McDonnell Widens Lead Over Deeds
Poll Finds Voters Are Looking at Stands On Issues, Tone of Ads in Governor's Race

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 9, 2009

Republican Robert F. McDonnell has taken a commanding lead over R. Creigh Deeds in the race for governor of Virginia as momentum the Democrat had built with an attack on his opponent's conservative social views has dissipated, according to a new Washington Post poll.

McDonnell leads 53 to 44 percent among likely voters, expanding on the four-point lead he held in mid-September. Deeds's advantage with female voters has all but disappeared, and McDonnell has grown his already wide margin among independents. Deeds, a state senator from western Virginia, is widely seen by voters as running a negative campaign, a finding that might indicate that his aggressive efforts to exploit McDonnell's 20-year-old graduate thesis are turning voters away.

Much of the movement since last month has come in Northern Virginia, where Deeds's 17-point lead has been whittled significantly, even in the area's left-leaning inner suburbs.

The poll indicates that the GOP is well-positioned to emphatically end a recent Democratic winning streak, with Republicans Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli each holding identical 49 to 40 percent leads over Democrats Jody Wagner and Steve Shannon for lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The survey reflects the trend of the campaign over recent weeks. After being on the defensive since his thesis was published in late August, McDonnell has been able to retake momentum by focusing on issues, such as the economy and transportation, and articulating his vision to voters. McDonnell has been aided by airing twice as many campaign ads in Northern Virginia.

By double-digit margins, voters say that he would better handle virtually every major issue facing Virginians, including transportation, taxes, education, the state budget and the economy. Only on issues of special concern to women does Deeds hold a tepid 47 to 41 point advantage.

Also in recent weeks, Deeds has struggled in several appearances in Northern Virginia, including a debate last month in Fairfax County that he followed by bungling questions from reporters about whether he supports a tax increase. That lengthy scene has been turned into a campaign commercial by Republicans and is airing across the state.

To clarify, he penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post, in which he said he was willing to raise taxes to pay for transportation improvements. It was a rare and risky position for a Virginia candidate, and one that puts him out of step with voters, a majority of whom said they oppose paying more in taxes for roads and transit.

Deeds has also failed to consolidate support from fellow Democrats: He did not win the endorsement of former governor L. Douglas Wilder, President Obama has not committed to campaigning for him in the final weeks of the race and prominent party members have been openly criticizing the focus and tone of his campaign.

There is now a widespread perception that Deeds's campaign has taken on a decidedly negative tone -- 56 percent of voters say he has been running a negative campaign. Six of 10 voters say McDonnell's effort has been mainly positive. A new ad released by Deeds's campaign Thursday begins with an assault on McDonnell's transportation plan before turning to Deeds's vision.

"With Deeds, I don't feel like I know much about him," said Irene Murphy, 28, of Springfield, a poll respondent who said she voted for Obama last year and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2005 but is leaning toward McDonnell this year. "I don't feel like he's run a campaign that gives me a good idea of where he stands on certain issues. I feel like he's been so focused on making McDonnell look bad that he's made himself look bad."

There are some openings for Deeds. His failure to attract voters who have backed Democrats in recent elections means there is a large pool of potential voters for him to win over. Only half of those who backed Obama a year ago are certain to vote in November.

Compared with other regions, Northern Virginia's traditionally Democratic-leaning inner suburbs have the highest percentage of voters who are undecided or open to shifting their support. Overall, Northern Virginia voters break 51 percent for Deeds to 46 percent for McDonnell, well below the 60 percent Democratic strategists view as necessary to win statewide races.

A major push by Obama, who gets a 58 percent approval rating in Virginia, could still provide significant help for Deeds, particularly among blacks and young people. If the election were held today, African Americans would make up only 12 percent of the electorate, the lowest percentage in available data going back to 1994. Voters younger than 30, who made up a fifth of the electorate during last year's presidential election, would make up 8 percent today.

But it is not clear how much help will be forthcoming from the White House, where officials have been frustrated by the way Deeds has run his campaign and are pessimistic about his chances of winning. Obama has not committed to campaigning for Deeds again, although many Democrats expect that he will make a stop before the election. One administration official described the race as "winnable but challenging."

Two officials said they expected Obama to continue to help, but they made no secret of the fact that they view the race as one Deeds must win largely on his own.

Vice President Biden held a fundraiser with Deeds on Thursday and said he would return to the state multiple times to back the Democrat if necessary. "I hope to God you understand this race is winnable," Biden said at the event.

Deeds has a history of thriving when he has been discounted. In 2005, he was far behind McDonnell in the attorney general's race before closing strong to lose by 360 votes. This spring, polls showed him in third place in the Democratic primary for months before he pulled ahead and won resoundingly.

Still, with a little more than three weeks before Election Day, the poll shows McDonnell in a powerful position.

McDonnell's supporters are more enthusiastic than Deeds's, and more voters say they believe that he has advanced new ideas for the state. Deeds now trails among independent voters by a striking 21 percentage point margin -- 59 to 38 percent.

For the first time, a majority of voters, 51 percent, say McDonnell is "about right" ideologically, despite Democrats' efforts to characterize him as out-of-touch with mainstream Virginia voters. More now see Deeds as "too liberal" than see McDonnell as "too conservative" (44 to 37 percent). Moreover, just 15 percent of voters see the thesis as "very important" in deciding how to vote, putting it well behind jobs, health care, education, taxes and transportation as a top concern.

The two candidates are about even when it comes to dealing with health care and abortion, even as a clear majority continues to say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Deeds has tried to win support through highlighting McDonnell's strong opposition to abortion.

"I think McDonnell has some solutions on how to pay for much-needed improvements on Northern Virginia's transportation issues, like selling liquor stores rather than focusing on raising taxes. This tells me that he has thought through some of the issues without the tax-and-spend viewpoint to solve problems," said Manassas voter Jane Kolar, 47.

The poll, conducted by conventional phone and cellphone Sunday through Wednesday, included interviews with 2,091 adult Virginians, 1,001 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.

Staff writers Anne E. Kornblut and Anita Kumar and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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