Race to Richmond: Deeds vs. McDonnell

R. Creigh Deeds (D) greets Robert F. McDonnell before their one-hour debate at Roanoke College in Salem.
R. Creigh Deeds (D) greets Robert F. McDonnell before their one-hour debate at Roanoke College in Salem. (Don Petersen/associated Press)
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Anita Kumar and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post staff writer and Post polling analyst
Wednesday, October 28, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Anita Kumar and Post polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta were online Wednesday, Oct. 28, at Noon ET to discuss the race for governor of Virginia in the final week of the campaign between Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell.

McDonnell currently carries a double-digit lead, according to a new Washington Post poll.

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Jennifer Agiesta: Hi everyone, thanks for joining us for the chat today. The Post released its final poll in the gubernatorial contest earlier this week, with Republican Bob McDonnell holding a double-digit edge heading into the campaign's final days. McDonnell's also built up solid advantages on handling taxes, transportation and even issues of special concern to women, suggesting Democrat Creigh Deeds faces a steep uphill climb if he's to catch up before Tuesday's vote.

I'm looking forward to taking your questions on the poll... so let's get right to them.

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washingtonpost.com: Washington Post Virginia Governor's Race Poll

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Fairfax County, Va.: Looking at the poll story and the graphics and table provided, it appears that Deeds is polling about as well in northern Virginia as, say, Mark Warner, but doing much worse in the rest of the state than anybody else you list -- Barack Obama, Tim Kaine, or Warner. Yet Deeds is the guy who's emphatically not from northern Virginia (admittedly Kaine isn't either). What gives?

washingtonpost.com: McDonnell's edge over Deeds grows stronger (Post, Oct. 27)

Jennifer Agiesta: Thanks for the question, Fairfax! The regional split is one of the most interesting things we found in this last poll. Deeds' victory in the primary seemed to be more about his electability and appeal outside of the DC suburbs than his positions on the issues, and that bit of strategic voting by Virginia Democrats may have backfired.

Conventional wisdom says a Democrat needs to win around 60 percent of the votes in Northern Virginia to win statewide, but that assumes the candidate can run closely with his or her opponent in the rest of the state, and Deeds is clearly lagging behind other successful Democrats on that front. Outside of Northern Virginia, half of all likely voters call Deeds "too liberal," and McDonnell has whopping advantages on handling taxes (32 points), transportation and the economy (25 points), and issues of special concern to women (17 points). Even in the western part of the state (which includes his home in Bath County) Deeds trails McDonnell in the race by 27 points.

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Purcellville, Va.: Why didn't Deeds use the Obama Machine more effectively? McDonnell was working Loudoun 5 years ago, where was Deeds? I am starting to wonder if the Virginia Dems just punted this office away because they used up all their "steam" for Obama.

Anita Kumar: Thanks for the question.

Deeds did ask Obama for help. Obama headlined a rally for Deeds in Northern Virginia in August. He has also lent his voice to TV and radio ads and had his political organizing group send out an e-mail that he signed to tens of thousands of Virginia supporters asking them to support Deeds.

But Deeds did distance himself in some ways from the president and some of the policy proposals touted by the Democrat-controlled Congress. For example, he said he opposes the so-called cap and trade bill that caps greenhouse gas emissions and does not believe that a public health insurance option is necessary and that as governor he might consider opting out of one if Congress extends that right to states.

But many Virginia Democrats say they understand the balancing act Deeds has had to play. Successful Virginia Democrats tend to be a bit more conservative than those in Washington. They his actions follow a pattern of successful Democratic statewide candidates who did not fully embrace Washington figures, including former governor and now U.S. Sen. Mark Warner.

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Arlington, Va.: Your Virginia poll sample had even numbers of self-identified R's and D's, yet your national polls consistently have 10-12 percent more D's than R's. How do these swings in your sample populations not affect the accuracy of your polling data?

