By Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) and Democratic challenger James Webb are virtually tied in a race that could shift the balance of power in Washington and which reinforces the differences between Northern Virginia and the rest of the commonwealth, according to a new Washington Post poll.
Allen gets 49 percent, compared with 47 percent for Webb, within the 3 percentage point margin of error for the poll conducted over three days last week. With few respondents saying they are undecided and most seemingly locked in for their candidate, the poll indicates that the candidates' strategies for turning out supporters will be vital and that changes in the national political climate could tilt the outcome.
President Bush's approval rating among Virginians who say they are likely to vote is about the same as it is nationally. But fewer people in the state say their feelings about Bush will influence their Senate vote, compared with the number in a national poll. And in a sign that the greater Democratic enthusiasm seen nationally is also evident in Virginia, the poll finds that fewer of those who say they are certain to vote Nov. 7 identify themselves as Republicans than a year ago.
The three issues that poll respondents cite most frequently as extremely important -- the situation in Iraq, the war on terrorism and ethics in government -- are all volatile subjects heading into the campaigns' final weeks. The poll shows that Allen has a sizable advantage among those who cite terrorism and that Webb is not doing as well as Democrats nationally in turning the Iraq war and Republican congressional scandals into issues that work for his side.
Northern Virginians are increasingly Democratic -- more distrustful of the war in Iraq and the president and more supportive of Webb than the rest of the state, according to the poll. The region is the economic engine of the commonwealth and the source of much of its growth, and on many issues, its urbanizing and diverse population seems to agree more with the rest of the nation and less with those who live south of the Rappahannock River.
No matter who wins, a race filled with drama and controversy has won unprecedented attention from the electorate. Fifty-two percent of likely voters in the survey say they are following the race "very" closely; the previous high in Post polling goes back to 1989, when 39 percent of Virginians showed high interest in L. Douglas Wilder's bid to become the first black candidate to be elected governor in any state.
Independent Gail Parker receives 2 percent of the support in the poll.
For Webb, the 60-year-old Democratic Party newcomer who launched his campaign eight months ago, the poll provides new evidence that his underfunded, long-shot bid has created one of the country's most competitive races.
"We are extremely encouraged by these numbers," said Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd. "We've always maintained that the more people learned about the real George Allen, the more they would feel he's wrong for Virginia. We will build upon this momentum, and we know we will win."
But the poll contains plenty of concern for the former Navy secretary and author from Falls Church. Webb owns a solid lead only in Northern Virginia, and his supporters, as a group, are far less enthusiastic about his candidacy than are Allen's voters. One of the selling points for his candidacy was that his military background and service in the Reagan administration would appeal to Republicans, but he does no better among the GOP in the Post poll than Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) did in the state in the 2004 presidential race.
Allen, 54, can be content that after what might be the most tumultuous campaign any incumbent has seen this election cycle, he still has a bond with Virginians who elected him governor in 1993 and senator in 2000. A strong majority of those in the poll say they think of him as honest, trustworthy and a leader, and 57 percent approve of how he's doing in the Senate.
"We've always known the race was going to be close," said Allen consultant Chris LaCivita. "After being subjected to one of the meanest campaigns of attempted character assassination in the commonwealth's history, we are confident that the people are going to vote on issues. When they vote on issues, Allen wins."
But there are serious doubts about Allen in the poll. The percentage of voters who say they don't like Allen has increased dramatically from a year ago, and 43 percent now say they have an unfavorable opinion of him. By a large margin, independent voters sided with Allen six years ago when he ousted Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb; this year, he's essentially tied with Webb among that group. And nearly one in five polled say they feel Allen was being intentionally racist when he called an Indian American supporter of Webb "macaca." An additional 44 percent view the comment as racist but say they don't think Allen intended it that way.Dueling Controversies
Allen's remarks might have as much as anything to do with why the race is so close.
His macaca comment caused a national controversy -- the film clips a staple on Youtube.com and his changing explanations a gift to late-night comedians. It was followed by articles charging that as a University of Virginia student in the 1970s, Allen regularly used a racial epithet to describe blacks. Allen denies that.
And he stumbled when answering questions about his previously unacknowledged Jewish ancestry.
Allen responded by putting Webb on the defensive about a 1979 article Webb wrote condemning the idea of women in combat and at the Naval Academy. Webb apologized for the inflammatory language he had used, such as calling the overwhelmingly male dormitory at the academy a "horny woman's dream," but Allen has spent more than $1 million on ads spotlighting the issue because he said it shows a disrespect for women.
It is unclear from the poll how much those so-called character issues will affect the campaign -- 17 percent say Webb's comments are important to their vote, as opposed to 25 percent who say they feel the same way about Allen's remarks -- but they have given the race a nasty tone.
