The state of the Virginia governor’s race: A running conversation between The Fix and GovBeat’s Reid Wilson

August 26, 2013

A few weeks back the Post launched a new blog called GovBeat, which focuses on politics and policy at the local level (good idea right?).  GovBeat is run by longtime Fix friend Reid Wilson, one of the smartest political minds out there. Reid and the Fix spend a fair amount of time talking politics so we figured why not do it in front our our readers? Below is the first of what we hope will be a series of running conversations on what's news in politics.  The idea is that we will start a conversation in this space and keep updating it as we respond to each other.

Today's topic: Where, exactly, does the Virginia governor's race stand?

I'll start this one off, Reid.

The comment I keep hearing from folks in the political world is that in spite of all the ads I have seen on my TV from Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe over the past few weeks, the race really hasn't started yet.

That is, regular people are paying zero attention at the moment and, to the extent they are aware of the race, their overriding feeling is a distaste with their two candidate choices. In the latest Quinnipiac University poll, Cuccinelli was under water (unfavorables higher than favorables) and McAuliffe was barely treading said water.

That same Q poll showed McAuliffe with a six point edge among likely voters. In talking to political sharps on both sides of the aisle, the general sense heading into Labor Day -- which incredibly is this weekend! -- is that McAuliffe is ahead but probably not by as much as the Q survey suggests.

I continue to believe that if the race is about the two candidates as opposed to some broader national dynamic, Cuccinelli has a real chance to wind up on top. My argument for why can be told in this nifty chart of the Q poll results built by poll wunderkind Scott Clement:

Cuccinelli is seen as the candidate with the right experience to be governor, the one better explaining what he would do as governor and slightly more honest and trustworthy. That's a pretty powerful trio of attributes to be ahead on, right?

Reid responds....

You're right, Chris, this race is more about the two candidates running than it is about the national atmosphere as a whole, and for one reason: Both Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe are subpar -- some would say lousy -- candidates.

Let's remind ourselves who we're dealing with here: In one corner, we have a carpet-bagger (strike one) who's spent a lifetime in politics (strike two), opened factories in China and Mississippi instead of Virginia (strike three) and inspires less trust in people than a used car salesman (I'm being hyperbolic here, but not by much).

In the other corner, we have an unabashed social conservative in a state where elections are won in centrist suburbs (strike one) who's taken gifts from a figure at the center of a scandal that could eventually bring down the governor (strike two), and by the way that scandal is getting more coverage in media that actual voters regularly consume -- local television being the most striking example -- than just about anything else impacting the race.

If you injected some truth serum into state party leaders on both sides, I think they'd tell you that neither McAuliffe nor Cuccinelli are ideal candidates.

The fundamental question here, Chris, is which candidate's negatives are bigger liabilities? And that's why the race has been so nasty, almost from the beginning.

It was nice to see both candidates pretend to run positive ads earlier this year. Neither McAuliffe nor Cuccinelli were particularly well-known, and they both ran small ad buys introducing themselves to the state. Then they got down to the real business of beating the living heck out of each other. There hasn't been a positive ad since, and I doubt there will be until we get to some kind of closing argument, where both candidates will make one final plea to voters -- the other guy is really terrible, and I'm not actually so bad, so vote for me.

The summer hasn't been good for either candidate. For all his protestations otherwise, Cuccinelli is wrapped up in the Star Scientific scandal that threatens Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration, and his efforts to enforce a state sodomy law -- even if under the guise of prosecuting child predators -- is tough to explain to suburban voters in Northern Virginia who vote against Republicans on culture war issues (Another rule of politics: If you're explaining, you're losing). Revelations that McAuliffe's old company is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission gave Cuccinelli an opportunity to get off the mat, and to turn a big McAuliffe asset (that he's a job creator) into a liability (that he's creating more visas for foreign workers than jobs).

The candidate who wins this race will be the one we're NOT talking about on Election Day. When voters walk into the voting booth, are they thinking about Star Scientific, or are they thinking about visas for GreenTech? Answer that question and you'll know who's going to win.

Chris responds....

Agree....and yet...this is Virginia, one of the biggest swing states of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and the state where Republicans insisted that they were on the comeback trail when Bob McDonnell won it in 2009. And, this is the same Virginia where the party winning the state at the presidential level has gone on to lose the governor's race the following year for the last decade.

Given that, I am still not entirely convinced that the race will be decided solely on who is the better pure candidate. Referring back (again) to Scott Clement's on-point analysis, he concluded that the only reason that explained why McAuliffe was ahead in the Q poll was because Democrats looked likely to replicate the turnout edge they enjoyed over Republicans in the 2012 presidential race.

That finding would suggest to me that Democrats are some combination of a) better organized and/or b) more enthusiastic about the race to come than are Republicans. I am not sure what explains that reality -- since as you point out neither candidate is terribly inspiring -- other than a bit of national breeze blowing for Democrats in the state.

Reid responds...

I would actually argue the opposite: The race will be decided by which candidate is the least bad, rather than the best. But let me get into a more fundamental question that you hinted at above: Who's going to show up at the polls?

I spent the weekend talking to the two campaigns and the party committees that are watching the race with interest. None of them expect turnout to be very high, and history bears them out. Since Virginia elected Doug Wilder in 1989, the number of voters who actually show up has been in free fall. About two-thirds of voters showed up in 1989; only 40.4 percent of eligible voters turned out to elect Bob McDonnell in 2009.

Most strategists think that number -- 40.4 percent of eligible voters -- is the bottom, and that somewhere between 41-43 percent will show up this time around. That's somewhere around 2.1 to 2.3 million total voters. And political technology has advanced to the point where both sides are aware of the names of most of their supporters, and of the persuadable voters who are on the fence at the moment but who will tip one way or the other by Election Day.

So both sides are engaged in a two-front war: First, they have to convince their base voters to show up to the polls. Second, they have to pull those fence-sitters their way.

The fact that Virginia is a swing state is a function of a two-tiered evolution. The growing Northern Virginia and Richmond suburbs are increasingly populated by highly educated, relatively wealthy voters. They like Barack Obama, or at least they liked him more than they liked Mitt Romney, but they're also apt to cast a ballot for a likable, broadly appealing Republican like Bob McDonnell (McDonnell and Obama both won Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William Counties, the core of the NoVA vote).

Prince William has proven to be the critical swing area in recent elections. Growing minority populations in Neabsco, Woodbridge and Dumphries have given Democrats a big population from which to draw. Western Prince William County remains pretty heavily Republican (It's also Cuccinelli's home base; he represented a state Senate district there before winning statewide office).

The second tier is in Southwest, where Yellow Dog Democrats have ruled Coal Country since the Civil War. In recent years, though, the perceived war on coal has cost Democrats votes -- and seats -- throughout Appalachia. (Consider this stunning statistic: In 1976, Jimmy Carter won a majority of the 421 counties that make up the Appalachian Regional Commission. In 2012, Obama won just 30 of those counties).

So, there's the balance: Can Republicans turn out their new base in Southwest? Can Democrats convince NoVA voters already leaning their way that Cuccinelli is too extreme for his old stomping grounds? That's why you're seeing the "war on coal" playing a big role in Southside, and the "war on women" showing up in Democratic ads in the Washington suburbs.

Chris responds...

Yup. That gets to the nub of it.  Let's end on this note: The only poll that matters is the one on election day. HA.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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