Jennifer Agiesta: Hi Arlington, the share of Democrats and Republicans in our polling is not something we determine in advance. Party identification can be a fluid thing, so we interview a random selection of adults in the state, and let them tell us what their party leanings are.

Most of the results from this poll, including the near-even party ID split you reference (31 percent Democrat to 30 percent Republican), were reported among likely voters. Our national polls are typically among all adults, and that explains much of the difference. Looking at all adults in this Virginia poll, the partisan breakdown (33 percent Democrat to 24 percent Republican) looks more like what we get in our national polling (33 percent Democrat to 20 percent Republican in our poll last week) than does the result among likely voters.

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Springfield, Va.: Do you have any polling data on the various delegate races going on in this area?

Jennifer Agiesta: Hi Springfield, unfortunately not. We took a look at the LG and AG races in our early October poll, but haven't had anything on the delegate contests.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: Polls predict a McDonnell win that could have down ballot impact. With redistricting in 2011 and Democrats controlling the state Senate by at least one vote and Republicans continuing to control the House of Delegates by a comfortable margin, what will be the likely impact on Virginia politics in the next decade? What will this election mean for Jim Moran and Gerry Connolly in 2010 and 2012?

Anita Kumar: You are correct. Polls predict that if Bob McDonnell wins then both Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli may also win for lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively. The Republicans are also predicting big wins in the House of Delegates -- perhaps as many as five seats. That would leave the General Assembly divided between the Republicans and Democrats in 2010 for redistricting -- which could make for some interesting fights next year. But remember that could change if McDonnell wins and lures a couple conservative Democratic senators into his administration in an attempt to turn control of the Senate back to the Republicans. The same thing happened when Jim Gilmore became governor and it could happen again. Also, three senators are on the ballot -- Deeds, Cuccinelli and Ken Stolle (who is running for sheriff in the Hampton Roads area)and those seats could switch party in special elections. But the bottom line is losses next week would definitely change the dynamics in state government for years to come. Democrats have been building on sucesses since 2001 and while huge losses wouldn't wipe them out, they would have a lot of rebuilding to do.

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washingtonpost.com: Full Results: Washington Post Virginia Governor's Race Poll

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Philadelphia (Arlington, Va. native): : If Deeds loses, how deep is the Democrats' bench? Will Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) move to become more of a prominent leader statewide? He seems to be in the same vein of Warner (moderate/conservative Democrat with Northern Virginia appeal).

Anita Kumar: If Deeds loses, there's a good chance that fellow Democrats Steve Shannon and Jody Wagner also will lose their bids for attorney general and lieutenant governor. It's not a done deal, of course. Virginians have split their ticket many times. In 2005, they voted for a Democratic governor but Republican attorney general and lieutenant governor. But if all three of them lose, that would leave the Democrats without a statewide officeholder and without a natural person to run for governor in four years. That's a worry among Democrats. But you will see other Democrats step up and become leaders in the party. Sen. Petersen could be one of them. Also, if Shannon and Wagner lose this time, I think you will see them run for office again.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm curious whether either of you is a Virginia resident and thus has a stake in the coverage of the Virginia race? If so, do you plan to vote?

Anita Kumar: I am a Virginia resident. I work in our bureau in Richmond, where I also own a home. (I am also a Virginia native. I grew up in Charlottesville, attended UVA and worked at several other Virginia newspapers before I came to the Post in 2007.) I do plan to vote -- though I won't tell you for who! I vote in general elections, but do not vote in primaries.

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Arlington, Va.: Just a comment! I cannot wait for this election cycle to be over. My family lives in N.J,. except for me, so all I hear is election this and election that. Plus, thanks to the election, ABC canceled Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin (a childhood favorite), last night! But thanks for the chats, they have been informative and helpful!

Anita Kumar: Thanks for the comment.

