McDonnell's edge over Deeds grows stronger

By Jon Cohen and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Republican Robert F. McDonnell carries a double-digit lead over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds in the final week of the campaign for Virginia governor, according to a new Washington Post poll.

The Republican, briefly buffeted in the polls by voters' initial reaction to the publication of his 1989 graduate school thesis, has rebounded to big advantages on the top issues, particularly taxes, and is now seen as the more effective leader, more honest and more empathetic.

McDonnell is also buoyed by support outside Northern Virginia, where he is outperforming all other top-of-the-ticket Republican candidates this decade. Statewide, McDonnell leads Deeds among likely voters by 55 to 44 percent. McDonnell, who narrowly defeated Deeds in the race for attorney general four years ago, has been above 50 percent among likely voters in all four Post polls in the campaign.

Seven in 10 Virginia voters say their views of President Obama, who is scheduled to campaign Tuesday with Deeds in Norfolk, will not be a factor in their choice for governor. The rest are about evenly divided between those who say their vote will be motivated by their desire to express support for the president and those who want to voice opposition to him, suggesting that Obama might not be a decisive figure in the contest and that the race is not the early referendum on the Obama presidency many have suggested it would be.

"Sometimes people talk about sending a message, with Virginia being in this odd off-year election cycle," said Keith Fredlake, 32, of Gainesville, a McDonnell supporter. "But I don't think so. I don't think Obama's really put a lot of stock into Virginia, and I don't think it will hurt or help."

Positive vs. negative

The poll shows that Deeds has been unable to shift the dynamics of a race that in recent weeks appeared to be slipping away from him. Despite a concerted effort to reverse a widespread voter perception that his campaign has been largely negative, more than six in 10 polled see the Democrat as running a mainly negative effort. By contrast, most see McDonnell's campaign as a predominantly positive one.

Deeds has also been unable to excite his supporters and close the dramatic gap in enthusiasm McDonnell has held from the start. About a quarter of Deeds voters say they are supporting him "not too" enthusiastically or "not at all" enthusiastically. More than nine in 10 of those who back McDonnell are "very" enthusiastic or "fairly" enthusiastic about the Republican.

The results also suggest that Deeds, who has alternately praised and distanced himself from Obama, has neither energized Obama's most fervent supporters nor won over his skeptics.

McDonnell holds double-digit advantages when it comes to dealing with the economy (a 17 percentage-point lead), transportation (16 points) and taxes (25 points), and he has overtaken Deeds as the one more trusted to handle issues of special concern to women (7 points). On taxes, which has been a focal point of the campaign in recent weeks, McDonnell has stretched his lead significantly and holds a better than 2 to 1 lead over Deeds among independent voters.

Deeds has said he would be willing to sign a tax increase to pay for road improvements if approved by a bipartisan majority in the General Assembly, a prospect opposed by 55 percent of likely voters, including a growing number outside Northern Virginia. McDonnell and the Republican Governors Association have spent millions on what now appears to have been a devastating ad campaign about Deeds's stance and his failure to clearly explain his position on the issue while answering questions from reporters after a debate in Fairfax County in September.

"I do think we need someone new in there who won't continually raise taxes," said Richmond resident Janice Baldwin, 57, who said she will vote for McDonnell. "Every time you turn around, if you're not taxed for one thing, you're taxed for another."

Overall, most voters see McDonnell as "about right" ideologically, and nearly half see Deeds as "too liberal."

McDonnell now holds big leads as the one who would be a more effective leader (21 percentage-point advantage), the more honest and trustworthy (14 points ahead) and the candidate more in tune with people's problems (11 points ahead). For all of those attributes, the candidates were about even in mid-September.

In bottom-line preference, independents favor McDonnell 61 to 36 percent, and women who consider themselves political independents are solidly behind the Republican. In the weeks after the publication of McDonnell's master's thesis, women who identified themselves as independents split about evenly between the two candidates, but they now favor McDonnell 57 to 40 percent.

McDonnell has held a large financial advantage. He raised $4 million during the first three weeks of October, while Deeds raised $3.1 million, according to campaign finance reports released yesterday by the Virginia Public Access Project.

For Deeds, one potential way to stage a comeback in the race's final week lies in changing the makeup of the probable electorate by persuading core Democratic constituencies to vote. Voters who backed Obama last year are significantly less apt to say they will participate this time around than those who supported his Republican challenger, Sen. John S. McCain (Ariz.).

Obama's visit to Norfolk illustrates the challenge: Just 49 percent of voters in the southeastern part of the state who supported Obama last year say they are certain to vote next week, compared with 73 percent of those who backed McCain. But two-thirds of all registered voters in the southeast approve of the way the president is handling his job. Statewide, 57 percent of registered voters and 54 percent of likely voters give Obama positive reviews.

Deeds's late outreach

Deeds has made a late effort to reach out to Obama voters in Northern Virginia, including making a swing through the region's most Democratic-leaning communities a week ago. Democratic organizers last week sent an e-mail signed by the president to his supporters in the state urging them to back Deeds. That combined outreach might have helped in recent weeks, giving some hope to Democrats that Obama's rally could do the same in the Tidewater region. In early October, just half of Northern Virginia's Obama voters were likely to vote; now more than seven in 10 are apt to.

That shift has contributed to an improvement for Deeds in the critical Northern Virginia region, where he now holds a 56 to 43 percent lead in the left-leaning Washington suburbs. But that lead is swamped by significant and growing deficits in every other region of the state.

McDonnell appears to be in a particularly dominant position in the state's rural west, an area the Democrat had labeled "Deeds Country" because it includes his Bath County home. Although Deeds has devoted considerable resources to the region, he trails there 63 to 36 percent.

Obama's approval rating is at its low point in that part of the state: 46 percent of registered voters in the western areas give him positive marks. And opposition to the proposed changes to the nation's health-care system peaks at 58 percent.

Statewide, 53 percent oppose the efforts at health-care reform; 43 percent are supportive.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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