Democrat Terry McAuliffe holds a 44 percent to 41 percent lead over Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II in the race for Virginia governor, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis pulling 7 percent of the vote, according to a poll released Wednesday.
Quinnipiac University Polling Institute Assistant Director Peter A. Brown said it's possible Mr. Sarvis could influence the outcome of the election, though support for third-party candidates tends to decrease as election day nears.
To that point, 81 percent of McAuliffe supporters say they will definitely vote for the businessman and former head of the Democratic National Committee, compared to 78 percent who say the same for Mr. Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general. But just 50 percent of Sarvis supporters who were asked say they'll definitely support him, and more than a third say there's a good chance their vote will change.
"Terry McAuliffe is less disliked than State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Voters are not wild about either man, and that may be one reason why Libertarian Robert Sarvis is running so well," Mr. Brown said. "History tells us that third-party candidates tend to experience shrinking support as Election Day nears. If Sarvis does get 7 percent of the actual vote, that would reflect not just his strength but the weakness of the major party candidates."
Indeed, there was significant buzz last year that former Congressman and Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode might siphon enough votes away from Republican Mitt Romney in Virginia to hand the state to President Obama, but Mr. Obama ended up winning Virginia by about 4 points and Mr. Goode received 0.33 percent of the vote.
Voters have a split view of Mr. McAuliffe; 38 percent view him favorably and 38 percent view him unfavorably. That compares to Mr. Cuccinelli's favorable-unfavorable split of 34 percent to 51 percent. 85 percent of those polled do not have enough information about Mr. Sarvis to form an opinion.
"Right now, we can't tell whether Sarvis' candidacy is hurting Cuccinelli more than McAuliffe," Mr. Brown said. "The Libertarian candidate is getting 3 percent of the Republican vote and 2 percent of the Democratic vote, but 14 percent of independent voters."
"Since there are more people in Virginia who now consider themselves Democrats than Republicans, logic says that Cuccinelli needs a solid margin among independent voters," he continued. "Instead, these voters are divided 37–37 percent between the Democrat and Republican."
"This race is within the margin of error, which we always knew was the case," Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix said. "As voters learn more about Ken Cuccinelli's record of fighting for Virginia and Terry McAuliffe's record of putting himself first at the expense of workers, they are going side with the attorney general. With each passing day, the energy and enthusiasm on the ground in support of Cuccinelli grows, and with less than 50 days, our campaign is working to deliver victory on November 5th."
Honesty is the most desired quality in a candidate, Mr. Brown said; 59 percent rate it "extremely important" and 35 percent say it's "very important."
Thirty-nine percent say Mr. McAuliffe is honest and trustworthy and 42 percent say he isn't, compared to a 39-49 percent negative split for Mr. Cuccinelli. Among those who say honest is extremely important, however, Mr. Cuccinelli holds a 44 percent to 40 percent advantage.
"The coverage of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's relationship with a large campaign donor certainly isn't helping Cuccinelli to be seen as Mr. Clean," Mr. Brown said.
Fifty eight percent of voters say Mr. Cuccinelli has the right experience to be governor, compared to 47 percent for Mr. McAuliffe. But 35 percent of voters say Mr. Cuccinelli understands problems of "people like you," compared to 56 percent who say he does not. Mr. McAuliffe has a negative 40 percent to 44 percent rating in that category.
The poll of 1,005 likely voters was taken from Sept. 9-15 and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. Thirty-two percent of those polled are self-identified Democrats, compared to 26 percent who say they are Republicans and 34 percent who say they're independent.
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