President Obama’s sinking job-approval rating in Virginia is so far having no impact on poll numbers for Senate candidate and close Obama ally Tim Kaine, despite Republican attempts to link the two together as their 2012 campaigns grind into gear.
Two highly regarded pollsters show a nearly identical situation, in what is projected to be among the most expensive and closely watched races ever.
A Quinnipiac University poll in June had Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, and George Allen, a Republican, essentially tied at 43 percent and 42 percent, respectively, while Mr. Obama’s approval-disapproval rating was split at 48-48 percent.
Then a Quinnipiac poll released this month showed the Democratic president’s approval-disapproval rating dropping to 40-54 as the U.S. economy continues to struggle, while Mr. Allen led Mr. Kaine 45 percent to 44 percent — still within the poll’s error margin of 2.7 percentage points.
A Public Policy Polling survey released in March had the front-runners locked at 47 percent with Mr. Obama’s approval rating at a 48-45. Then a survey in July by the liberal-leaning firm showed Mr. Obama’s rating had slipped to 47-48 percent, while Mr. Kaine and Mr. Allen remained essentially tied at 46 percent-43 percent, respectively.
“My sense is that Kaine probably feels pretty good right now, given that Obama’s approval ratings are dropping, but his are still even,” said longtime Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth.
Democratic strategist Paul Goldman thinks the former Virginia governors are such well-known commodities across the state that they could be insulated from what’s happening at the national level.
“Two guys, well-known, both of them elected several times statewide,” he said. “The Allen-Kaine race is going to be like a heavyweight fight. It’s going to go 15 rounds.”
Mr. Kaine and the president are indeed political friends. Mr. Kaine served as the president’s handpicked chairman of the Democratic National Committee from January 2009 until he resigned in April to run for Senate, and was the first governor outside of Illinois to endorse Mr. Obama for president during the 2008 election cycle.
However, Mr. Kaine has not exactly given a full-throated endorsement to the president’s most recent deficit-reduction proposal, which includes plans to overhaul the tax code and impose $1.5 trillion in tax increases over the next decade.
“Governor Kaine has called for a balanced approach to deficit reduction that makes targeted spending cuts and asks the wealthiest individuals and corporations to pay their fair share by closing loopholes,” said campaign spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine. “This approach ensures that the middle class doesn’t bear the entire cost of reducing the deficit and protects the economy from dangerous across-the-board spending cuts.”
Republicans have still jumped at any chance to link Mr. Obama and Mr. Kaine, repeatedly referring to him as “chairman” and “cheerleader-in-chief.”
Still, Mr. Kaine since June has improved his status among independent voters, as Mr. Obama’s numbers worsened among the coveted voting bloc, according to the Quinnipiac polls.
In the university’s September poll, independents gave Mr. Kaine a 42 percent-40 percent edge, while giving Mr. Obama an approval-disapproval rating of 29-62, compared with the June poll, in which they favored Mr. Allen 46 percent-38 percent and gave the president a 41 percent-54 percent approval-disapproval split.
“The recent polling confirmed what we already know: This is going to be a very close race that will likely come down to the wire,” said Allen spokesman Bill Riggs.
Mr. Goldman said he knows of at least one Virginia race in recent history that was impacted by a presidential contest: the 1972 Senate race, in which Republican William L. Scott road the coattails of Richard Nixon’s successful re-election campaign to defeat Democratic candidate William B. Spong.
Mr. Nixon carried Virginia and 48 other states — all but Massachusetts — in his victory over Democratic Sen. George McGovern that year.
Still, Mr. Holsworth thinks a more accurate measure of where the 2012 Senate race in Virginia stands is the president’s polling against Republican candidates, rather than his job-approval numbers.
“A 40 percent approval rating doesn’t mean you’re going to get 40 percent of the vote,” he said. “In politics, you always have to run against somebody.”
Indeed, Mr. Obama’s numbers against would-be contenders have more closely tracked with his approval ratings. A poll released shortly after his self-professed “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms, showed him with a 48 percent-43 percent lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and a 49 percent-44 percent lead over former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who at the time was still weighing a bid. Only in the most recent Quinnipiac poll have would-be GOP challengers truly caught up, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Mr. Romney within the margin of error of the president.
Though Mr. Kaine and Mr. Allen are certainly well-known, a big question is to what extent will their race be fought on Virginia or national issues.
“I think that’s an open question right now,” Mr. Holsworth said. “For a vast majority of voters, it’s going to be viewed through the national lens. If you look at what happened in the congressional races in 2010, they were entirely nationalized.”
For example, Democratic then-Rep. Rick Boucher, elected in 1982 to represent Virginia’s Southwestern 9th Congressional District, was toppled by then-Virginia delegate and GOP challenger H. Morgan Griffith in 2010. Mr. Bouchers support of the “cap-and-trade” climate bill regulating carbon emissions played a huge role in the campaign and his surprising loss, though it was Mr. Boucher who helped shape the bill and make changes that he said protected the region’s coal industry.
Another issue is to what extent Mr. Kaine will attempt to distance himself from the president when he campaigns in Virginia, an important swing state he won in 2008 to become the first Democratic presidential candidate in more than four decades to take the state.
“There will be a few places where [Mr. Kaine] will certainly talk about Virginia’s interests, rather than national interests,” Mr. Holsworth said. “But overall, there’s only so much of that he can do — politically and personally. And Obama can’t give up on Virginia. He needs to be here a lot. I don’t think Kaine can win Virginia if Obama’s not competitive here. I just don’t see it.”