Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that a Quinnipiac University poll on the Virginia governor's race found 39 percent of likely voters were Democrats and 32 percent were Republicans. In fact, the survey found 30 percent were Democrats and 23 percent were Republicans. This version has been corrected.
RICHMOND — Democrat Terry McAuliffe has a six-point lead over Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) in the race for Virginia governor, according to a poll released Wednesday that also found more Democrats than usual intending to vote in the off-year election.
The Quinnipiac University poll, its first to survey likely voters in the gubernatorial race, found that the former Democratic National Committee chairman leads Cuccinelli, 48 percent to 42 percent.
In a race with candidates who clearly dislike each other, neither McAuliffe nor Cuccinelli is especially well liked by Virginia voters, the poll found. Despite his lead, McAuliffe fails to outperform Cuccinelli on several attributes tested in the poll, including honesty and having the right experience to be governor.
Both candidates win at least 90 percent of their fellow partisans, and Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are about even among independents, at 44 percent to 42 percent apiece.
But the poll also found likely voters showing a more Democratic tilt in party loyalty than in the last governor’s election in 2009.
Among likely voters surveyed by Quinnipiac, Democrats outnumber Republicans 30 percent to 23 percent. Virginia exit polling in the 2012 presidential election also showed a seven-point split, with 39 percent Democrats and 32 percent Republicans.
The findings could indicate that Democrats are poised to repeat their turnout advantage, although some Republicans said that Democrats were over-represented in Quinnipiac’s survey.
Democrats have consistently outnumbered Republicans among all Virginia adults in recent years, but Republicans have neutralized that advantage by turning out at higher rates in off-year elections. In the 2009 governor’s race won by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), exit polling showed Republicans held a four- percentage-point turnout edge over Democrats. A year earlier, Democrats led turnout by six points in the 2008 presidential election.
Quinnipiac, like most public polls, does not “sample” or “oversample” a predetermined number of partisans to ensure it resembles past electorates. Instead, the partisan makeup is determined by a standard question: Generally speaking, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, an independent or what?
The partisan makeup of the electorate — particularly determining likely voters in an off-year election — is a moving target, and it’s unclear whether Democrats’ current wide advantage will hold on Election Day.
Previous polls by Quinnipiac and other organizations have shown McAuliffe and Cuccinelli to be in a tight race to succeed McDonnell, who by Virginia law cannot serve consecutive terms. Quinnipiac’s previous poll among the broader population of registered voters found McAuliffe with a slight edge over Cuccinelli, 43 to 39 percent.
“Despite the barrage of negative attacks, the race for governor is extremely close and will remain as such,” Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix said. “At the end of the day, Ken Cuccinelli’s positive vision and substantive plans for Virginia’s future, compared to Terry McAuliffe’s flawed record as a failed job creator and political influence peddler, will carry the attorney general to victory.”
McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin responded by making note of his endorsement this week by a veteran GOP strategist, Boyd Marcus, who is joining the Democrat’s campaign as a paid adviser.
“It’s important never to put too much stock in a poll; the more telling sign is the steady stream of Republicans like Boyd Marcus who are endorsing Terry because they trust his mainstream bipartisan approach over Ken Cuccinelli’s divisive agenda,” Schwerin said via e-mail.
The new poll found that only 34 percent of likely voters have a favorable view of McAuliffe, compared with 35 percent for Cuccinelli. McAuliffe holds no clear advantage over his opponent on being honest and trustworthy (39 percent say he is, vs. 42 percent for Cuccinelli), or understanding people’s problems (38 vs. 37 percent).
McAuliffe also trails Cuccinelli by 10 percentage points in having the right experience to be governor (46 vs. 56 percent) and falls behind in explaining what he will do in office rather than attacking his opponent (25 vs. 32 percent).
The poll also found that, less than three months before Election Day, the candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general are unknown to the vast majority of likely voters.
Seventy-five percent said they do not know enough about Republican E.W. Jackson, a Chesapeake minister running for lieutenant governor, to form an opinion of him. His Democratic rival, state Sen. Ralph Northam of Norfolk, is unknown to 87 percent.
Eighty two percent said they do not know enough about Republican attorney general candidate Mark Obenshain, a state senator from Harrisonburg, while 88 percent said the same of his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Mark Herring of Loudoun County.
Quinnipiac University conducted the poll Aug. 14 to 19, surveying 1,129 likely voters on cellphone and land lines. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.