I feel for you and your family. There are only two governor's elections in the nation this year and you and your family happen to live in both states. But it's almost over. Less than a week to go. I wouldn't suggest watching TV in the next few days though because the ad wars will continue until the last minute.

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Alexandria, Va.: Deeds has run an awful general campaign, but still has my vote based on his transportation plan and my fears of McDonnell's social conservatism. Any chance Deeds can pull this off?

Jennifer Agiesta: Alexandria, you are not alone on this one. Among Deeds' own supporters, nearly four in 10 say he's running a mainly negative campaign and just 22 percent are "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy.

As for his chances, a double-digit lead one week out is quite a big hill to climb, but almost anything is possible in politics.

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Atlanta, Ga.: As a Washington and Lee and UVa grad, I still retain interest in Commnwealth politics even though 500 miles away -- which brings me to question on Northern Virginia: I've heard that Deeds has to do pretty well (not just break even) in Northern Virginia to prevail statewide -- but what exactly is Northern Virginia? Does it end at Prince Williams and Loudoun? Also, any chance Deedw would lose Fairfax County?

Jennifer Agiesta: Well hello to a fellow General! In our polling, Northern Virginia includes Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, Loudoun, Manassas, Manassas Park and Prince William. Given Deeds' advantage in Northern Virginia (56 to 43 percent in this poll) and in Fairfax itself (57 to 42 in the Post poll), it seems unlikely he would lose there, but again, anything's possible.

See you at alumni weekend next year!

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Washington, D.C.: What is the news value of testing themes in focus groups? Conducting research on what will work for each candidate is a step over the line from what a news organization should be doing. Testing themes can only lead to wrongful use of polling data to assist one candidate or the other, particularly because the research is highly subjective and not easily reported to the public. It's a little bit like manufacturing biological weapons (which the United States doesn't do)in that the existence of the product can only lead to its misuse.

Jennifer Agiesta: Hi Washington, not quite sure I'd compare qualitative research and biological weapons, but I can attempt to explain our goal in doing focus group research.

We conducted a couple on this contest, not to test themes or messages in the way that campaigns would use them, but to allow voters to tell us in their own words what they're feeling about the race. We reported them in conjunction with representative poll data as a more in-depth look at the feelings of a particular group of voters.

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Fairfax, Va.: Whatever McDonnell says about his new found 'moderation,' I tend to think the real rabid conservatives are lurking in the legislature, ready to submit laws that will re-start the culture wars in Virginia, while transportation and education get shoved off to the sidelines (again).

Can you summarize what the lay of the land may be in the legislature after the election?

Will the Senate be able to hold off some of the more radical ideas that might come out of the House, and/or Cuccinelli's office?

Anita Kumar: As I mentioned in an earlier answer, the Republicans believe a Bob McDonnell win, if there is one, could help them in other races including the House of Delegates. They are looking to pick up seats -- at least a couple, maybe five or more. That means the dynamics in the House will change some, but not completely. The Republicans already have a six-seat advantage in the House. A larger GOP majority will mean that it will be even more difficult for Democratic proposals to get through the House. The Democrats still hold a majority in the Senate (though that could change if there are special elections or moves to a McDonnell administration, if there is one. See my earlier answer). Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County will be sure to try to kill any Republican proposals coming from the House he doesn't agree with. The result may be more gridlock, which has been constant the last two years. The bottom line is when two parties control the two chambers, it is very difficult for them to agree on how to deal with issues, such as transportation, and they end up killing each others' ideas.

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washingtonpost.com: Two Groups of Women Help Put the Race Into Focusl (Post, Sept. 20)

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Northern Virginia: What do you know about why Deeds is underperforming in the area outside of Northern Virginia? Did culture wars issues backfire? Or won't we know this kind of thing until the exit polls? (I'm assuming there will be exit polling even though it's a state race?)

