Poll May Point to Democrats' Worries Beyond Old Dominion

By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 9, 2009

The latest Washington Post poll of the Virginia gubernatorial race represents more than bad news for Democratic nominee R. Creigh Deeds. The findings paint a portrait of the electorate that, if replicated elsewhere, stands as a warning sign for President Obama and Democrats who will be running in next year's midterm elections.

The poll shows a lack of enthusiasm among many of the voters who propelled Obama and his party to victory last November, raising troubling questions for the Democrats: Were many of Obama's 2008 energetic supporters one-time participants in the political process who care little about other races? Is Obama's current agenda turning off some voters who backed him last year but now might be looking elsewhere?

Earlier this year, when the president's national approval rating was considerably higher than it is today, Democratic strategists noticed the sentiment wasn't extending to his party. That appears the case in Virginia, too: Obama's numbers in the commonwealth have held steady since September, but Deeds has fallen back and now trails Republican nominee Robert F. McDonnell by nine percentage points among likely voters.

Four of the poll's findings speak to potentially critical shifts among Obama's coalition.

First, just half of Virginians who say they voted for Obama last November say they are certain to vote in the gubernatorial election. That compares with two-thirds of those who say they backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Second, there is a lack of energy in the African American community. Last November, African Americans made up 20 percent of the Virginia electorate, part of a broader surge that saw record numbers turn out nationally. Today, African Americans comprise just 12 percent of the likely gubernatorial electorate. To underscore the significance of this shift, if African Americans in Virginia were participating at the same level as a year ago, and if Deeds were capturing 90 percent of their votes, the gubernatorial race would be a virtual dead heat.

Third, the poll shows an even sharper falloff in interest among younger voters. Last November, they accounted for 21 percent of the Virginia electorate. In the new poll, they account for 8 percent of likely voters, suggesting that their interest in politics might not extend much beyond the president.

Fourth, the intensity gap between Democrats and Republicans has done a complete reversal. On the eve of last November's presidential election, 67 percent of Obama supporters nationally said they enthusiastically backed his candidacy, compared with 41 percent of McCain's supporters. The Post poll found that just 20 percent of Deeds's voters say they are enthusiastic about supporting him, compared with 35 percent of McDonnell's supporters.

Deeds might bear part of the responsibility for what's happening in Virginia, having tried to distance himself from the president. The latest came this week at an event sponsored by ABC 7/WJLA-TV, Politico, Google and YouTube.

"Frankly, a lot of what's going on in Washington has made it very tough," Deeds said then. "We had a very tough August because people were just uncomfortable with the spending; they were uncomfortable with a lot of what was going on, a lot of the noise that was coming out of Washington, D.C."

By stepping away from Obama and the White House, he has given less incentive for those who were motivated primarily by Obama to come out and vote next month.

Deeds's complaint about the dissatisfaction toward Washington also overlooks the fact that September was a particularly bad month for McDonnell: The emergence of his 1989 graduate thesis, in which he expressed extremely conservative views about homosexuality, working women, families and feminism, put the Republican nominee on the defensive.

Still, Deeds has pointed at a problem for all Democrats. However much McDonnell's thesis -- and the cluster of social issues upon which it touched -- has affected the campaign, more voters appear worried about the economy, the deficit and the size of government, and that might be spilling over into the governor's race.

White House officials have been frustrated by how Deeds has run his campaign -- "Creigh Deeds has not been the world's greatest candidate, that's for sure," one senior administration official said -- and are more pessimistic about his chances of winning than they were last summer. Tensions between the White House and the Deeds camp were exacerbated this week by Deeds's comments.

Two officials said they expect Obama to continue to help Deeds, but they made no secret of the fact that they view the race as one Deeds must win himself.

"It's still a pretty conservative state, with a lot of people inclined to vote Republican who maybe only voted Democratic last year," another administration official said.

Both administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

On Thursday, Vice President Biden campaigned with Deeds in Alexandria -- evidence, White House officials said, that the administration supports the Democrat and "will be willing to help." Yet the appearance seemed as much to illustrate the role of Biden, who is campaigning for Democrats nationwide, as to suggest newfound White House optimism toward Deeds.

Deeds has a month to turn the race in his direction. But all Democrats have a stake in trying to show that the electorate that put Obama in the White House was more than a one-time phenomenon built around his personality. How much Obama can help reenergize that electorate is a question that is likely to linger well past the results in Virginia next month.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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