say they are following the campaign “very closely” and that nearly half of the electorate says they’re either undecided or could change their minds.
With Virginia’s evolution into a swing state, the race is drawing intense scrutiny as the nation’s lone competitive November matchup so far. McAuliffe has not been able to assemble the coalition that has led Democrats to statewide victories. President Obama prevailed in 2008 and 2012, and Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Timothy M. Kaine won in recent years after running as consensus-building moderates and driving the base turnout.
Having never held office, McAuliffe is the lesser-known quantity in this year’s contest, giving both sides the opportunity to try to define him in coming months. Fully 70 percent of Virginia voters say they know “just a little” or “nothing at all” about him or his qualifications to be governor. Even 65 percent of Democrats know little about the party’s nominee.
There is also broad uncertainty about Cuccinelli — 52 percent of voters say they know little about his qualifications — but the public continues to give a more positive than negative assessment of his work as attorney general. About 54 percent of voters say that he has “high personal moral and ethical standards,” about triple the number saying that he does not.
Cuccinelli is up in the race because he has overwhelming support from the GOP base. Among all registered voters, he’s backed by 95 percent of Republicans, 73 percent of conservatives and 62 percent among white men.
By contrast, compared with Obama’s win seven months ago, McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, is badly underperforming among key Democratic constituencies he would need to prevail — young voters, women, African Americans and those in the vote-rich areas of Northern Virginia.
Among nonwhites, women
McAuliffe beats Cuccinelli by a big margin among nonwhite voters, 57 to 21 percent, but that is far from Obama’s tally of 83 to 16 percent in the state’s exit poll. Even state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) scored 76 percent among nonwhite voters in his unsuccessful 2009 gubernatorial bid.
McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are about evenly matched among female voters (Obama won women’s votes by nine percentage points), and the Democrat is lagging among younger voters, too. Obama crushed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) by 19 points among voters under 40, but these voters divide 48 percent for Cuccinelli to 39 percent for McAuliffe.
Regionally, the governor’s contest is basically knotted up in Tidewater, an area Obama won handily last year. In the close-in District suburbs, the home turf of both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, McAuliffe has the edge 52 to 34 percent. In the Northern Virginia exurbs, where Obama fought to a draw in November, it’s 48 percent for Cuccinelli and 38 percent for McAuliffe.
There also may be a smaller opportunity for a Democrat this year than in the presidential election. Throughout 2012 — and on Election Day — polls consistently showed more self-described Democrats than Republicans in the state; in the new poll, there is far greater parity in partisan self-identification.
Hope for McAuliffe
One potential positive for McAuliffe is that 45 percent of voters aren’t yet following the race closely. And McAuliffe does far better among those very closely tuned in than he does among those yet to pay much attention.
For some, it’s simply a matter of ideology. In a follow-up interview, Frederick Govoni, 60, a lawn-and-garden-supply salesman from Harrisonburg, said he would back Cuccinelli because he was more in sync with the Republican.
“He’s more conservative than McAuliffe, and when McAuliffe was head of the Democratic Party, I didn’t like some of his stances,” Govoni said.
Overall, 47 percent of registered voters approve of the job Cuccinelli has done as attorney general, while 34 percent disapprove. The numbers are close to those from a May 2011 Washington Post poll.
“He’s done a good job as attorney general,” said Darcy Knox, 51, the owner of a mobile-home park in Staunton. “I think he’s tried to crack down on the abortion clinics, tried to get them up to speed with the hospitals.”