By Tim Craig and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 7, 2007
Virginia, usually a reliably Republican state in presidential elections, may become a key battleground in the 2008 election as broadly negative views among independents of President Bush and the war in Iraq have altered the presidential race.
Mirroring the national mood, Virginians' approval of Bush and support for U.S. policies in Iraq have eroded as the war has dragged on. Bush is the worst of the past nine presidents, say Virginia's independent voters, who helped him win in 2004 but now say they are more likely to prefer that a Democrat rather than a Republican be the next president.
The revised portrait of the Virginia political landscape emerges from a poll conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.
The poll paid particular attention to independents, about 30 percent of Virginia's adult population. Results offer fresh evidence of a trend in Virginia politics -- that independents have played a critical role in electing Democrats in two consecutive governor's races and in last year's U.S. Senate race.
As Democrats and Republicans gear up for next year, the poll shows that Virginians are nervous about the economy and health care and are frustrated with politics. State residents' anxieties mirror those expressed by voters nationally, challenging the notion that Virginians are at odds with the rest of the country on key issues and giving Democrats an opportunity to win the state's 13 electoral votes.
Virginia has not supported a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964, when voters chose Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater, who won only six states.
But, more than a year before the general election, this poll shows that four in 10 voters prefer that a Democrat be elected to the White House in 2008, compared with 33 percent who said they favor a Republican. One in 10 said they prefer an independent.
"I think most of the United States and the majority of people I talk to are kind of negative towards the Republican Party," said Randall Austin, 53, of southwestern Virginia. "With the war, the economy, with everything, including fuel pricing, I have a feeling everyone wants a change," said Austin, a self-described independent who supported Bush in 2004.
When asked to name the worst president since 1960, 46 percent of the state's independents cited Bush. No other president was mentioned by more than 15 percent of independents.
Democratic and Republican strategists say that the public mood could shift dramatically by fall 2008. But dissatisfaction with the president's policies appears to be influencing Virginians' impressions of the national Republican Party.
Slightly more than half of Virginia residents said they have an unfavorable view of the national Republican Party, including 60 percent of independents, according to the poll.
By comparison, 55 percent of residents, including half of independents, said they have a favorable impression of national Democrats.
Only 17 percent of independent voters said they want a Republican to win the White House in 2008.
Like independents nationally, independents in Virginia are held together by a rejection of partisan labels, not an overriding shared ideology.
The Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey establishes five types of independents: swing voters who are eager to consider candidates from both major parties, those who reject partisan labels out of anger, those who are dissatisfied or have a mismatched ideological stance, those who act like partisans but call themselves independent, and those who are disengaged from politics.
As will be explored in subsequent articles about the survey, Virginia has a higher concentration of true swing voters than the nation as a whole, and the state is less likely to be home to those who are not interested in politics.
Virginia's independents, 35 percent of whom live in Northern Virginia, have been steadily trending Democratic since the start of the decade, often providing the margin of victory to winning candidates.
According to exit polls, independents helped sweep George Allen (R-Va.) into the U.S. Senate in 2000 by supporting him by a margin of 16 percentage points over Democratic incumbent Charles S. Robb. Four years later, independents went for Bush over U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) by 10 percentage points. Bush won the state by eight percentage points.
Last year, however, independents supported antiwar Democrat James Webb for the Senate by a margin of 12 percentage points. Webb defeated Allen by 9,000 votes.
This poll shows that the voter concerns that fueled Webb's victory, notably the Iraq war, are mounting.
Only about a third of Virginia's independents said the war is worth fighting. Fewer than four in 10 said the U.S. goal of stabilizing the country is still possible, and 55 percent said they believe the war on terrorism can succeed without winning in Iraq. The attitudes on all three measures closely match those reflected in a national poll also conducted May 3 to June 3 by the Post-Kaiser-Harvard group.
When asked who better represents their views on Iraq, four in 10 independents said Democrats; three in 10 said Republicans.
In 2004, a narrow majority of the state's voters approved of the decision to go to war; 55 percent approved of how Bush was handling his job at the time. Two years later, when Webb unseated Allen, 53 percent opposed the war, and 45 percent said they thought Bush was doing a good job.
"It's not only the war; it's the whole world situation," said Haroon Ashraf, 51, of Springfield. "I was a Republican since I can remember, and I just recently switched. For the time being, I'm going Democratic, because, at this point, Republicans don't seem capable of being a leader."
Although independents are dissatisfied with Bush, the poll indicates they are open to and even prefer the GOP's position on some key issues.
Independents rank the two parties evenly when asked which party better represents their views on managing the economy. They also side with the GOP on tax policy and give it an advantage of 14 percentage points on the question of which party would be better at fighting terrorism.
One respondent, Lester Berlin, 51, of Charlottesville, said he is torn between his opposition to the war and his belief that Democrats are weak on national security.
"Even though the Democrats have indicated they are strong on terrorism, you just don't get the feeling they would really be willing to make the hard choices to do that," Berlin said.
U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a possible candidate for the U.S. Senate next year, said he's confident that the GOP's prospects in Virginia will improve after both parties settle on a nominee next year. Virginia's presidential primary is Feb. 12.
"The generic ballot everywhere is going to be Democratic today," Davis said. "That is a reflection of the president's standing. What you need to remember, come February of next year, the face of the Republican Party changes from Bush to someone else, and that will be an automatic improvement."
U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) said that the Republican Party's problems go beyond Bush.
"President Bush is a problem, but that is only because he is the face of all the Republican issues," said Scott, who said demographic changes, particularly in Northern Virginia, are fundamentally altering the state's politics.
But the survey suggests that a possible moderate independent candidate could cloud the state's electoral picture next year.
Fifty-six percent of Virginia voters, including 60 percent of independents, said the two-party system doesn't do a good job of addressing issues important to them.
More than half of Virginia residents, including three-quarters of independents, said they would consider voting for an independent candidate in 2008.
"For some reason, we don't seem to produce what I consider to be top-of-the-line presidential candidates," said Gary Gibbs, 64, a retired Army officer from Luray, who said he's desperate for a candidate who has "a strong message" and "a sincere approach."
Concurrent with a national poll of independents, the Virginia poll was conducted by phone May 3 to June 3 among 1,708 randomly selected adults in Virginia. Results from the full poll have a margin of error of three percentage points. Error margins are higher for subgroups.
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.