Jennifer Agiesta: Hi NoVa... as noted earlier, a lot of it is about his positions on the issues - half of likely voters in the rest of the state consider him too liberal. But even looking back at past vote results, in 2005, Deeds did far worse outside of Northern Virginia than Tim Kaine did, trailing McDonnell by six points while Kaine and Kilgore ran even.

And yes, there will be exit polling next week, a thought that warms this pollster's heart.

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Tysons Corner, Va.: I'm surprised that in a 10 percent national unemployment environment, neither Obama nor Deeds have been focusing on jobs. McDonnell is creaming Deeds on this, not just in the polls, but also in posturing himself as a 'jobs governor' very early on in the campaign. The national Democrats seem to have take their eye off the ball, and Deeds seems to have followed suit. If Deeds loses badly next week, and if there's some lesson for national politics, it's that unemployment and job creation are the king issues.

Anita Kumar: Deeds has talked about jobs and the economy, but he has not focused on it as much as McDonnell has. Deeds talks often about his proposals to award a tax credit to every business that creates a job and to double the Governor's Economic Opportunity fund, which helps lure businesses to the state. Deeds also talks about how transportation and education can also spur the economy. He has called for the creation of a bipartisan commission to come up with a plan to provide new revenue to fund roads and transit and for raising teacher salaries to the national average and awarding 70,000 new college degrees over the next 10 years. But you are correct in that, McDonnell has more been disciplined in talking about jobs and the economy on the campaign trail and has been doing that since late last year.

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Washington, D.C.: I always like that saying, "a week is a light-year in politics." Partly because a week is a measure of time and a light-year is a measure of distance. So it's actually one of those Yogi Berra sayings like, "half the game is 90 percent mental."

Anita Kumar: Thank you for your comment.

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Arlington, Va.: What is the position of both Deeds and McDonnell on the "opt out public option" for health-care reform? this is especially important in that the future governor (and state legislators) may be in the position to revoke the non-profit insurance plans for many Virginia citizens.

Anita Kumar: That issue came up just last week in their final debate.

Deeds said he would consider opting out of a public health-care option if states are extended that right under legislation being considered in Congress. McDonnell unequivocally said he would opt out if offered that choice.

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washingtonpost.com: Deeds, McDonnell sharpen attacks in final debate (Post, Oct. 21)

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washingtonpost.com: Deeds, McDonnell sharpen attacks in final debate (Post, Oct. 21)

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Franconia, Va.: I think Virginia voters are really averse to negative ads, more so than voters in other states. I'm thinking here of Jerry Kilgore (that bizarre ad about whether Kaine would have been willing to execute Hitler, which seemed to be about Kaine being Catholic and thus anti-death penalty), George Allen (nasty quotes from Jim Webb's novels), Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran (beating each other up while Deeds was above the fray). Do you agree?

Jennifer Agiesta: We do have some polling data that could shed some light on the matter. Deeds in this contest and Kilgore in 2005 were both perceived as running far more negative campaigns than their opponents. More than six in 10 say Deeds is running a mainly negative campaign (61 percent). At this stage in 2005, 67 percent said the same of Kilgore. And as we know Deeds trails, Kilgore lost.

Of course, there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem here, campaigns that are behind have a greater incentive to go negative than those that are ahead.

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Another General in Virginia: Hello from the Commerce School (just kidding...)...

From what I have heard there is already a concerted effort amongst Dem circles to put out the message that the Virginia election is "not about Obama." To me this sounds like most Dems have already given up on 2009.

Did your polls evoke any sentiment as to whether this election really did reflect angst with respect to the president or was this more of a match between to contenders and McDonnell appears to have been the better match (bearing in mind that this is a repeat of 2005 where McDonnell beat Deeds)?

Jennifer Agiesta: We asked voters directly whether Obama would be a factor in their vote, and most (70 percent) said he would not impact their decision in the gubernatorial contest. Among those who do see their vote as about Obama, as many said they were voting to express support (14 percent) as to express opposition (15 percent). At the same time, Obama could still have an impact on turnout, even if the vote isn't necessarily a referendum on him. Those who said they voted for him in 2008 are far less likely to say they plan to cast a ballot next week than are those who said they were McCain voters last year.

