Poll Finds Deeds Gaining on McDonnell

By Anita Kumar and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dramatic shifts among independent female voters and Northern Virginians over the past month have propelled Democrat R. Creigh Deeds to within four points of Republican Robert F. McDonnell in the race for Virginia governor, according to a new Washington Post poll.

The change among likely voters -- down from a 15-point margin in mid-August -- coincides with the publication and ensuing controversy surrounding McDonnell's graduate school thesis, in which he writes of his opposition to working women, feminists and gay people.

In the new poll, McDonnell edges Deeds by 51 to 47 percent among voters who say they are certain to vote in November, with the poll offering both candidates reasons to be optimistic as people begin to make up their minds six weeks before Election Day.

McDonnell, a former state attorney general and legislator, continues to top 50 percent among likely voters and boasts far more enthusiastic supporters than Deeds. The Republican also still holds advantages on handling an array of major issues, including the economy, the state budget, taxes, transportation and guns.

A sizable majority of voters also say they want the state, which has been run by Democrats for the past eight years, to move in a new direction.

Nevertheless, Deeds has gained on many fronts and has a double-digit advantage when it comes to dealing with issues of special concern to women.

Deeds has made McDonnell's 20-year-old thesis and his views on women centerpieces of his campaign, particularly in the more liberal, vote-rich northern part of the state. The Democrat raised the document several times in a debate in Tysons Corner on Thursday, and it is the focus of sharply critical TV commercials and mailers in the area.

McDonnell says his views have changed on many issues in the thesis, including his opinions on working women, and he has criticized Deeds for focusing on what he calls a "decades-old academic paper."

"He's all those things they discovered in the thesis," said Ray Ellen, 62, a retired state employee from Fairfax County who responded to the poll. "McDonnell likes to change the subject frequently. . . . This guy has everybody fooled."

From the outset of the campaign through last month, Deeds had tried to cast his opponent as outside the mainstream by alerting voters to his conservative social views, including efforts to restrict access to abortions and birth control.

Following news coverage of the thesis, the poll offers fresh evidence the tactic might be working: The percentage of likely voters who see McDonnell as "too conservative" has jumped 10 points since the August poll and corresponds with a double-digit increase in the number seeing Deeds as "just about right" ideologically. The percentage of independent female voters seeing McDonnell as too conservative is now significantly higher than it had been.

In August, independent women favored McDonnell 59 to 31 percent; now they split 50 percent for Deeds to 47 percent for McDonnell.

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