For Terry McAuliffe To Beat Ken Cuccinelli, He Needs To Win Over Democrats

Credit: National Journal

Virginia gave President Obama a fairly comfortable 4-point victory (51 percent-47 percent) victory in 2012.  Yet the Washington Post has just released a poll showing Democrat Terry McAuliffe trailing archconservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli by 5 points in the race for the 2013 Virginia governor’s office. Why the discrepancy?

Well, elections will always going to be harder for Virginia Democrats in off years like 2013 than in a Presidential election year due to turnout patterns that favor the other side. But on the evidence of the poll, McAuliffe’s problems may run deeper than just getting voters to the polls. He may also have trouble generating the kind of enthusiastic support Obama received from key demographic and geographic segments of his coalition.

Start with Obama’s minority support.  In 2012, Obama received overwhelming 83-16 support from Virginia’s minority voters, a 67 point margin. By comparison, McAuliffe’s margin among minority voters (57-21) is little more than half of Obama’s margin. This has a great deal to with McAuliffe’s performance among African-American voters, who only favor him by 69-10 in the poll, compared to Obama’s 93-6 in 2012.

Breaking McAuliffe’s support down geographically, he is dramatically underperforming in areas where Obama was strongest in 2012. In Northern Virginia, McAuliffe is only leading by 4 points, compared to Obama’s healthy margin of 16 points. That’s potentially fatal given that this area is Democrats’ strongest in the state and accounts for about a third of ballots statewide.

McAuliffe’s other big underperformance is in the Virginia Beach/Tidewater area. In the poll, McAuliffe is actually trailing Cuccinelli by 2 points, compared to Obama’s strong margin of 12 points. The Virgnia Beach/Tidewater area accounts for another fifth of the Virginia vote.

McAuliffe is not known as a Democrat with particularly strong ties to the base of the party, having functioned mostly at an elite level, particularly as a fundraiser. On the evidence of this poll, it may not be enough for him to call out Ken Cuccinelli as a right-wing extremist (as deserved as that criticism is). If he wants the Obama coalition to power him to victory in the state, they are likely to need a reason to vote for him as a representative of their interests, not those of elites.