We posted a bigger analysis of this question and Obama's impact (or lack of it) on our polling blog Behind the Numbers yesterday. Will get a link to that up soon.

And who knew there were so many W&L alums lurking out there? If only I were typing from the C-school library...

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A missing name from this campaign: Jim Gilmore. I'm very surprised that the Deeds campaign hasn't done more to connect McDonnell and his "cut taxes no matter what" platform with Gilmore's term in office. Am I correct in assuming that Gilmore is still a rather unpopular politician in the state?

Anita Kumar: Jim Gilmore's name has come up from time to time. Deeds doesn't mention him often, but the Democratic Party of Virginia does. Gilmore has attended some campaign events, including recent speeches about higher education, but he has not been vocal about the race. I'm not sure if there have been any recent polls that show what Gilmore's approval rating is now, but remember that he was trounced in his race for U.S. Senate last year. Mark Warner defeated Gilmore by 30 points. Thirty percent of self-described conservatives voted for Warner, as did a quarter of Republicans, according to exit polls.

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"Jobs Governor": I've seen Bob McDonnell use this phrase for himself over and over again, but never actually heard him outline 'how' he would create jobs. I'm guessing he wants to cut taxes?

What exactly is Bob McDonnell's plan to create jobs, and if he has been doing such a great job detailing this plan, why don't I know what it is?

I guess my question is, through what method is McDonnell using to "Cream" Deeds on this issue?

Anita Kumar: McDonnell uses the phrase often. He even named his RV the "Jobs Mobile." He talks often about his philosophy of limiting the size of government by keeping taxes, regulation and litigation low. Specifically, he has said he wants to create tax-free zones for companies involved in producing renewable energy, designate a high-ranking official to focus solely on rural economic development and provide a $1,000 tax credit per job to businesses that create 50 jobs.

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washingtonpost.com: The Obama factor: Virginia edition (Behind the Numbers, Oct. 27)

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Ashburn, Va. : Will both candidates opt out of a public option if passed? Deeds needs to make differences right now. Come out for it and admonish McDonnell for being against it. Worst campaign ever run in my opinion. I'll vote for him but come on, have an idea.

Anita Kumar: Thanks for your comment. Deeds and McDonnell do differ on healthcare.

Deeds said he would consider opting out of a public health-care option if states are extended that right under legislation being considered in Congress. McDonnell, who opposes reform efforts in Washington, unequivocally said he would opt out if offered that choice.

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Fairfax, Va.: AG's race...Shannon seems to be the stronger candidate, with a competent record, enthusiastic endorsements from most major newspapers and a hard hitting advertising campaign. Yet he lags in polls. What gives?

Anita Kumar: Virginia Democrats blame Shannon's underdog status in virtually poll on the top of the ticket (which favors a Republican) and the overall atmosphere in Virginia and nationally on a desire for a change. Democrats are still hopeful that either Shannon or lieutenant governor candidate Jody Wagner could win even if Deeds loses.

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Fairfax, Va.: I guess post mortems are premature but I am struck by the damage done by one party picking its nominee through some internal closed-door process or consensus, and thus gaining a ton of months and momentum, and the other party having a protracted primary battle. Do you agree this had a big impact on the race and may be a reminder or lesson for both parties to avoid primaries in the future?

Anita Kumar: I agree the primary had an impact. (But remember McDonnell wasn't chosen at the GOP convention, he was unopposed for the nomination.) McDonnell was able to campaign and raise money for months and months while the three Democrats competed for the June primary. There's no doubt that helped him with his message and fundraising. He was also able to contact some prominent Virginians earlier to seek endorsements.

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Anita Kumar: That's all the time we have today. Thanks for joining us.

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