Politico's Andy Barr and Josh Kraushaar penned a nice summary yesterday on the widespread skepticism about the pre-election polls in Virginia. It quotes yours truly as saying it is "virtually impossible" (my words) to "accurately poll" (their words) this race. That may sound a bit strong. It is certainly possible to conduct a survey on the race, and some or all of the polls may ultimately provide an accurate result. But they may also miss by a mile, both because of the challenge of identifying likely voters and because of the chance of last minute shifts. What is "virtually impossible" right now is high confidence that the current polling results will predict who will win or their margin of victory on Tuesday.
Remember the New Hampshire primary last year? Remember how well the polls did there? Virginia shows similar signs of volatility. The Virginia polls show a consistent late trend favoring one candidate with another dropping (ditto in NH in 2008). The four pollsters that have tracked the race show Creigh Deeds gaining and Terry McAuliffe dropping. One poll shows these shifts occurring despite all three candidates maintaining relatively high favorable ratings (ditto in NH). And all of the surveys indicate considerable uncertainty. Our chart shows a multi-poll trend estimate of roughly 18% that are still completely undecided (as of this writing). Three pollsters also asked voters this week if they might still change their minds and found anywhere from 52% to 60% still either totally undecided or uncertain about their current preference (uncertainy on a similar question on the UNH survey was 23% just before the NH primary).
Late shifts and polling errors are a lot more common in primaries than in general elections, partly because it is harder to define the likely electorate and partly because fewer voters are locked into a choice based on party affiliation. In this race, I see at least three factors -- call them keys to the election -- that could well produce a different result (in the leader or in the margin of victory) than what polls currently suggest.
1) Turnout -- I wrote about the turnout puzzle previously, and my post on Wednesday noted that surveys are consistent in showing that a bigger turnout tends to work in Terry McAuliffe's favor (although that pattern could change over the final week).
The really critical question, however, is not so much the level of turnout but (as one helpful reader put it via email) "the dispersion of the turnout based on region." How much of the vote will come from Northern Virginia (where Brian Moran is strong), how much from the rural counties (Deed's base) and how much from the other urban centers in Virginia? Put another way, whose supporters are most energized and ready to vote?
The dispersion question may be most relevant for Northern Virginia, Brian Moran's base. Analysts define the Northern Virginia region differently, but by one definition it surged from about a third of voters in the 2005 Democratic primary to nearly 45% in 2006. Most expect rural interest in Creigh Deeds to boost turnout downstate, but we really won't know the answer until the votes are counted.
2) African-Americans -- If you believe the composition reported by the various public pollsters, African Americans will constitute roughly 30% of the vote on Tuesday. Their preferences remain a wild card.
Although none of the candidates began with a pre-existing base of support among African Americans, Terry McAuliffe is counting on a big vote there because of his long time association with President Bill Clinton. This week's Suffolk University poll gave Clinton a 79% favorable rating among African-American primary voters. McAuliffe has campaigned with Clinton, has run radio ads featuring the former president and just this week sent out direct mail to black voters this week touting support from Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott and the endorsement of the Richmond Free Press, an African American newspaper.
Polls have shown inconsistent results among African-Americans. SurveyUSA has consistently shown McAuliffe running well ahead (38% on their most recent survey) with a relatively small undecided (11%). The most recent surveys by PPP, Research2000 and Suffolk University have shown a close, three-way race with undecideds over 20%. PPP has shown an erosion of support for McAuliffe among African Americans (from 37% in early May to 24% last week), but a consistently huge undecided number (38% in early May, 36% last week). In their most recent poll, PPP found that 60% of African Americans were either completely undecided or could still change their minds (see our chart for links to all polls).
Some speculate that African American turnout will be relatively low, and the greater uncertainty does suggest a lack of enthusiasm. Yet the most extreme speculation of a low black turnout still puts the American-American composition at at least 20%, probably closer to 25%. And the results above suggest that when pushed, African Americans voters tend to break to McAuliffe. A big break in that direction -- especially if he can run his Black support up to 60% or more -- could give McAuliffe with the margin he needs to win.
3) Northern Virginia - Voter preference in the areas of Northern Virginia that fall in the Washington DC media market are probably the biggest unknown in this final weekend, both in terms of turnout and voter preferences. Given the cost of broadcast television and Brian Moran's base of support in the region, all three campaigns have directed their paid communication elsewhere until last week. As such, Northern Virginia voters are engaging in the race later with a a greater potential for last minute shifts.
Brian Moran represents a Northern Virginia district in the legislature, and his better known brother represents the area in the U.S. Congress. So he has consistently led in the region with support in the high 30s or low 40s, depending on the poll, with undecideds typically lower in Northern Virginia than other regions. Although Moran has run television advertising in other markets, he is gambling that a combination of an extensive field campaign and direct mail can motivate a large turnout from his base.
Deeds has typically polled a distant third in Northern Virginia. He was still running third -- with 16% to 23% support-- on the polls released this past week. However, he received a huge potential boost in a surprise endorsement by the Washington Post in late May, an endorsement that has often proved decisive in Democratic primaries in DC and suburban Maryland. Believing they have an especially potent message, the Deeds campaign dug deep to fund a television ad touting the endorsement. It started airing Wednesday night on both broadcast and cable television, and I am told the broadcast component is in the neighborhood of a light 500 gross ratings points.
McAuliffe is doing in Northern Virginia what he has been doing throughout the state: Use his big fundraising advantage to try to overwhelm the other candidates with all forms of paid communication. He has been running television advertising in the DC market since last weekend and, from my own viewing of local stations, appears to be airing more ads than Deeds.
So in Northern Virginia you have a variety of wild-cards: One candidate with a base wagering on direct mail and field organizing, two others with less support dominating television and the still uncertain impact of the Washington Post endorsement, all of it in a region where a lot of voters just started paying attention.
We believe our Virginia chart provides as good an indicator as any of recent trends. It shows that Deeds has been gaining and McAuliffe falling. I would not bet much, however, on the accuracy of the levels of support for each candidate as reported by these surveys. Variations in the dispersion of turnout could produce a significantly different result, and dramatic late shifts -- especially among African Americans or in Northern Virginia -- are still a distinct possibility.