Politics and Public Opinion, Polls

Virginia Pols and Polls: What You May Have Missed

2009 was a bad year to run as a Democrat in Virginia. 2013 appears to be shaping up as a bad year to run as a Republican. All recent polls show Democrat Terry McAuliffe with a sizable lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, including the latest from Quinnipiac University which gives McAuliffe a 7-point lead, 46 to 39 percent, among likely voters.

Off-year elections differ in important ways from presidential elections and midterm elections. More committed or more regular voters tend to turn out in these contests. Younger people in particular are more likely to stay home.

Exit polls: Off-year electorates in Virginia tend to be older, whiter, and more conservative. Comparing the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial exit poll to the 2012 presidential exit poll provides the evidence. The 2009 gubernatorial electorate was whiter by eight points, somewhat older (young people were 10 percent of voters in 2009 and 19 percent in 2012), and more conservative by 9 points. These factors should benefit the GOP in Virginia this election, but other changes pull in the Democratic direction.

Interestingly enough, the gubernatorial electorate was just was educated as the presidential electorate – 54 percent had a college degree in both races.

Gender demographics: Both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are viewed more negatively than positively in the Quinnipiac poll, so other factors are moving the Virginia electorate in the Democratic direction. Demographic changes in the state supply some answers. Obama won Virginia in 2008 and 2012, and the state is on most pundits’ lists as a toss-up or purple state. Women are a larger share of the population than men by a few points. In recent races they have turned out in higher numbers than men and favored Democratic candidates over Republican ones. In the new Quinnipiac poll, they back McAuliffe by 14 points while men back Cuccinelli by 2.

Share of the virginia electorate

Other demographics: Between the 2009 gubernatorial election and the 2012 presidential election, the number of Virginians with a graduate or professional degree is up slightly, about 0.8 points, according to the Census’s American Community Survey. There is a smaller percentage of white Virginians (down 0.7 points from the 2009 to 2012), more Asians (up .7 points), more Hispanics (up 0.4 points), and more people who speak a language other than English in their home (up 2 points). In addition, there are fewer homeowners (down 2 points) and more renters (up 1.9 points). None of these changes produce tidal wave-like shifts. But these demographic changes are beneficial to Democrats. Someone who is seen as too conservative could have problems. In the Quinnipiac poll, 40 percent said McAuliffe was too liberal, but 51 percent said Cuccinelli is too conservative. Overall, demographic changes advantage Democrats.

Off-Year Bellwethers?: Larry Sabato and his team in his UVA Crystal Ball newsletter recently looked at the past twelve Virginia gubernatorial races, since 1965, to see if they provided clues about what might happen the next midterm election. “Of the 12 examples . . . five Virginia elections were genuinely predictive of the next year’s midterm results. Another five were misleading indicators. The remaining two (1985 and 1989) could be argued either way.” Doing the same analysis for New Jersey, where Chris Christie seems poised for a big win, their analysis suggests that “only four of the 12 races . . . can be considered bellwethers for the following year’s midterm.”

Predictive ability of Virginia gubernatorial elections

Source: Source: Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, September 5, 2013.


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