Six months out, the race to become Virginia’s next governor could go down to the wire. Neither candidate is starting out with a significant advantage, according to an NBC News/Marist poll released Wednesday morning.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli are in a statistical tie, with McAuliffe getting support from 43 percent of registered voters and Cuccinelli with 41 percent. But among likely voters, Cuccinelli is ahead by three points, 45 percent to 42 percent.
“No one is approaching the 50-yard line on this. It is wide open,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll.
Those are different results from a recent Washington Post poll, which showed Cuccinelli leading by five points among registered voters and 10 points among likely voters.
In this NBC/Marist survey, both candidates appear to be polarizing and have little crossover appeal. In fact, 91 percent of registered Democrats support McAuliffe, and 91 percent of registered Republicans back Cuccinelli. The candidates split independents with 36 percent each, leaving almost three in 10 -- 28 percent -- undecided.
There’s a wide gender gap, with McAuliffe leading among women -- 50 percent to 34 percent -- and Cuccinelli ahead among men, 49 percent to 34 percent. But there’s also an intensity gap, with 53 percent of Cuccinelli backers strongly supporting him, versus 47 percent expressing similar support for McAuliffe.
The candidates are essentially even, but Cuccinelli has a slight advantage on candidate-quality questions such as:
- Who has a better understanding of people like you? (Cuccinelli has a 34-30 percent edge.)
- Who do you trust more to do what’s best for Virginia? (Cuccinelli's ahead 39-33 percent.)
- Who is closer to you on social issues? (Cuccinelli, 33-31 percent.)
- Who cares more about the middle class? (McAuliffe, 31-30 percent.)
- Who shares your values? (Cuccinelli, 35-29 percent.)
Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general who has been criticized by Democrats as too conservative for a state Barack Obama won twice, has a 51 percent approval rating among registered voters. He has a slightly lower, 42 percent favorability rating (with 27 percent viewing him negatively).
McAuliffe, a prolific Democratic fundraiser and former Democratic National Committee chairman, is largely undefined. In the poll, 44 percent say they are unsure or have never heard of him; 32 percent have a favorable impression and 24 percent have an unfavorable one.
“It's either half empty or half full,” Miringoff said. “Cuccinelli has the slight edge, but McAuliffe has more room to grow.”
Also weighing down Cuccinelli is the Republican Party brand in the Commonwealth. Just 36 percent of registered Virginia voters have a favorable impression of the GOP, while a majority -- 52 percent -- have a negative one. Virginians are split on Democrats -- 44 percent positive, 45 percent negative.
President Obama outperforms that with a 51 percent approval rating and a 53 percent favorable rating.
Most Virginians -- 60 percent -- see their state headed in the right direction, far better than national views about the direction of the country.
Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who is limited to one four-year term as governor, does the best of anyone in the state, with a 61 percent approval rating. (The poll was conducted April 28 to May 2, partially before and after the news of an FBI inquiry into McDonnell’s accepting of a gift from a campaign donor to help defray the cost of his daughter’s wedding. The pollsters said they saw little change in the governor’s approval before the story came out and afterward.)
But Virginians’ praise for McDonnell appears to be confined to his current job. Fewer than a quarter of registered voters -- 24 percent -- want him to seek the presidency; 58 percent think he should not.
And, if he were to run, win the Republican nomination, and face Hillary Clinton, Virginians say they would vote for the former secretary of state by a 52 to 41 percent margin.
McDonnell would beat Vice President Joe Biden, however, 49 to 42 percent.
The poll surveyed 1,095 registered Virginia voters and has a margin of error of +/- 3 percent.