The shift in the race has come almost exclusively from female voters, who prefer McAuliffe by a 24-point margin over Cuccinelli. The candidates were effectively tied among women in a Washington Post poll in May.
McAuliffe’s strength among women is probably due in part to an intense campaign to portray Cuccinelli as a threat to women and the issues they care about most deeply. A new McAuliffe ad, for instance, features a Norfolk OB-GYN speaking directly to the camera about how she is “offended” by Cuccinelli’s position on abortion.
The challenge for Cuccinelli is stark: Nearly half of all voters view him unfavorably, and they trust his opponent as much as or more than the Republican on every major issue in the race, according to the poll. On trust to handle issues of special concern to women, McAuliffe leads Cuccinelli by 23 points.
“I really disagree with Cuccinelli’s politics, especially his antiabortion stance,” said Gina Gabelia, 32, who lives in Ashburn and works at a nonprofit group.
As for McAuliffe, Gabelia said: “His advertisements make him sound like a stand-up guy, but who knows? . . . He has a good campaign manager.”
Cuccinelli has accused McAuliffe and other Democrats of waging a war on coal and working-class Virginians, but he trails by nine points among voters who were asked whom they trust more on energy and the environment. He has burnished his reputation among conservatives by opposing President Obama’s health-care law, but voters favor McAuliffe by eight points when it comes to health care. Cuccinelli does best when it comes to transportation and the economy and jobs; he is tied with McAuliffe on those issues.
The poll also found voters effectively split between candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general, meaning that Democrats have a chance to sweep all three statewide offices this year for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. A McAuliffe victory would also buck a four-
decade Virginia tradition of electing a governor from the party that doesn’t occupy the White House.
Republicans, however, have an immediate opportunity to reverse the momentum on Wednesday, when Cuccinelli and McAuliffe will appear in a televised debate hosted by the influential Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. The debate will be important for McAuliffe, too, who lost a high-profile endorsement to another Northern Virginia business group earlier this month amid perceptions that he was not sufficiently serious or detail-oriented.
McAuliffe faces his own challenges, according to the poll, which shows that both candidates have been marred by scandal. Roughly one-third of voters say they are less likely to vote for Cuccinelli as a result of his connection to the gifts scandal that has engulfed the man he hopes to succeed, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). Cuccinelli was touched by the scandal because he accepted $18,000 in gifts from the Richmond-area businessman who lavished far more than that on the McDonnell family; the attorney general donated the money to charity only this month.
Even more voters, however — 40 percent — say they are less likely to vote for McAuliffe as a result of the federal investigation of GreenTech, the electric car company he co-founded.
The numbers suggest that the scandals have impeded both campaigns from offering an ethical contrast with the other side.
Both candidates show room for growth in their approval ratings; Cuccinelli is viewed unfavorably by 47 percent of voters, while McAuliffe is seen that way by 36 percent.
Yet the poll contains evidence that McAuliffe’s base of support is more stable — and that he has navigated a maze of scandals and attacks more cleanly than the Republican. The Democrat is seen favorably by 48 percent of registered voters, compared with just 40 percent for Cuccinelli.
“I’m going to vote for McAuliffe, but I’m not crazy about him at all,” said Elizabeth McGowan, 63, a retired federal government worker from Springfield. “It’s the least of two evils in my book.”
On the question of which candidate “is more honest and trustworthy,” McAuliffe narrowly leads Cuccinelli, 34 to 28 percent. He also has the edge on which man “more closely shares your values.” They are essentially tied on which would be a more effective leader and which “better understands the economic problems people in Virginia are having.”
In addition to his lead among women, McAuliffe enjoys a healthy advantage in Northern Virginia — particularly the close-in Washington suburbs. And he is ahead across every age group.
Kem Spaulding, 68, a retired chiropractor in Charlottesville, dislikes Cuccinelli’s stances on social issues and will vote against him. But don’t call her a McAuliffe fan.
“I’ll vote for the guy who starts with an ‘M.’ That’s as much as I’m involved with it really,” Spaulding said. “I mean, I don’t want Cuccinelli. I really haven’t heard anything positive out of either one of them. The ads they’re running . . . are just mudslinging ads. That’s not useful information.”
Cuccinelli voters say they are more enthusiastic about supporting their man than McAuliffe’s are, but the Republican is working from a smaller base of support as his negative ratings climb, according to the poll.
Ralph Hurst, 60, a retired consultant who lives in Hampton, takes a dim view of McAuliffe because of “a lot of his business dealings” and because “he says one thing and does another.”
McAuliffe, who has received some GOP endorsements and promotes the idea that he can work across the aisle, has established more crossover appeal than his foe. He’s viewed favorably by 29 percent of Republicans, while just 12 percent of Democrats feel warmly toward Cuccinelli. McAuliffe takes 6 percent of Republicans in the three-way matchup, while Cuccinelli gets less than 1 percent of Democrats.
Economic issues remain paramount for Virginia voters — but far less so than they were four months ago: 29 percent now say the economy and jobs are the most important issue in the race for governor, down from 45 percent in May. Several other issues have ticked up slightly, including a five-point bump for “ethics, honesty and corruption in government.”
Sarvis, a little-known mathematician and economist running a small-scale campaign, has pockets of support.
In the largely rural region that includes the Shenandoah Valley, Southwest and part of Southside Virginia, Sarvis is getting 19 percent of likely voters — clearly hurting Cuccinelli where the Republican should be performing strongest. Sarvis also does well among younger voters, taking 15 percent of those between 18 and 49.
Third-party candidates rarely escape the low single digits in statewide elections, and it’s not clear how many voters will be willing to pull the lever for Sarvis on Nov. 5. Gene Downum, a 44-year-old civilian defense employee from King George, considers himself a Republican because he favors smaller government, but he is turned off by Cuccinelli’s stance on gay rights. At the same time, he thinks McAuliffe’s business record is troubling.
So Downum is considering voting for Sarvis.
“I know he’s not going to win,” Downum said. “But I’m so lukewarm — or ‘lukecold,’ depending how you want to look at it — for the two major-party candidates that I may just have to throw in my protest vote.”
Others polled expressed their dissatisfaction in a different way; according to the poll, far more voters say they are following the governor’s race now than in May — 68 percent compared with 48 percent. Yet dramatically fewer — 60 percent compared with 67 percent — say they are certain to vote in November.
Scott Clement and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.