8 things: A poll watcher's guide to the Virginia election

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009


As pundits try Wednesday to spin the results forward to what they might mean for 2010 contests, perhaps the biggest thing to watch will be the vote among political independents, a growing and influential share of the national electorate. In late polling, Republican Robert F. McDonnell had a large lead among these voters; a decisive margin here would echo widely.


Another key to thinking about upcoming elections is how much of a role that views about President Obama will affect voters. In a Washington Post poll last week, 70 percent of Virginia voters said that Obama was not a factor in their choice for governor. The rest were divided about equally between saying they would vote to express support of or opposition to the president. Look for what network exit polls will show.


Democrats have won recent statewide elections by securing about 60 percent of the vote in Northern Virginia. R. Creigh Deeds, a state senator from the rural west, was supposed to lift his party's chances "downstate," but the latest Post poll shows him trailing because of a big deficit outside Northern Virginia, even as he runs solidly in the Washington suburbs. If those patterns hold on Election Day, they will scuttle many of the assumptions strategists have made over the past decade.


Can McDonnell maintain his double-digit lead in the polls? Democrats won the last two gubernatorial elections by seven points (Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2005) and five (Mark Warner in 2001). Ten or more would mark a significant victory.


The actual vote tally matters. Turnout in the last two contests was well below 50 percent; if it drops further, so too may the strength of Virginia as a predictor of what might happen elsewhere next year. Only two Virginia governors have ever received a million votes -- Kaine in 2005 and George Allen in 1993.


Election analysts will be closely tuned to another aspect of turnout: which groups of voters cast ballots. A year ago, voters younger than 30 made up 21 percent of the electorate, and African Americans were 20 percent, with both groups critical to Obama winning the state. In pre-election polls, these voters appear largely disengaged this time around. Can a late get-out-the-vote drive and Obama's appearance last week in Norfolk influence the make-up of voters?


There have been far fewer polls in the lieutenant governor and attorney general races, but Republican candidates appear to have the edge. Should Republicans -- or Democrats in a major upset -- win all three statewide contests, the victory would be particularly decisive and boost the party's prospects for implementing state policy.


Apart from the official vote tally, the best data source will be the exit poll conducted by Edison Research for The Post and other media organizations. In Virginia, exit pollsters will interview randomly selected voters as they leave 40 voting locations. Preliminary numbers from this poll might be available early Tuesday evening; the numbers become more reliable as they are meshed with actual vote returns. Solid results should be available between nine and 10 Tuesday night.

-- Jon Cohen

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