In Virginia’s gubernatorial election today, current Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is expected to lose to former Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe. Virginia, a hotly contested state in recent presidential elections, is an important prize for both parties. The state was reliably Republican until recent years when Virginians voted for Barack Obama twice.
After a dead heat for much of the spring and summer, the race trended towards McAuliffe in late summer. Polling data archived on Real Clear Politics and the Wikipedia page dedicated to the race show polls split between the two candidates between January and July. In September, Mr. McAuliffe began to edge away from Mr. Cuccinelli and in October he picked up a commanding, often double digit, lead for most of October. In recent days, two polls have shown Mr. Cuccinelli closing the gap, but still trailing.
The most recent poll, released on Nov. 4 by Quinnipiac, found McAuliffe leading 46-40 percent with Libertarian Robert Sarvis at eight percent. Another recent poll by Emerson College released three days earlier showed McAuliffe with only a two point lead.
There are likely two big reasons for Ken Cuccinelli’s impending loss. The most obvious is Robert Sarvis, the third man in the race. Sarvis, a lawyer and software developer is Libertarian candidate for governor. According to Real Clear Politics, Mr. Sarvis has polled between four and 13 percent in recent polls. In many of the polls, if the Libertarian percentage were applied to Mr. Cuccinelli, he would lead Mr. McAuliffe.
Third party candidacies damage the party that they more closely identify with because they draw voters from the same pool. The Republican and Libertarian parties are both competing for voters who oppose the Democratic big government agenda, Obamacare, gun control, higher taxes, and a host of other common issues. Since the Republican Party has the largest base, the Republican candidate ends up being hurt by the Libertarian. The Emerson College poll confirmed that Sarvis was drawing support from twice as many Republicans as Democrats.
Libertarian candidates do not have enough support to win. Instead, they can only act as a spoiler to prevent Republicans from winning. Many third party advocates are fond of saying that “a vote for the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil.” In reality, a more appropriate aphorism would be that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”
The second factor that will likely cost Cuccinelli the race is the government shutdown. Cuccinelli’s dive in the polls coincided with the run-up to the government shutdown. At the same time, Democrats surged in generic congressional ballots and a number of polls reported Republican approval ratings at historic lows. Polling in Virginia shows that Mr. Cuccinelli’s resurgence began in late October after a compromise on Oct. 16 reopened the federal government.
The Virginia race was contentious from the beginning with McAuliffe reprising Barack Obama’s successful “war on women” strategy against Cuccinelli. For his part, McAuliffe has been plagued by a string of scandals relating to his business dealings with an electric car company that took federal money and allegedly received favorable treatment from the government. Over the weekend, on Nov. 3, President Obama visited Virginia to campaign for McAuliffe. Given the president’s recent low approval ratings and Obamacare’s continuing difficulties, the trip may be as likely to hurt McAuliffe as help him.
In a last ditch effort to rally support, Cuccinelli has attempted to turn the election into a referendum on the Affordable Care Act. CBS News reported that Cuccinelli, who led the more than half of the states in a lawsuit that challenged Obamacare, told supporters, “If you want to fight Obamacare, if you want to tell Washington that Virginians have had enough of Obamacare, then I need your vote.”
The election will likely hinge on turnout, which is expected to be low. According to CBS News, the state believes that turnout may be as low as 30 percent.