Welcome to a non-presidential election year in the age of Obama. Last week, a new poll showed Democratic Senate candidate Ed Markey ahead of his Republican rival, Gabriel Gomez, by just 4 points in Massachusetts, reviving memories of Scott Brown’s victory in a 2010 special election. On Sunday, the flashbacks intensified when a Washington Post poll found Republican Ken Cuccinelli leading Democrat Terry McAuliffe by 5 points among registered voters, and 10 points among those certain to vote in November’s Virginia gubernatorial contest. Democrats should get used to it.
The Post poll might not be quite as bad as it seemed: 22 percent of non-white voters, versus 8 percent of white voters, were undecided, a disproportionate number that's largely responsible for McAuliffe’s deficit among registered voters. McAuliffe has 69 percent support among black voters, but in the end will win at least 85 percent of black voters, if not more. If he ultimately consolidates the minority vote, as expected, he wouldn’t be down by 5. Upcoming polls might show a tighter race, or even a McAuliffe lead, if fewer minorities are “undecided.”
But the large number of undecided non-white voters might be a sign of McAuliffe’s real problem: low minority turnout in a non-presidential election. According to the survey, McAuliffe trails by 10 points among those “certain” to vote, mainly because non-white voters just aren’t sure whether they’ll show up in November: 72 percent of whites are certain to vote, compared to just 56 percent of non-whites. Similarly, 50 percent of 18- to 39-year-olds are certain to vote, while 77 percent of seniors say they’re sure to show-up.
These gaps could narrow over the course of the campaign, but history suggests they’re likely to endure through November. In an off year, Virginia is not a blue state: It leans Republican. In Virginia’s 2009 gubernatorial election, non-whites represented 22 percent of the electorate—down 8 points from 2008, while 18- to 29-year-olds represented just 10 percent of voters, down from 21 percent in 2008. Obama comfortably won Virginia by 4 points last November, but he would have lost if the electorate was as old and white as it was in 2009. In fact, just 43 percent of voters in the ’09 gubernatorial contest said they voted for Obama, even though he won 53 percent of the vote in ’08.
Successful Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia, like now-senators Mark Warner (2002-6) and Tim Kaine (2006-10), overcame demographics by doing much better among white voters than either John Kerry or Obama. In 2005, Kaine carried six counties in the rural, white, western part of Virginia that went to John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, and I’m not even going to count how many rural counties went for Warner and Romney. According to the 2006 exit polls, Democrat Jim Webb barely won his Senate seat by a few thousand votes while carrying 42 percent of the white vote. Obama won comfortably twice while topping out at 39 percent of the white vote. In the Post poll, 58 percent of white voters already support Cuccinelli, all but closing off McAuliffe’s path to victory if the electorate is as old and white as it was in 2006 or 2009.
If there’s good news for McAuliffe, it’s that the race is still early. Many Democrats are convinced that Cuccinelli, as an extreme conservative, is unelectable, but Democrats haven’t yet played their hand—which includes hitting Cuccinelli for defending sodomy laws—and the campaign is only just getting underway. As a result, voters don’t know much about the candidates: The Post poll shows that 52 percent of voters say they know “little” or “nothing" about Cuccinelli. That tally rises among the groups most likely to be alienated by Cuccinelli’s positions: 58 percent of moderates, 58 percent of women, 61 percent of non-whites, and 62 percent of 18- to 39-year-olds say they know “little” or “nothing” about the Republican nominee.
Of course, Republicans also haven’t played their hand against McAuliffe, the consummate Beltway insider. The problem for McAuliffe is that the GOP’s turnout advantage would probably give Cuccinelli an advantage in a race of two equal evils, at least if you assume that such a race would divide the electorate along the lines of the Obama-Romney election. Put differently: McAuliffe will probably need to do better among white voters than Obama did, yet it’s hard to see how he does so unless there’s widespread revulsion to Cuccinelli’s candidacy but not McAuliffe’s. This wouldn’t have been an issue in 2008 or 2012, but this is a non-presidential election year—and this is the cost, to Democrats, of relying on a young, diverse coalition.