Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s win over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race was predicted by virtually all public polls. But the narrowness of that victory was, largely, missed by polls. So, why was it so close, and what did the polls miss?
Beyond those top-line findings, the political climate in Virginia may not have been as bad as things appeared in late October. Voters in the governor’s election did not blame Republicans much more than President Obama for the government shutdown, nor did they sour on GOP incumbent Gov. Robert McDonnell, both factors that figured to hurt Cuccinelli’s chances.
Here are some of the big reasons Cuccinelli avoided the big losses portended by polls.
* Republicans avoided sole shutdown blame
The federal government shutdown from October 1 to 17 may not have had quite so much sting for Cuccinelli at the end of the day. Virginia voters doled out nearly as much blame to Obama (45 percent) as they did to the Republicans in Congress (48 percent), according to the exit polls. In the October Washington Post-Abt-SRBI poll, blame went more strongly to Republicans -- by a 21 percent margin over Obama.
Just about a third of voters said they were affected by the shutdown in the exit poll, and they favored McAuliffe by 56 percent to 37 percent for Cuccinelli. But the bulk of people affected by the shutdown live in the D.C. suburbs or the Tidewater area, regions that reliably vote Democratic and may not have voted differently absent the shutdown.
The toxic environment for Republicans in the wake of the partial government shutdown opens the possibility that poll respondents were reluctant to voice support for Cuccinelli in surveys for fear of being seen as supporting a party under intense public criticism.
* Republicans came home
Our exit poll preview highlighted how Cuccinelli faced open criticism from fellow Republicans during the campaign, and polls showed him winning less support among fellow partisans than McAuliffe did among Democrats -- with Libertarian Robert Sarvis the beneficiary of some of that leakage.
But in the end, 92 percent of Republicans supported Cuccinelli, only three points shy of McAuliffe’s 95 percent tally among Democrats. Cuccinelli gave up a little ground among moderate and liberal Republicans (winning 81 percent), but this was balanced by his 98 percent support among conservative Republicans.
Another helper in Cuccinelli remaining close with McAuliffe was his nine-point margin among independent voters. The fact that Democratic voters outnumbered Republican voters by five percentage points sealed the victory for McAuliffe, however.
* Coal country proved true red
Cuccinelli met his marks in the rural southwestern parts of Virginia, winning by a nearly 2 to 1 margin despite strong efforts by the McAuliffe campaign to paint the Republican as uncaring about poor residents in a region in the heart of coal country.
An October Post-SRBI October poll and others showed Cuccinelli far underperforming in this loyal Republican region, with Cuccinelli leading by only single digits and Sarvis winning outsized support. But on Election Day, Cuccinelli bundled 60 percent of the votes in western and central Virginia, only one point shy of Mitt Romney’s score in 2012, indicating voters in this key Republican region voted up to their reputation.
* Gender gap
Many pre-election polls predicted major margins for McAuliffe among women voters, in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 points. But Cuccinelli lost women voters to McAuliffe by 51 to 42 percent, about the same range by which Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012 in Virginia.
* Late game shift?
The exit polls didn’t provide a measure to catch a late-game momentum shift, but it’s possible attitudes changed in the final days of the campaign. The political climate in the Commonwealth, fostered by the shutdown, may have soured voters on the Republican brand in pre-election polls, but memories may have been short.
* McDonnell approval
A 52 percent majority of voters approve of Gov. McDonnell’s performance in office. Those voters went to Cuccinelli by a healthy 2 to 1 margin over McAuliffe, 61 to 32 percent. McDonnell’s ethical problems were widely believed to have dragged down Cuccinelli’s election efforts, but the sitting governor's decent approval ratings (six points better than Obama’s) suggest otherwise.
Exit poll results are from a survey of 2,376 interviews with randomly selected voters as they exited voting places across Virginia on Tuesday, Nov. 5. The poll was conducted by Edison Media Research for the National Election Pool, The Washington Post and other media organizations. Typical characteristics have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points; the error margin for smaller voting groups is larger.