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McAuliffe : Virginia :: Dean : Iowa?

We haven’t been paying quite as much attention to next Tuesday’s Virginia Democratic Primary as we probably should. But these charts from tell you pretty much all you need to know:

The purple line is Creigh Deeds, whom I’d been hoping might lose mainly because I don’t want to be misspelling his first name for the next six months. But there’s been some fairly robust polling of this race, and Deeds has all sorts of momentum. The green line is Terry McAuliffe, the outspoken former DNC chair and longtime Democratic consultant. McAuliffe does not have the momentum. In fact, his stock is dropping like a rock. Meanwhile, the third candidate, Brian Moran, is gaining ground on McAuliffe too but having trouble keeping up with Deeds. Does this pattern look familiar to anyone?

This was the polling situation in the run-up to the 2004 Iowa Democratic Caucus, with the last data point representing the actual results. As you can see, while it was clear from the polling that Howard Dean was losing momentum and John Kerry and John Edwards were gaining it, the polling far underestimated the magnitude of the momentum, and Dean wound up losing to Kerry by 19 points.

These kind of dramatic late swings happen more often in primaries than in general elections, and more often in multi-candidate fields than in two-candidate ones. I don’t want to say they’re always dispositive, because I haven’t studied the issue systematically enough. Of note is that at least one hot-off-the-presses poll (from SurveyUSA) still has McAuliffe ahead by 6 points. But overall, and particularly in consideration of the fact that is Terry McAluiffe, who started out with the biggest warchest and the most name recognition, it’s hard to see what he’s going to do to halt his slide.

McAuliffe does, however, have one asset that Howard Dean didn’t: Bill Clinton, whom he already pulled out of his hat in mid-May and who will return to Virginia over the weekend. McAuliffe, because of his access to the Democratic establishment, presumably also has things like superior voter lists, which could help his turnout on Election Day.

There is one last problem for McAuliffe, though: what happens to those Moran voters? Will they stick with their guy? He does, after all, seem to have some momentum of his own, and is polling within the margin of error in several surveys. Or, rather than playing the role of John Edwards, will Moran be more like Dick Gephardt, who also lost momentum in the days before the Iowa Caucus and saw most of his vote go to candidates like Kerry and Edwards? If some Moran voters do defect, presumably they would be more likely to go to Deeds, who has substantially better favorables than McAuliffe according to PPP (although Research 2000 disagrees).

My armchair assessment is that the probabilities here are something like Deeds 60-70%, McAuliffe 20-30%, and Moran 10-20%. Like Dean, McAuliffe wears his emotions on his sleeve, and if he were to lose, the concession speech should be something to watch.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.