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McAuliffe Overcoming the GOP's Turnout Advantage

If Virginia’s gubernatorial contest was a fight between two equal candidates nominated by two equally evil parties, as it was initially billed, Ken Cuccinelli would have been a modest favorite. The state has a slight but clear Republican lean in an off year election, when Virginia’s new Democratic coalition of young and non-white voters is disproportionately likely to stay home.

But clearly, Virginia voters do not think this is not a contest of two equally evil candidates and parties. The latest Quinnipiac survey shows McAuliffe taking a 6 point lead, 48-42. If confirmed by other surveys—and it should be noted that this is the first Virginia survey in a while—it would be an impressive advantage, since it’s a poll of likely voters. It would mean McAuliffe is overcoming the GOP’s off year turnout advantage.

Compare the racial composition of today’s poll to Quinnipiac’s final survey of the 2012 presidential election. In their final poll last October, President Obama held a 5 point lead, about the same as his eventual 3.9 point victory. The electorate was 68 percent white, 19 percent black, and 4 percent Hispanic, with the balance saying “other” or not responding. Today, McAuliffe holds a 6 point lead, but the electorate is distinctly less diverse: 72 percent white, 16 percent black, 2 percent Hispanic.

The same thing is true for age. Quinnipiac didn’t release the weighted share of people over age 65 in last October’s poll, but the Census and exit polls put seniors at 13 and 14 percent of the electorate in 2012. Today’s Quinnipiac poll shows people over age 65 representing 21 percent of the electorate.

So McAuliffe has a 6 point lead in an electorate that might not have reelected the president last November. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s doing better among whites with a college degree. Last October, Obama trailed by 7 points; today, McAuliffe has it all tied up. But McAuliffe is also doing well among whites without a college degree. He’s narrowed the president’s 30 point gap down to just 16 points. Perhaps most incredibly, McAuliffe leads among seniors. We’ll see whether he can keep that up, especially if the campaign becomes a culture war referendum. On the other hand, McAuliffe only has a 74-7 lead among black voters with plenty undecided. If true, I have a hunch about how they would break.

Even though the poll shows the clear markings of diminished non-white and youth turnout in an off-year electorate, there’s some creeping GOP poll “unskewing” going on this morning. Glen Bolger, a prominent Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies, couldn’t help but note that the poll shows Democrats with a 2012-esque advantage in party-ID, and therefore argued that turnout will “favor” the Dems as much in ’13 as ’12. I saw a few other tweets, but unfortunately didn’t save them.

No. Turnout does not “favor” Democrats in the Quinnipiac poll. Party ID is an attitude, not an immutable characteristic. We don’t have a great idea of what it would look like if Democrats got a “good” or “bad” turnout in 2013. If you want to see whether Democrats are getting their 2012-esque turnout advantage, check the verifiable stuff, like age and race. By those reliable metrics, it’s completely obvious that this is not the 2012 electorate. And yet, McAuliffe still has a distinct advantage.

Now, it’s certainly possible that the Quinnipiac survey ends up on the higher end of the Democratic ID advantage. Similarly, it’s possible that other polls will show McAuliffe with a smaller lead. Who knows. It’s only one poll. But there’s no reason to frame that the possibility that this is a good poll for McAuliffe in terms of party ID—and I’d think that would be especially true for the folks who were embarrassed last November by contesting the party ID of every survey. And I’d think they would be doubly reluctant in today’s Virginia, where, well, the GOP is kind of melting down. McDonnell is under investigation. His ratings have tanked. The national GOP is a bit of a mess, too: Democrats might have widened their party-ID advantage among adults since last November. At the very least, recent surveys put the GOP in the upper-teens and low-twenties.

So it’s totally conceivable that this poll is about right. There’s even a bit of corroborating, if circumstantial evidence: the poll shows McAuliffe doing worse among independents than Obama, despite an overall advantage over Obama and lower turnout from Democrats. That’s what we’d expect if a big chunk of Republicans were now calling themselves “independent.” And by the way: Quinnipiac is a decent pollster, with big samples and live interviews with cell phone voters. Take it seriously.

Can Cuccinelli win? Absolutely. Voters just aren’t tuned into the race yet. 31 percent of likely voters haven’t heard enough about McAuliffe to formulate an opinion. There are plenty of bad things to help a voter formulate an unfavorable opinion of McAuliffe. It is possible that the poll does not fully reflect the consequences of the "GreenTech" controversy, if there ultimately are any. So it's very conceivable that things will tighten--or even reverse--as voters learn more about a flawed Democratic candidate.

But there are also plenty of bad things to hear about Cuccinelli, especially if you're a cultural moderate in northern Virginia. McAuliffe exits the campaign pre-season with more than twice as much money in the bank. Given the baggage on Cuccinelli, the Virginia GOP’s baggage, McAuliffe’s financial advantage, and his current (if unconfirmed) lead in the polls, it seems McAuliffe has an edge.