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.
The poll comes as Virginians are starting to engage in a race that has garnered national attention as an early electoral test for President Obama in a crucial swing state.
More than eight in 10 voters are following the contest closely, up sharply from mid-August. About three in 10 voters say they are undecided or could change their minds.
Deeds initially struggled to build momentum after months of campaign problems and lackluster enthusiasm among voters and even some members of his party. In August, Republicans outnumbered Democrats among probable November voters; now, the electorate appears to be more evenly divided.
In Northern Virginia, where statewide Democrats have been successful but Deeds was slow to win support, he now leads McDonnell, 57 to 40 percent, among likely voters. In the innermost Washington suburbs, Deeds leads 63 to 34 percent. A month ago, the two men were running about even in Northern Virginia.
Nearly half of likely voters, 46 percent, say they have heard a "great deal" or a "good amount" about the thesis, and among those who say it will affect their vote, the influence is broadly negative. Most, though, see the thesis as not having an impact, and very few -- less than 1 percent -- call the thesis the most important issue in the campaign.
Laura Morefield, 39, a Chesterfield mother of three young children and a part-time teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she continued to support McDonnell after learning about the thesis. "It doesn't really matter. When you look at him today, his wife works, his daughter works," she said.
In contrast to his gains in Northern Virginia, Deeds has made little evident progress in the rural western and southwestern part of the state, a region the Democrat calls home, or "Deeds country," and where he has spent significant time. McDonnell tops 60 percent in this area, for his best showing in the state.
Overall, McDonnell, who has lived in the state's three most-populous areas and resides outside Richmond, leads 55 to 44 percent outside Northern Virginia.
Nearly four in 10 voters who back McDonnell are "very enthusiastic" about him, compared with just more than two in 10 of Deeds's about their choice. More Virginians deem McDonnell a more effective leader, 50 percent to 45 percent, and more say he closely shares their values, 50 percent to 43 percent.
McDonnell, who has said he would be a "jobs governor," has spent months campaigning as a moderate who can work across party lines to solve problems. He praises Democrats, including Obama and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, and has tried to de-emphasize his conservative views on social issues, many of which helped him make a name for himself as a legislator.
Instead, McDonnell has tried to force Deeds to talk about federal issues, including legislation on unions, climate change and health care, as he works to tie Deeds to Obama, the Democratic Congress and concerns about Washington.
Deeds has tried to distance himself from issues in Washington while pledging to follow in the footsteps of the last two Democratic governors, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and Kaine.
Kaine, who serves as his party's national chairman, remains popular in the state -- 59 percent of likely voters approve of the job he is doing -- but nearly two-thirds say they want the next governor to get the state going in a new direction.
The economy is issue No. 1, with 27 percent calling it the most important in the campaign. Education is the second most-frequently mentioned issue in the governor's race, followed by health care, taxes and transportation.
McDonnell's focus on transportation has not won him supporters on the issue in congested Northern Virginia. Transportation ranks as the second-most important issue in the region, and Deeds has a 49 to 36 percent advantage as the one voters trust to deal with it. A month ago, McDonnell and Deeds were roughly equal among likely voters in Northern Virginia on transportation.
Deeds also benefits from improved ratings for Obama and the Democratic initiative to overhaul health care. Overall, 53 percent of Virginia's likely voters approve of the job the president is doing, up from 47 percent in August. A month ago, most saw government action on health care as doing more harm than good; now, a slim majority sees it as essential to controlling costs and expanding coverage.
The poll, conducted by telephone Monday through Thursday, included interviews with 2,113 adult Virginians, 1,003 of whom said they were "absolutely certain" to vote in the gubernatorial election. The results for the sample of likely voters have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins for subgroups are larger.
This analysis highlights opinions among Virginia voters who say they are sure to vote in November; a month ago, the main report focused on all registered voters in the state. As elections near, polling results narrow in on those most likely to vote.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.