Democracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia Politics

Democrat Northam leads Republican Gillespie in race for Virginia governor, new poll finds

By Gregory S. Schneider, Scott Clement

October 5, 2017 at 10:12 AM

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Republican Ed Gillespie and Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam are running in this year's closely watched race for Virginia governor. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

A relatively unified party base gives Democrat Ralph Northam a clear lead over Republican Ed Gillespie heading into the final month of the Virginia governor's race, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll.

Northam leads Gillespie by 53 percent to 40 percent among likely voters, with 4 percent supporting Libertarian Cliff Hyra. The advantage is similar to a Post-Schar School poll this spring but larger than in other public polls of likely voters released over the past month, most of which found Northam up by single digits.

But the race is still fluid, with a sizable number of likely voters — 1 in 4 — saying they could change their minds before Nov. 7.

"There's a lack of intensity right now," said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, which co-sponsored the survey. "Many fewer people than typically at this stage are paying close attention, and the candidates at this point have really not excited the electorate. . . . A lot can change in the next month. If I were the Northam campaign, I would not feel too comfortable right now."

Gillespie could close the gap by consolidating support among Republicans, who historically have been more apt than Democrats to vote in low-turnout, off-year elections.

Confederate monuments and illegal immigration have played prominently during the campaign, but voters say they care more about health care, the economy and education.

Related: [Read full poll results]

While the governor's race — the nation's only competitive statewide contest this year — is seen nationally as an important test of electoral politics in the President Trump era, the average Virginian seems uninspired.

Related: [For the latest on the governor’s race, join the Post’s Virginia politics Facebook group here]

Fewer than 6 in 10 registered voters, 58 percent, say they are following the race closely — 10 percentage points lower than a similar point in the 2013 gubernatorial race.

Northam is the sitting lieutenant governor and a pediatric neurologist. Gillespie is a longtime GOP operative who led the Republican National Committee and nearly unseated U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in 2014.

Democrats also have the advantage in the race for state attorney general, where incumbent Mark R. Herring leads Republican challenger John Adams 52 percent to 41 percent among likely voters.

Trump and his actions in nearby Washington continue to distract and preoccupy Virginia voters. Roughly 6 in 10 Virginia likely voters disapprove of his performance as president, and more than 8 in 10 Trump detractors support Democrat Northam. But in a positive sign for Gillespie, just over half of all likely voters say Trump is not a factor in their choice. Some 17 percent of voters say they plan to vote to send a message of support for Trump, while 30 percent say they are voting to express disapproval.

Those who oppose Trump often do so vehemently. Rita Chavez, a nurse from Northern Virginia, said her dislike of Trump will cause her to vote against the issue that matters most to her.

"I am pro-life, and I have always voted pro-life, and unfortunately, I'm going to have to vote Democratic knowing that they're pro-choice," Chavez, 45, said. She said that she finds Trump insulting to immigrants and people with disabilities and that any Republican would have to repudiate Trump to win her vote.

Nearly 7 in 10 likely voters said they feel that Gillespie supports Trump, a perception that continues to hound his candidacy. While Trump is unpopular in Virginia — the only Southern state to vote for Hillary Clinton last fall — most Republican likely voters — 82 percent — approve of Trump's job performance. Gillespie cannot afford to alienate them as he tries to woo independent and moderate voters turned off by the president.

"That creates a difficult tightrope act to perform," Rozell said. Gillespie is "using some of these issues like immigration to drive the conservative vote, which he has not solidified, but he has to expand his support among groups of voters he's not doing well with, particularly women [and] people in the D.C. suburbs and exurbs, where they're not as conservative. How he pulls this off is his candidacy going forward."

Northam has a few factors working in his favor at this stage, according to the survey of 1,121 adults, including 720 likely voters, conducted Sept. 28 through Oct. 2. Among likely voters, a near-unanimous 97 percent of Democrats support Northam, compared with 89 percent of Republicans who back Gillespie. Among independents, 47 percent back Northam, while 40 percent support Gillespie, a margin within the range of sampling error.

While Gillespie draws 51 percent of white likely voters compared with 41 percent for Northam and 4 percent for Hyra, the Democrat has a huge edge among African American likely voters — with 90 percent support — and nonwhites in general, at 80 percent.

Women are also a big factor in Northam's support, with 58 percent favoring the Democrat compared with 37 percent for Gillespie among likely voters. Male likely voters split 48 percent for Northam and 43 percent for Gillespie.

