The governor’s race in Virginia this week has been a little bit like that old joke about the weather. Don’t like the latest poll? Just wait a bit and they’ll change.
Three polls came out this week: Two showed Democrat Terry McAuliffe ahead (both by 4 percentage points) and one showed Republican Ken Cuccinelli ahead (by 6 percentage points.)
So, who’s right?
This is where we issue our regular consumer advisory on polls. Polls aren’t necessarily predictive tools, although we all want to use them that way. (Another analogy: It’s like getting advice on the stock market. You can see how a certain stock has performed and is performing, and maybe that means it’ll make you rich tomorrow, but nobody really knows whether it’ll tank tomorrow.)
Ultimately, I can’t tell you which one of these polls is right — or if any of them are right. In some ways, they’re all right, in the sense that these are snapshots in time, based on different questions and different assumptions, and thus produce different results. Yet another analogy: It’s like Shrodinger’s cat, which was both dead and alive at the same time.
Enough of that blather, though. I’ve spent some time looking over all three and here are a few takeaways.
First, the lay of the land:
* Public Policy Polling is a Democratic polling outfit. That doesn’t necessarily mean their results are biased toward the D’s. On the other hand, you ought to know whose side they’re on in case you want to disregard them on principle. (One way to evaluate them: If they show results that favor the Democrats, well, maybe it’s wise to seek a second opinion. But if they show results unfavorable toward the Democrats — and sometimes they do — maybe they’re right, after all.)
* The Quinnipiac University Poll has been active around the country and has no partisan connection. For what it’s worth, both the partsian PPP and the non-partisan Q Poll produce the same results: McAuliffe up by 4.
* The Roanoke College Poll has sometimes shown stronger Republican results than other polls. For instance, last fall, the poll showed Romney and Allen leading in Virginia and we know how that turned out. And, indeed, this time, the poll shows Cuccinelli up by 6. On the other hand, Roanoke College was the first poll back in 1994 to pick up Democrat Chuck Robb’s late-season momentum that pulled him ahead of Republican Oliver North. At the time, the poll was discounted, but it turned out Roanoke College was simply ahead of the curve then.
This time around, I notice these things:
* IS IT A THREE-WAY RACE OR A TWO-WAY RACE? There are two candidates who are getting the attention, but there are really three names on the fall ballot. PPP and Roanoke College both included Libertarian Robert Sarvis in their questions; the Q Poll did not. The result: PPP had Sarvis at 7 percent, Roanoke College had him at 5 percent, while he wasn’t mentioned in the Q Poll at all. So does including him wind up overstating his true support, or does not including him distort whatever “none of the above” vote he might get? Also keep in mind that third party candidates often score higher in the summer than they do on election day. Whatever the answer, they are somewhat different questions.
* DOES THE ROANOKE COLLEGE POLL REALLY SHOW A MCAULIFFE LEAD AFTER ALL? Roanoke College asked a follow-up question, in which Sarvis was dropped out of the mix — and Cuccinelli’s 6-point lead turned into a 5-point lead for McAuliffe. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Sarvis was pulling all his support from disenchanted Democrats. Specifically, in a three-way race it was Cuccinelli 37, McAuliffe 31, Sarvis 5, but a two-way race made it McAuliffe 36, Cuccinelli 31. So if Roanoke College had asked the question the way the Q Poll did, you’d have three polls giving McAuliffe the lead. But if the Q Poll had asked the question the way Roanoke College had — well, we don’t know what it would have said. And nobody knows how Sarvis will fare over the course of the campaign. Will he become just an asterisk, or a haven for those who want to register a protest vote against the two major party candidates?
* FAVORABLE/UNFAVORABLE, OR, WHO DO VIRGINIANS HATE THE MOST?: One of the things driving poll numbers often are the favorable/unfavorable ratings. Roanoke College didn’t appear to ask that directly, but the other two did — and got different results.
The Q poll put Cuccinelli’s favorable/unfavorable at 31/30 — an even split. But the PPP said Virginians viewed Cuccinelli much more unfavorably — 32 favorable, 47 unfavorable. Umm, big difference.
Tthe Q poll found Virginians were more positively inclined toward McAuliffe — 30 favorable, 19 unfavorable. Yet the Democratic PPP found Virginians split on McAuliffe — 34 favorable, 36 unfavorable (perhaps a reassuring number to conservatives who might reflexively reject the PPP.) Again, big difference.
Big picture, though: Both polls generally found Cuccinelli viewed less favorably than McAuliffe, but with a lot of people saying they don’t have enough information to decide. There’ll be a lot of campaign commercials between now and November to help them, eh?
*THE BARBECUE TEST: My favorite question in all the polls was one the Q Poll asked: Who would you rather chat with at a barbecue, Terry McAuliffe or Ken Cuccinelli?
Cuccinelli had a narrow lead there, 38-34. This reminds me of the question that University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato used to say was the key to an election in the Old Dominion: Which candidate would you rather invite to a suburban cocktail party? I can’t really explain, though, why the Q Poll showed voters would rather chat with Cuccinelli at the barbecue but then gave McAuliffe the edge when it came to they would you vote for. Maybe it’s just statistical noise since the numbers are so close. On the other hand, maybe it’s like this: If I had a chance to chat up Willie Nelson at a barbecue, well, who wouldn’t? But I probably wouldn’t vote for him for governor. There’s a difference between who’s an interesting, engaging guest and who would be a competent chief executive.
* WHO ARE THESE GUYS ANYWAY? In the down-ballot races, the Q Poll didn’t ask a head-to-head question. Instead, it simply asked about name recognition and found that all four candidates are virtually unknown to voters. Roanoke College and PPP did ask head-to-head and got somewhat different results. Roanoke College found the races for lieutenant governor and attorney general statistically tied (with Democrat Ralph Northam a few points ahead of Republican E.W. Jackson, and Republican Mark Obenshain a few points ahead of Democrat Mark Herring, but within the margin of error.)
The PPP, though, gave Northam a clear 7-point lead, while also finding the AG’s race statistically tied (although with Herring slightly ahead within the margin.)
* SO WHAT’S ALL THIS MEAN? My advice is to focus on the big picture and not get caught up in the details. Big picture: We seem to have a competitive governor’s race going on between two candidates that a lot of voters simply don’t know much about. They know somewhat more about Cuccinelli — for better or worse, depending on their views of him — because he’s been in statewide office for four years. They really don’t know much about McAuliffe at all.
And they know even less about the candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general, so they’re probably all about even. Realistically, Jackson is going to be the hardest sell for Republicans, but we don’t need a poll to tell us that. However, there’s no data yet to say he’s unelectable. Many Republicans thought there was no way that Democrat Doug Wilder would win in the 1985 lieutenant governor’s race ; likewise, many Democrats were convinced that L.F. Payne would easily defeat John Hager in 1997. In both cases, a strong surge for one party swept in the entire ticket.
Beyond that, I’d be wary of drawing too many conclusions at the moment. However, if you have a chance to chat up either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe (or Sarvis, for that matter) at a barbecue this summer, I’d highly recommend it. And if you hear Willie Nelson is going to be there, please let me know. (Bonus for Willie fans: The Red Headed Stranger will be at the Roanoke Performing Arts Center on September 13; music writer Tad Dickens has details here.)
– Dwayne Yancey