Tuesday's elections bring an early Christmas gift for election watchers: exit polling! The data gathered from people leaving the polls in the Commonwealth should answer a number of key questions at the end of a venomous campaign between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Here are five things to look for in tonight's exit polls. (The polls opened at 6 a.m. and will close at 7 p.m.) Be sure to follow the Post Politics live blog and @postpolls for exit poll analysis through the night. And for details on how the exit poll works, see this breakdown for 2012.
1. How, and whether, Republicans vote
Polls show Cuccinelli winning slightly less support among Republicans than McAuliffe is among Democrats, by nine percentage points in a Washington Post-Abt SRBI poll released early last week. The poll also found nearly one in five Republicans said Cuccinelli is "too conservative" on the issues, whereas just 5 percent of Democrats saw McAuliffe as too liberal.
Cuccinelli's strident conservatism helped him win the Republican nomination but has spawned insurrection among fellow partisans. In September, Republican Mayor Will Sessoms of Virginia Beach endorsed McAuliffe, and the reliably Republican Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board issued a non-endorsement.
Pre-election surveys have shown wide discrepancies in the partisan makeup of the likely electorate, which tilted toward Republicans by four points in 2009 and by six and seven points toward Democrats in 2008 and 2012. Cuccinelli will need Republicans to come home Tuesday and turn out at significantly higher rates than Democrats to close the gap with McAuliffe.
2. How big is McAuliffe's winning margin among women?
Surveys show Cuccinelli is performing even or slightly ahead of McAuliffe among men but losing women to the Democrat by double digits. After McAuliffe blanketed the state with ads hitting Cuccinelli on abortion and contraception, an October Post-SRBI poll found likely voters trusting him by 57 percent to 30 percent over Cuccinelli to handle "issues of special concern to women."
In 2009, Republican candidate Bob McDonnell was more trusted by women on such issues. Cuccinelli is unlikely to beat McAuliffe among women voters, but a losing margin larger than Mitt Romney's nine-point deficit to President Obama in 2012 could prove insurmountable.
3. Is Robert Sarvis a spoiler?
Libertarian Party nominee Robert Sarvis is winning between eight and 13 percent in independent pre-election polls. Cuccinelli's campaign has warned that "casting a ballot for Robert Sarvis is casting a ballot for Terry McAuliffe." Pre-election polls are less clear on this idea; McAuliffe's lead slimmed from only 12 to 11 percentage points when Sarvis's supporters in the Post-SRBI poll were asked who their second choice is and redistributed among all likely voters. A Quinnipiac poll released Monday found McAuliffe's edge actually increasing by a point with Sarvis out of the picture.
4. Will Southwestern Virginia stay scarlet?
Republicans have banked on winning big in Virginia's rural southwestern region to overcome a strong Democratic bent in the D.C. suburbs, but Cuccinelli has faced skepticism among these voters after allegations that his Attorney General's Office unfairly helped big coal companies in legal disputes with residents. (Read Post reporter Ben Pershing's excellent story on the alienation of southwestern voters from both candidates).
The Post-SRBI poll released last week found Cuccinelli leading McAuliffe by 20 points in the region, 53 to 33 percent, with Sarvis garnering 13 percent. McDonnell won the region by 34 percentage points in 2009, and it went for Romney by 24 points in 2012. Tuesday's vote results will indicate whether the region sticks with its Republican bent after the controversial coal company dispute.
5. Are there lots of ticket-splitting McAuliffe-Obenshain voters?
Republican Mark Obenshain is faring far better in his bid for attorney general then Cuccinelli or lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson (R). GOP donors have rallied around Obenshain as their best hope of avoiding a Democratic sweep in the state, which would be the first for the party since 1989. The race appears to be very close, with each candidate claiming leads in recent polls.
The surveys hint that voters may well ticket split, voting for Democrat McAuliffe for governor and backing Sen. Obenshain further down the ballot. The exit poll will reveal the extent to which Virginians jump from one party to another on this ballot.
A voter's guide to Election Day in Virginia.
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Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.