As has been the case in recent years, populous Northern Virginia is leaning heavily toward the Democrat. Northam garners 61 percent of voters in the D.C. suburbs and 55 percent in the exurbs, compared with 35 percent for Gillespie around D.C. and 33 percent in the exurbs, where Hyra peaks at 8 percent.

Gillespie has a big edge in the rural, southwest portion of the state, with 53 percent to Northam's 37 percent. But Northam has a comfortable margin in Hampton Roads and the Richmond area.

Gillespie, who has proposed an across-the-board 10 percent cut to Virginia's income tax, leads Northam by 58 percent to 36 percent among likely voters who say the economy is most important in their choice.

Scott Parker, a 49-year-old owner of a construction business, said Gillespie represents "capitalism at its finest" and would be the best governor to support the private sector.

But the Hanover County resident said that business has been picking up in the past year and that he thinks the economy is doing fine.

"I don't think [Gov. Terry] McAuliffe has ruined anything, but I just think it can be better," said Parker, who is drawn to Gillespie's promise of income tax cuts.

Elizabeth Rodgers said she prefers Gillespie because of his focus on Virginia's economy and public safety. Northam seems like a nice guy but should stick to medicine, she said. She considers herself an independent, but she liked Trump and wants her governor to support him, too.

"Trump is president; it's important to support him," said Rodgers, a Norfolk resident in her early 50s.

Northam is strongest among health care-focused voters, garnering 73 percent support, as well as those focused on education, 72 percent of whom support him. Among all registered voters, 28 percent said health care is the most important issue that affects their vote, while a similar 26 percent chose the economy and 19 percent named education.

Gillespie's campaign has focused heavily on undocumented immigrants, highlighting crimes by the MS-13 gang and criticizing Northam for opposing a measure to ban the establisment of "sanctuary cities," localities where local police would not enforce federal immigration laws. Yet just 10 percent of likely voters say illegal immigration is their top concern and Virginia does not have any sanctuary cities.

Related: [Gillespie tries to tie Northam to MS-13 in ad; Democrats compare it to Willie Horton ]

More broadly, a 59 percent majority of registered voters say illegal immigration is "not a problem" in their part of Virginia, a flip from 2007, when 53 percent of voters said it was.

Gillespie's position on abortion — he wants the procedure banned with certain exceptions — appears to be a liability, as well. A 55 percent majority opposes a ban on abortions except in cases of incest, rape or to save a pregnant woman's life, while 37 percent support it. Among the majority who oppose this restriction, about 7 in 10 likely voters support Northam.

On another contentious issue, the Post-Schar School poll finds that a 57 percent majority of registered voters think Confederate monuments should be kept on government property, while 31 percent want them removed. After a violent clash in August led by white supremacists around a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Northam called for the statues' removal. He later said the decision should be left to localities. Gillespie has said the statues should remain but historical context be added.

Related: [In the former capital of the Confederacy, debate over statues is personal and painful]

Travis Farmer, 46, a taxi driver in Harrisonburg, said he felt disconnected from the race but would vote for Northam. In addition to the economy and education, he's concerned about police violence against African Americans and feels the Democrats are more sensitive to that.

Northam has an edge over Gillespie in personal popularity. By 44 percent to 28 percent, more registered voters have a favorable than unfavorable impression of him, while voters are split on Gillespie — 38 percent favorable and 37 percent unfavorable. Both men lack widespread enthusiasm among their supporters.

Democrats appear to have an edge on engagement this year. A 67 percent majority of Democratic registered voters say they are absolutely certain to vote or have already cast an absentee ballot, compared with 57 percent of Republicans.

This dynamic, along with greater levels of past election turnout, is one reason Northam's 10-point advantage with registered voters stands at 13 points among likely voters. In the June primary election, Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by a roughly 3-to-2 margin.

The Post-Schar School poll was conducted Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 among a random sample of 1,121 Virginia adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points among the sample of 1,000 registered voters and 4.5 points among the sample of 720 likely voters. For vote choice questions, an eight-point difference between candidates is the threshold for statistical significance.

Fenit Nirappil and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

Read more:

He's a Republican with deep ties to the GOP donor class but he's having trouble raising dough

Gillespie hires Trump adviser who thinks country is on brink of civil war

Virginia Republicans say Northam has no tax plan


Greg covers Virginia from the Richmond bureau. He was the Post's business editor for more than seven years, and before that served stints as deputy business editor, national security editor and technology editor. He has also been a reporter for the Post covering aviation security, the auto industry and the defense industry.

Scott Clement is the polling director at The Washington Post, specializing in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.

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