Home 2019 Elections Reading the “Tea” Leaves, Part I: Governor’s Race

Reading the “Tea” Leaves, Part I: Governor’s Race


( – promoted by lowkell)

We’re counting down the days until the Election in Virginia and there’s growing evidence that Democrats are sweeping the top two statewide slots. Republicans are shifting resources to give Obenshain a fighting chance at the Attorney General’s race; the Republican State Leadership Committee has given Obenshain $500,000 in hopes he can salvage the GOP ticket and protect down-ballot Republicans.

In the House of Delegates, Democrats have released three internal polls showing our candidates well positioned to make gains. But there are also signs that the wave on election day may crash upon hostile shores down-ballot. All that, and MORE, to be discussed in this, the first of a multi-party diary analyzing what we know so far about the Virginia election.

First, the good news for Virginia Democrats. Terry McAullife’s position in the latest NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll shows him expanding his lead against Ken Cuccinelli, up 46% to 38%, with Libertarian candidate Sarvis receiving 9% of the vote. That’s up 3 percentage points from the pre-shutdown Marist poll.

It’s only one poll of many, but it can’t be good for the Virginia GOP that both McAullife and Sarvis are gaining in the polls while Cuccinelli is flat. The only “good news” in the last few weeks for Republicans may have been their ability to exclude Sarvis from the debates, limiting his exposure, but he’s still polling in the high single digits.

Without Sarvis, the Marist poll has McAullife up 52% to 43%. That 52% may be a good approximation of McAullife’s ceiling in these closing days of the campaign.

The highest McAullife has polled in a three-way poll is 47%. Even in match ups without Sarvis, McAullife has rarely exceeded 47%, only in the Quinnipiac, Washington Post, and PPP polls. He’s only over 50% in the PPP poll. Those polling groups are the more professional outfits polling, unlike the host of small colleges that are delving into the game, so they are probably going to hit closer to the mark in the end. A final McAullife vote between 52% and 47% will all depend on the final split among undecideds and how much Sarvis collapses these last few days. For Cuccinelli, he’s hovering between 39% and an optimistic high of around 44% if everything breaks his way.

Reasons for Republican “optimism” are more about hoping Cuccinelli doesn’t drag down the party. The undecided voters lean Republican, conservative to moderate, but not Tea Party, they may be a lost cause for Cuccinelli and E. W. Jackson, but if Obenshain can carry them he could still pull off a win and minimize the damage inflicted on Republican Delegates.

In addition to figuring out how undecideds breaks, there’s the question of Sarvis and his “libertarian” supporters. If McAullife is hovering just around the 50% mark, Sarvis’s supporters could make or break Democrats in the other races if they swing one way or another.

Reporters keep drawing comparisons to Russ Potts from 2005, but there’s a big difference in how Sarvis has continued to poll in the high single digits throughout the fall. In 2005, Potts hit a “high water mark” of 6% in a Mason-Dixon poll in mid-September, his highest 9% in a Mason-Dixon poll in August was before the real campaigning had even started. Sarvis is holding up well in the polling, so far. Even a drop of a few points as voters get cold feet in the voting booth could put him up over 5%, a historic showing for a third party candidate in modern Virginia politics.

When Sarvis is taken out of the Marist poll, undecideds also drop as a third option is taken off the taken. Sarvis is offering voters an alternative to holding their nose in the voting booth. But for whom?

Let’s look at what the Marist poll is showing us. I’m using both their Gubernatorial results with and without Sarvis, and the Lt. Governor’s race to illustrate party strength regionally.

DC Suburbs, 18% of Marist Poll, 18% of 2009 Exit Poll

McAullife: 56%

Cuccinelli: 34%

Sarvis: 4%

W/O Sarvis

McAullife: 55%

Cuccinelli: 38%

Northam: 54%

Jackson: 39%

The Sarvis vote here is the easy demographic to profile in this SWAG (scientific wild ass guess) analysis of Virginia. It’s Beltway Republicans who live in Arlington and think of themselves as socially moderate affluent professionals. Maybe they are closeted gay Republican press secretaries or communications directors. Maybe it’s cool to be a “Libertarian” in Alexandria instead of a “Republican.” Yeah, whatever. Vote for Sarvis if you want. Note how similar the two races are in the straight up head to head.

