Is Virginia’s Hard-Right Candidate For Governor Losing His White Base?


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Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R)

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R)

CREDIT: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In the latest Pollster.com average of surveys in the Virginia gubernatorial race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe has an 8 point lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. How did McAuliffe, considered by many political observers to be a fairly weak candidate, develop a comfortable and seemingly growing lead:

va gov race

One possibility is that McAuliffe is generating enthusiasm among the Millenial/minority coalition that propelled President Obama to victory in the state, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In the latest Quinnipiac poll of the race, McAuliffe leads among black voters 74-7, a yawning gap to be sure but one substantially below Obama’s 2012 margin among Virginia African-Americans (93-6). And Qunnipiac’s projected “likely voter” electorate this November has fewer minority voters than the electorate in 2012, as one would expect in an off year.

McAuliffe’s numbers among black voters are likely to improve as undecideds tune into the campaign, but right now he is not riding a groundswell of African-American enthusiasm. Instead, his relatively strong lead comes from a counter-intuitive Cuccinelli weakness: white voters.

In the simplest possible terms, Cuccinelli has a white voter shortage. Consider Romney’s performance in in the state in 2012 in what was, after all, a losing effort. Romney carried white voters by a very strong 23 points. By comparison, Cuccinelli only leads among whites by 8 in the Quinnipiac poll.

The mystery deepens when you break down the numbers even further. Among white college graduates, Cuccinelli is only breaking even (Romney won this group by 10 points). The difference can perhaps be explained by Cuccinelli’s very public identification with hardline social conservatism, though it’s hard to say for sure.

What’s really baffling is Cuccinelli’s underperformance with white working class voters, who tend to identify with more “traditional” moral values. In the Quinnipiac poll, Cuccinelli has a 16 point lead among these voters. This may sound good, but it is not remotely large enough for a GOP candidate to carry the state even allowing for the relatively favorable turnout patterns of an off-year election. Romney carried Virginia’s white working class by a whopping 44 points, and still wound up losing.

Cuccinelli may have assumed his far right economic and social positions would be catnip for Virginia’s white voters, especially the white working class. So far, that’s looking like a poor assumption.