Is Democrat Terry McAuliffe opening up a double-digit lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the much-watched battle for Virginia governor? Or with six days to go until Election Day, is the race closer than ever?
Four new public opinion polls have very different answers.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted over the past week and released Wednesday morning, McAuliffe, a businessman and politically well-connected former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, holds a slight 45%-41% margin over Cuccinelli, Virginia's Attorney General, among likely Commonwealth voters. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis stands at nine percent, with four percent unsure. McAuliffe's four-percentage point edge is down from a seven point lead in Quinnipiac's last poll, which was conducted a week earlier.
McAuliffe's holds a 15 point 46%-31% lead over Cuccinelli in a Roanoke College poll that was released just a few hours after the Quinnipiac survey. The poll indicates Sarvis at nine percent, with a very high 14% undecided.
The results of the Quinnipiac and Roanoke surveys differ from a Washington Post/Abt SRBI survey released Monday night, which indicated McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli by 12 points, 51%-39%, with Sarvis, who made the most of voter discontent with the two major candidates, at nine percent.
And a survey released Wednesday by the Hampton University Center for Public Policy indicates McAuliffe with a six-point 42%-36% advantage over Cuccinelli, with Sarvis at 12% and a one in ten unsure.
McAuliffe was up from the mid to high single digits in just about every public opinion poll conducted from the beginning of September through the middle of this month.
The Quinnipiac poll indicates a divide between men and women, but not as wide a gender gap as registered in the Washington Post survey. According to Quinnipiac, women back McAuliffe 50%-37% over Cuccinelli, with men going for Cuccinelli 45%-39% over McAuliffe.
According to the survey, McAuliffe is grabbing 91% of the Democratic vote, with Cuccinelli taking 86% of Republicans, and independents backing McAuliffe 46%-31%.
"With the race this close, the final decision by the roughly one in 10 voters who are supporting Libertarian Robert Sarvis has become even more critical. Nationally, third-party candidates often lose support in the end as voters enter the voting booth and back someone they consider the lesser of two evils. Only six in 10 Sarvis supporters say they definitely will vote for him. Almost nine in 10 McAuliffe and Cuccinelli backers are committed," says Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The Roanoke poll indicates Cuccinelli with a 28% favorable rating and a 52% unfavorable rating. The survey suggests that the election is shaping up as a referendum on Cuccinelli, with more than half (58%) of his supporters said they are voting for Cuccinelli while a plurality (44%) of McAuliffe voters said they are voting against Cuccinelli.
"At this point, Cuccinelli has to hope that voting for him is a much stronger motivator than voting against him," says Dr. Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research. "McAuliffe's comparatively lower ratings on honesty and intelligence do not suggest that voters are enamored of him. As many voters anecdotally told our interviewers, he is the 'lesser of the evils'."
Getting out the base
While McAuliffe is ahead in all the public opinion polls and while he and his allies have greatly outraised and outspent Cuccinelli and the outside groups backing the GOP candidate, this is expected to be a low-turnout, off-year election which tends to trend older and slightly more conservative. That's why, with the clock ticking towards Election Day, both campaigns are putting the emphasis in the homestretch on getting their voters out to the polls.
The Quinnipiac poll's release comes as McAuliffe campaigns Wednesday for a fourth straight day with just about the biggest star in his party, former President Bill Clinton, who's a close friend. McAuliffe is joined Sunday by President Barack Obama and the next day by Vice President Joe Biden at rallies in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, a Democratic stronghold.
Conservative stars pitch in for Cuccinelli
While Cuccinelli can't count on any presidents or former presidents joining him on the campaign trail, he is getting a helping hand from some conservative favorites.
Even though he's considered a hero to many tea party supporters and other grassroots activists thanks to his very public conservative crusades, including his push against Obamacare, Cuccinelli is bringing in the cavalry to help bring out conservative voters to the polls.
Tuesday he teamed up with with two-term Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has strong credentials with fiscal and social conservatives. On Monday, Cuccinelli was joined at three events with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who's become one of the biggest stars of the conservative movement. At an event in voter-rich northern Virginia, Paul touted that Cuccinelli was "the first attorney general to sue over Obamacare," and went on to predict that "he'll be a leader in defending Virginia against an overzealous government."
Earlier this month former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a 2008 GOP presidential candidate and current Fox News and talk radio host, joined Cuccinelli on the campaign trail, as did Nikki Haley, South Carolina's Republican governor.
Last week Cuccinelli was joined by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, on a conference call. And former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who last year battled eventual Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney deep into the primary calendar, will join Cuccinelli on the campaign trail on Saturday and Santorum's using his political action committee to recruit supporters to knock on doors for Cuccinelli this weekend.
Much Watched Race
Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states to hold elections for governor in the year after a presidential contest, resulting in outsized attention. And with the Garden State's Republican governor, Chris Christie, holding a huge lead over his Democratic challenger in his re-election bid, the Virginia race is considered the only competitive statewide contest this year.
If McAuliffe wins, he would break a long streak in Virginia gubernatorial contests. In the last nine elections, the political party controlling the White House lost the governor's race in the Old Dominion.
Republicans currently control 30 of the nation's governorships.