Northern Virginia Exurbs, 16% of Marist Poll, 14% of 2009 Exit Poll

McAullife: 42%

Cuccinelli: 42%

Sarvis: 7%

W/O Sarvis

McAullife: 49%

Cuccinelli: 44%

Northam: 40%

Jackson: 46%

In farther out Prince William and Loudoun, the race is still neck and neck. Based on the internal polls from the 87th and 34th district, I’ve already flagged the concern that turnout is still a problem in more diverse areas of Northern Virginia like the 87th. There may also be more low-information suburban voters who “like” the idea of a third party candidate, but are more up for grabs in the closing days if the Democrats focus on targeting these areas. Turnout may be up here relative to 2009, but still struggling to approach 2012 levels, obviously. The weak support for Northam is a big sign of some of the problems down-ballot, not just for Northam but for the competitive delegates races too.

Western & Central Virginia, 23% of Marist Poll, 23% of 2009 Exit Poll

McAullife: 36%

Cuccinelli: 41%

Sarvis: 14%

W/O Sarvis

McAullife: 43%

Cuccinelli: 52%

Northam: 39%

Jackson: 51%

In Western and Central Virginia (the area around Lynchburg and Charlottesville, combined with Western Virginia close to 23% of the vote), is the only area where Cuccinelli is leading. But it’s a lot closer than the blowout that Deeds suffered in this area from 2009, when he lost Western and Central Virginia 34% to 66%. This is one area where Sarvis’s numbers are likely inflated, I would be surprised if he does this well here on election day. On the other hand, Cuccinelli has been slammed on issues like protecting property rights in Southwest Virginia, and perhaps it’s pushing some Republicans to pick Sarvis.  

Richmond & Eastern Virginia, 23% of Marist Poll, 26% of 2009 Exit Poll

McAullife: 47%

Cuccinelli: 38%

Sarvis: 8%

W/O Sarvis

McAullife: 56%

Cuccinelli: 39%

Northam: 50%

Jackson: 38%

Sarvis voters swing heavily to McAullife, while the Republican vote hovers consistently around 38 to 39%. Who are these voters? The Richmond suburbs have several potentially competitive delegates seats that would open up if we could better identify and target who is unhappy with the GOP but hesitant about voting Democratic.

Tidewater, 20% of Marist Poll, 18% of 2009 Exit Poll

McAullife: 50%

Cuccinelli: 31%

Sarvis: 10%

W/O Sarvis

McAullife: 52%

Cuccinelli: 39%

Northam: 53%

Jackson: 35%

Sarvis voters in Tidewater back Cuccinelli in the head to head, the reverse from Richmond. Interesting, but I can’t explain it. This is the only region where Northam is polling in front of of McAullife, but it’s a small regional effect.

Lessons For the Next Few Weeks

1. Sarvis is polling very well for a third party candidate. Unless there’s a sharp decline suddenly, he could receive up to 5% of the vote even when you assume some portion of his supporters get cold feet in the voting booth.

Corollary A: If Republicans are giving up on Cuccinelli, they have less reason to go after Sarvis directly, more reasons to focus on Sarvis voters downballot. Fewer reasons to attack Sarvis = Sarvis’s numbers remain high. I don’t see what outside events conspire to bring Sarvis’s polling down.

2. With Sarvis voters swinging Democratic in the Northern Virginia Exurbs (and in Richmond, technically), Northam running behind McAuliffe in the Northern Virginia Exurbs, and the need to help down-ballot races like the 87th, the focus of the race in the final days will be in Prince William and Loudoun.

Corollary B: Three internals so far, all from Northern Virginia. The low hanging fruit for the House of Delegates is in Northern Virginia, a further reach would turn Democrats to Tidewater. If Democrats start showing good internals in those races, and devoting resources, it’s a sign that the landslide really is building.

3. Obenshain is the last, best hope for Republicans. Given the makeup of the undecided voters and Sarvis’s vote, it may be possible for Obenshain to pull off a narrow win, but it’s hard to see how that road doesn’t also run through Prince William and Loudoun. More on the AG’s race in the coming days…

4.  If McAuliffe hits as high as 52%, the race will likely see an absolute majority for the Democrats in 46 House of Delegates districts. Depending on Sarvis’s share of the vote, McAuliffe could be under 50% but still ahead of Cuccinelli in right at 50 of the House seats. This shows just how high the hurdle is for Democrats in the House of Delegates right now in taking back the chamber. More on the House of Delegates races in the coming days…


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