Skip to main content
ABC News
2009 Elections Preview: Virginia Governor

Part two of a five-part series.

Virginia — Governor

The Candidates:
Attorney General Bob McDonnell, Republican
State Senator Creigh Deeds, Democrat

The Polling: McDonnell leads by 10.9 points in the average and by margins ranging from 8 to 17 points in individual polls. The magnitude of his advantage has generally been expanding over the course of the past six weeks.

Analysis: Deeds has virtually no chance. Did he ever have a chance? That’s perhaps the better question.

After a short-lived bounce in June following his come-from-behind win over Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran in the Democratic primaries, pollsters started getting a better look at the electorate, and what they saw was bad news for Deeds and for Democrats. Consider, for instance, the Washington Post poll that has McDonnell up 11 points. The registered voter pool in the state favors Democrats 48-42 (counting “leaners”), according to the poll. But the likely voter universe favors Republicans (again counting leaners) 49-43. That’s just a huge difference. And it’s not an isolated result; PPP and SurveyUSA have shown pretty much the same thing, and have been doing so for some time now. If you had a 2008-type electorate turning out, this race would be reasonably competitive; McDonnell might be leading by a point or three, but it would be worth watching. With this type of electorate, the Democrat is pretty much helpless against a reasoanbly well-organized Republican opponent.

Of course, the composition of the electorate isn’t a completely exogenous factor; the quality of the candidates and their campaigns can have some effect. Democrats seemed quite pleased when Deeds became their nominee in June, figuring he’d do well with working-class and rural voters. But the the working-class, rural vote isn’t where the swing vote is in Virginia, one of the wealthiest states in the country. Instead, it’s the more well-off folks in the suburbs. And it tends to be those well-off folks, by the way, who are most likely to have changed their opinion on Barack Obama, as the perception has set in (to an extent) that he’s a tax-and-spend liberal.

Meanwhile, Deeds hasn’t done much to motivate African-American turnout, which projects to make up only about 15 percent of the electorate as compared with 20 percent in 2008 — although the number is not so atypical for a non-Presidential contest in the state.

Since people are going to want to assign blame here, I’d attribute it about 3:1 to the national environment as opposed to anything in particular that Deeds has done. Keep in mind that the pollsters were projecting these turnout problems for the Democrats as early as July, long before the Deeds campaign had much chance to influence the result. Furthermore, McDonnell himself is a fairly strong and charismatic candidate, somebody who might get talked up in a couple of years as having national ambitions; polls have also shown him defeating incumbent governor Tim Kaine in a hypothetical matchup between the two, and Kaine is fairly popular.

With that said, Deeds can probably be blamed for his failure to find a good affirmative message, as voters perceive him 2:1 as having run a negative campaign. And — let’s face it — he’s not the most commanding presence on the stump. Mean works when your John Corzine; it doesn’t work when you’re supposed to be the nice guy.

The Odds: Deeds has got to be about a 60-1 underdog at this stage. We’d be looking at an upset of Hillary-in-New Hampshire proportions.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.