"I didn't like the way the race has sort of turned to all of these sort of negative things," said Vicki Merkel, 52, a teacher from Vienna who says she will vote for Allen. "Why do people say those things? And why are we digging way into the 1970s anyhow?"
She is among the 64 percent of those polled who say the campaign has been too negative, but voters are split almost evenly about who is to blame. Allen's supporters say the media have been tougher on their candidate, and overall, 36 percent of the respondents say the media have treated Allen unfairly, compared with 19 percent who say the same about Webb.A Plunge in Popularity
Allen was once one of the commonwealth's most popular politicians. But now Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the state's senior senator, John W. Warner (R), have much better favorability ratings, as does former governor Mark R. Warner (D).
Allen's favorable rating in Post polls of likely voters has plunged from 63 percent last fall to 53 percent today, and his unfavorable numbers have increased from 31 percent to 43 percent. Fifty-three percent of those polled have a favorable opinion of Webb; 37 percent have an unfavorable opinion And although Allen refuses to promise he would serve out his six-year term instead of trying for the presidency in 2008, the poll shows Virginians are opposed to the idea.
By a margin of 56 percent to 35 percent, poll respondents say they don't think Allen would make a good president, including 20 percent of those who say they will vote for his reelection.
But Allen's supporters appear loyal in other ways. Although Republicans nationally worry that their base might be turned off, 43 percent of Allen's voters say they are "very" enthusiastic about his Senate campaign, as opposed to 25 percent of Webb's.
"I just like the way he talks," said John Sullivan, 79, retired from the Navy and living in Loudoun County. "He's very forthright about things and conservative, which I am."
Apart from Northern Virginia, Allen is well thought of throughout the state, the poll shows, and voters say he's doing a good job. And on issues, he has several significant advantages.
Among those who say the U.S. campaign against terrorism is extremely important in their decision, two-thirds favor Allen. By contrast, voters who say the war in Iraq is extremely important split their votes evenly between Allen and Webb, who made his opposition to the war a cornerstone of his campaign. The same is true for those who cite "ethics in government" as a top concern.
Allen has a similar lead among those who consider taxes extremely important -- he has spent a considerable amount of money on advertisements saying that Webb would vote to roll back tax cuts -- and among those who say immigration is extremely important to their decision.
In addition, the poll shows that Allen does not suffer from the gender gap that has afflicted other Republican candidates in the past. In every Virginia election for the past decade, Democratic candidates for governor and Senate have held leads among women. But 49 percent of the women polled say they would vote for Allen, compared with 47 percent for Webb.
Webb is struggling with women more than previous Democrats have. In 2005, Kaine led among likely women voters by nine points in late polls, and former governor Warner had a double-digit lead among women going into Election Day.A Leap From Unknown
Perhaps the most positive news for Webb in the poll is the tightness of the race, considering that he was largely unknown even in late spring and that Allen spent about $9.5 million on his reelection, compared with Webb's $2 million.
On personal characteristics such as honesty, family values and leadership, Webb scores nearly as highly as Allen, who has been a fixture in Virginia politics for 25 years. More people say Webb would "stand up for issues important to African Americans" than would Allen, and more say Webb is "tolerant of the points of view of all Virginians."
Still, Webb supporters speak more of what he stands for than the man himself. Jeanette Wiltse, 64, a retired consultant from Arlington County, said she thinks Allen has done "all right" and she doesn't know very much about Webb. But she's voting for him.
"First thing is, he's a Democrat," Wiltse said. "I'm absolutely fed up with this administration. I think the war is a large part of it. I think Bush has basically trashed our foreign relations."
But according to the poll, Webb has not been able to persuade enough women like Wiltse to join his cause, even though only 39 percent of women say the war in Iraq was worth fighting.
On the plus side for Webb, he's also splitting the male vote, which traditionally has gone for Republican candidates. Webb has hoped his status as a decorated veteran would help with the large portion of the Virginia population that has served in the military. About 25 percent say Webb's background would make them more likely to vote for him.The Northern Va. Factor
Webb would win handily if the election took place only in Northern Virginia, claiming 56 percent of the vote there to Allen's 42 percent, the poll shows. But Allen would win easily in the rest of the state, besting Webb by almost 10 points.
"I would prefer to tilt the balance to the Democrats in the Senate and get the war over," said Elizabeth Barclay, 55, a Fairfax County lawyer.
And the differences are particularly striking among men: Webb's 18-point lead among males in Northern Virginia turns into a 12-point deficit in the rest of the state.
The views of Northern Virginians are similar to those of the rest of the nation this political year, according to the poll.
When it comes to the war in Iraq, Northern Virginians say it was not worth fighting by almost a two to one margin -- just as strongly as the rest of the nation. Commonwealth residents outside Northern Virginia are evenly split on whether the war should have been fought.
Polling director Jon Cohen and database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.