Annotating the overly optimistic Ken Cuccinelli polling memo

September 24, 2013

In the wake of two new polls -- one by the Washington Post, the other by NBC/Marist -- that show former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe leading state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in this fall's Virginia governor's race, the Republican's chief campaign strategist Chris LaCivita released a memo to supporters (and reporters) explaining why things aren't so bad.


RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 05: Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor, visits former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder's Public Policy class at Virginia Commonwealth September 5, 2013 in Richmond, Virginia. Cuccinelli delivered remarks during the beginning of the class and then took questions from students and members of the press. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Below is the full memo sent out by LaCivita. His original text is in italics. Our annotations are in regular font.

TO: INTERESTED PARTIES

FROM: CHRIS LaCIVITA, CONSULTANT

RE: RECENT PUBLIC POLLING AND WHERE WE STAND

DATE: SEPTEMBER 24, 2013

Key Findings

1. Averaging the last six public polls, this remains a margin race with a significant percentage of undecided voters.

If you take the average of the last six public opinion polls, McAuliffe holds a slim 3.83 percent lead. 

We looked at the Real Clear Politics poll of polls -- the best compilation of polling data -- to see what the margin looks like.


Image courtesy of Real Clear Politics.

While McAuliffe is ahead in each of the six, his average edge over Cuccinelli is 4 points, roughly equivalent to the number LaCivita cites. (LaCivita is not working off of the same six polls, however, as RCP is. Instead he cited several polls conducted by Republican groups for Republicans groups to arrive at his average.) Worth noting: One of the six polls in the RCP average is a survey done by Roanoke College that shows McAuliffe at 37 percent to Cuccinelli's 36 percent. Roanoke's recent track record polling Virginia isn't great. The final poll the college conducted in the 2012 Senate race in the Commonwealth showed George Allen leading Tim Kaine by 5 points, a major outlier from other data in the race and from the final result.

Image courtesy of Real Clear Politics.
Image courtesy of Real Clear Politics.

2. The partisan breakdown of the two most recent polls—conducted by The Washington Post and NBC/Marist—skew much closer to the 2012 electoral model.  In 2009, the partisan breakdown was R+4.

The partisan breakdown of The Washington Post Poll was 33 percent Democrat, 26 percent Republican and 34 percent Independent.  In the NBC poll, it was 33 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican and 36 percent independent. 

In 2012, exit polling showed that 39 percent of Virginia voters identified as Democrats, 32 percent called themselves Republicans and 29 percent refused to identify with either party.

But, citing the party ID numbers in the Post and NBC/Marist surveys may be slightly misleading by LaCivita. Neither poll weights or models polls to match the partisan makeup of past exit polls from 2012 or other elections, or what they believe it will be on Election Day. Instead, in both the Post-SRBI and NBC/Marist polls, the party ID of the sample was determined by how respondents identified themselves in each firm’s surveys. As for the likely voter filter, that was determined by a series of other questions in the survey designed to predict likelihood to vote.

3. Ken Cuccinelli continues to enjoy a significant advantage when it comes to the enthusiasm of those who are likely to vote for him. This data point is particularly significant in an off-year election when turnout is traditionally lower.  

According to the Post poll, voters are more enthused about voting for Ken Cuccinelli (net 76 percent enthusiastic versus net 22 percent not enthusiastic) than Terry McAuliffe (net 68 percent enthusiastic versus net 31 percent net enthusiastic.)  Similarly, Ken Cuccinelli enjoyed a plus three enthusiasm gap advantage in last week’s Quinnipiac poll.

True enough.  Cuccinnelli supporters are slightly more enthusiastic about him than McAuliffe supporters are about their guy. But, the difference is far from massive and the final six weeks (or so) of the race will focus on making sure partisans understand the stakes of winning -- and losing. That process should keep the so-called "enthusiasm gap" relatively slim going forward.

4. During the 2009 Democratic Gubernatorial Primary, just one month before the primary, Terry McAuliffe averaged a double-digit lead over his rivals. When the primary was actually held, McAuliffe lost by more than 23 points. As voters start to pay more attention and learn about McAuliffe’s lack or seriousness and dismal record, his support deteriorates rapidly. 

It is true that McAuliffe went from frontrunner to also-ran in 2009. (The Post's endorsement of state Sen. Creigh Deeds played a major part in McAuliffe's demise.) It is also true that more than half of all voters in the Post poll say that they know either little or nothing about McAuliffe's qualifications to be governor. But, to assume that that number predicts a McAuliffe collapse presupposes that the election will be a close-to-pure referendum on the Democrat. And, to date, that's not how the race has played out.  Instead it's been defined by the two campaigns exchanging a series of character body blows.  Since May, the number of voters saying McAuliffe does not have high moral and ethical standards has doubled from 14 to 30 percent, but the numbers for Cuccinelli on that same question have gone up by a similar margin (19 to 35 percent). And,  over that same period, Cuccinelli has lost a 10-point edge among likely voters; he now trails McAuliffe by five-points in a two-way contest.

The Bottom Line

In the past ten days, we have seen six different polls, all showing different results.  These varying results can be attributed to everything from when the poll was conducted to what the partisan breakdown was and model used.  That being said, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  While all the surveys show Ken Cuccinelli trailing Terry McAuliffe, the margin matters. 

LaCivita is right -- and Democrats would privately acknowledge it. The idea that McAuliffe has locked the race up is wrong. But, so too is the idea that six different polls have shown six different results. They have all shown McAullife ahead -- although the margin has varied.

Despite being outspent significantly all summer and into September, the fact that Ken is still hanging around within striking distance speaks to the weakness of Terry McAuliffe as a serious and capable candidate, and the more people hear Ken’s message and plan to create 58,000 more jobs, the more receptive and inclined they are in voting for him.

Tomorrow night, when voters see both men on the stage without their handlers, they are going to see that there’s only one candidate who is prepared and ready to lead them for the next four years: Ken Cuccinelli.

Our bottom line: Cuccinelli has more riding on tomorrow's debate --  sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce and NBC 4 -- than does McAuliffe. If the race continues on its current arc, McAuliffe will win.  But, that's why they run the campaigns.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Sean Sullivan · September 24, 2013