The three strikes against Ken Cuccinelli

October 29, 2013

A few weeks ago, a volunteer for former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, canvassing a Virginia suburb just outside Washington, knocked on the door of a prominent Democratic strategist.

“Are you going to be voting for Terry McAuliffe?” the volunteer asked.

“No,” said the strategist. “I’m voting against Ken Cuccinelli.”

The volunteer smiled. “So am I.”

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the race to become the 72nd governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The race has been more about Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), whose conservative positions on social issues put him at odds with swing voters, than about McAuliffe, who had his own challenges to overcome.

A new Washington Post/Abt SRBI poll shows just how much the race has been about Cuccinelli.

The poll, conducted Oct. 24-27 among 762 likely voters, shows McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli by a 51 percent to 39 percent margin. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis gets 8 percent of the vote. McAuliffe has expanded his lead since the last Washington Post survey, which showed McAuliffe winning by a 47 percent to 39 percent margin.


Just like the Democratic strategist who said he would vote against Cuccinelli, almost two-thirds of McAuliffe supporters say theirs will be a vote against Cuccinelli, rather than for McAuliffe.

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By almost two-to-one margins, voters think both candidates have run mostly negative campaigns. But McAuliffe’s attacks on Cuccinelli have worked better. Here’s Cuccinelli’s abysmally low fav/unfav rating:


And here’s McAuliffe’s rating, which is actually stronger than some of us — this author included — would have guessed:


The poll shows the race is completely different from 2009, in two important ways. That year, Republican Bob McDonnell won election by a wide margin by focusing on jobs and transportation, and by riding a wave of voter discontent with Democrats.

This year, if the election were fought on the same terrain, we’d be looking at a much closer race. Voters say they trust Cuccinelli as much as McAuliffe to handle transportation issues, and voters only trust McAuliffe by a narrow four-point margin on taxes (He’s got a more significant nine-point edge on the economy and jobs). But where voters trust McAuliffe much more is on social issues such as abortion, health care and issues of special concern to women. McAuliffe holds significant double-digit advantages on each question.

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That’s where McAuliffe’s advantage among women translates into a huge gender gap. The 27-point edge he has on issues of special concern to women jumps to 38 points among female voters.


It’s little wonder that McAuliffe leads by 24 points among women.


The other reason this year is different from 2009 is that voters are as frustrated with Republicans as they were with Democrats four years ago. McDonnell won election at the height of the conservative fury over health care, just a few months after tea party activists made their stands at August town hall meetings across the country. Cuccinelli is running as a Republican just weeks after a government shutdown — a shutdown most Virginia voters blame on his party.

Here’s who Virginia voters blame for the shutdown:


And the Republican Party’s brand has taken a real beating. Just 32 percent of voters say they view the national GOP favorably, while 65 percent say they view the party unfavorably. The state Republican Party gets a better 41 percent favorable rating, but that’s still 12 points below the state Democratic Party and nine points under national Democrats.

Voter impressions of both parties have declined over time — national Democrats are down six points since 2007, when The Post first asked Virginia voters about the parties, and state Democrats are down 11 points. But when just 32 percent of voters see your party in a favorable light, that’s a real drag on any candidate.

It doesn’t help, either, that a large number of voters say the ethics scandal plaguing McDonnell’s final months in office is important to their votes. Among moderate voters, a whopping 58 percent say the scandal matters to them:


We’ve long said this race between two less-than-stellar candidates will come down to voter rejection: The candidate we’re talking about on Election Day is the candidate who’s going to lose. The Post’s latest poll shows Cuccinelli has three strikes against him: Voters in purple Virginia don’t like his conservative stands on social issues; voters hate his party; and McDonnell has become a drag on Cuccinelli’s candidacy.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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