I awoke Sunday morning from what I thought were the usual sounds of traffic along the busy street I just moved to, but once I opened the Post, I realized the noise was the gnashing of teeth of Democratic worriers.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II has an early lead over businessman Terry McAuliffe in their race for governor, a new Washington Post poll shows, even as most voters in the commonwealth have yet to engage in the nationally watched contest.
Six months before Election Day, Cuccinelli (R) has a slender 46 to 41 percent edge over McAuliffe (D) among all Virginia voters and a significant 51 to 41 percent lead among those who say they’re certain to cast ballots in November.
Days when public polls from legitimate news organizations upend the narrative of the race are the worst in campaigns and in the offices of campaign consultants. Everyone outside the campaign are going to rip you for everything they think the campaign is doing wrong and the chattering class will talk about nothing other than this poll until the next one comes out. And if the next poll is favorable to McAuliffe, people will still talk about this one.
The McAuliffe campaign could commission a Garin-Hart-Yang poll to counter this narrative but that would be a waste of time and money. As awful as these numbers are (assuming the poll is right and that the “certain to cast ballot” people actually have voted in state elections and will this time), they do provide guidance to Democrats and allies committed to defeating Ken Cuccinelli this fall:
1. Don’t Panic. Start Working – The election is six months away. I know there is all that bullshit about how Virginia always goes for the party not in the White House (until they don’t), the perception that Terry has with DC liberal writers, and that Cuccinelli has never lost an election while Terry has never won one. However, Virginia voters are not following this race. Just 10% say they are following the race “very closely.” It’s odd that the Post reports just 8% undecided among “certain voters” and just 15% undecided among registered voters. However, they do say that nearly half of the electorate are either undecided or could change their minds. The overall numbers are not good for Terry, but they are not a slam dunk for Cuccinelli.
2. Terry Needs a Strong Positive Roll Out. The Post poll illustrated a simple fact – despite being a well known figure in DC political circles and green rooms, and having run for Governor once already, Virginia voters don’t know anything about Terry McAuliffe. 70% say they know little to nothing about McAuliffe’s qualifications to be Governor. Terry’s ad is a good first start:
However, at some point before summer, and before the wall-to-wall advertising post Labor Day, voters need to know why to vote FOR Terry and AGAINST Cuccinelli. Terry can’t do both right now, so:
3. Progressives and Democrats Need a New Narrative on Cuccinelli and get it on television ASAP. Let’s face it. We all know why Cuccinelli is awful. We have known it in Fairfax County since he first ran in 2002 and other Virginia activists have learned over time. However, what we have said about Cuccinelli, that he is a pro-life extremist among other things, has not resonated. He won election to a Fairfax County Senate seat three times even though the seat has been occupied by a Democrat since he left. And that Democrat has won in low turnout elections. Obama carried it easily twice. While Cuccinelli won in 2009 basically in McDonnell’s shadow, and did worse in his district than McDonnell and Bolling, he did win. He has faced weak candidates but has never lost despite us attacking him. We need to acknowledge that voters don’t know him statewide (52% know little to nothing about his qualifications) but they do like him (30% favorable – 24% unfavorable from last month’s Quinnipiac poll). Whoever is doing polling now, test a wide variety of attacks. Connect them to the issues that matter most to voters – the economy statewide and transportation in the north. Go after ethics and lack of effectiveness at Attorney General. AND GET THE ATTACKS ON THE AIR!!!! Despite the hype over social media and the fragmentation of communication sources – more than two-thirds of voters nationwide get information about the 2012 election from television. Terry can’t do this on his own. He needs us defining Cuccinelli now. We have two months. Once summer begins, TV watching goes down, and if we wait until Labor Day, our message will get lost in the airwaves. And even though I don’t have the data to prove this, I am convinced voters become more skeptical about claims in political ads the closer we get to an election. While voters don’t really tune in until September, they are influenced by things they hear before Labor Day, especially when the airwaves are not saturated.
Also, I live in Cuccinelli’s district. I have watched him for many years now. He is not Ted Cruz, Todd Aiken, or the typical Republican extremist. He is boring. He uses that to his advantage. When you watch him in debates or on TV you will have no idea how extreme he really is since he does not come off that way. Especially when he really starts to toss the word salad. I would link to debate clips from 2007 or 2009, but I defy anyone to stay awake. This undercuts us and highlights the need for a new approach.
4. Be concerned about Terry’s performance among African-Americans but don’t over interpret it. Having done polls in the south for over 20 years, I am still amazed that a white Democrat underperforming among African-Americans generates stories. Just because Terry is only at 69% does not mean he won’t get 90%+ on Election Day. In June 2011, Tim Kaine had just a 69%-11% lead over George Allen while the President had 85% support against a generic Republican among African-Americans. A year later, Kaine led 71% to 16% while Obama was at 82% against Romney. On Election Day, Kaine won African-Americans by a 92% to 8% margin. People will gloat over these numbers now, but they are not being interpreted correctly.
If you care about defeating Ken Cuccinelli, don’t get discouraged by this poll. It will change over the next six months. But this race won’t be easy no matter how awful Cuccinelli is: