Game On in Virginia

Don’t believe the hype about Virginia’s gubernatorial election being a blowout.

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Today's Quinnipiac poll of the Virginia gubernatorial race is likely to make a few jaws drop.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli is now trailing Democrat Terry McAuliffe by just four points (41 percent to 45 percent). And according to the pollsters, were Libertarian Robert Sarvis not in the race, "McAuliffe would have 47 percent to 45 percent for Cuccinelli, too close to call."

This survey not only compares to last week's Quinnipiac poll showing McAuliffe leading by seven percentage points, but also to a Washington Post survey released two days ago showing McAuliffe with a 12 point margin over Cuccinelli.

Assuming other pollsters are able to confirm Quinnipiac's latest findings during this final week, the question a lot of analysts will be asking is: How could this have happened?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

The simple, albeit not-at-all sexy answer is that the parties are competitive in Virginia. The Cook Political Report calculates Virginia's current statewide partisan leaning as "even." Not only have the last four presidential elections split two to two (Democrats won in 2008 and 2012; Republicans won in 2004 and 2000), but so, too, have the last four gubernatorial elections (Democrats won in 2001 and 2005; Republicans won in 1997 and 2009).

So why have things appeared so lopsided in McAuliffe's favor these last few weeks? Hotline's Steven Shepard suggests it's the different electorates in the different polls. But in doing this, he misses the point.

The electorates look different because Republicans have finally decided after a long summer of dueling attack ads to get involved in this race. A comparison of the partisan breakdown of likely voters in the two Quinnipiac surveys shows this trend. In the October 23 poll, Republicans comprised 25 percent of likely voters, whereas in the one released today, Republicans were 31 percent of the sample.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

In sum, more Republicans intend to vote next week. In a state with near partisan parity, this means that Cuccinelli's got a real shot.

Whether the current support (10 percent) for Sarvis fades and Republican turnout is strong enough on Election Day to push Cuccinelli over the top remains to be seen. There are both positive signs and flashing warning lights for the Republican candidate throughout the poll.

On the "tricky" side, Cuccinelli's negative favorability rating is not only high (-12), but clocks in at more than double McAuliffe's negative rating (-5). Further, McAuliffe has stronger support from women (50 percent to 37 percent), than Cuccinelli has from men (45 percent to 39 percent).

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is There a Republican 'War on Women'?]

On the "treaty" side, fully 53 percent of Cuccinelli's voters say they support him because they "strongly favor" him and only 22 percent say they are doing so because they "dislike the other candidates." Not so for McAuliffe. Only 39 percent of McAuliffe's voters say they support him because they "strongly favor" him, while 33 percent say they are doing so because they "dislike the other candidates."

All of these data suggest one thing: Turnout is going to matter. Not necessarily the statewide percentage, but which party's identifiers decide to vote. Case in point, in Virginia's last four gubernatorial election years (1997, 2001, 2005 and 2009), the total percentage of registered voters turning out has gone down (50 percent, 46 percent, 45 percent and 40 percent), and Republicans prevailed in the cycles with both the highest and the lowest turnout (1997 and 2009).

As is true in all sports, when the teams are equally matched, to the most committed go the spoils. Six days and counting. Virginia is again "game on."

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