With some polls showing the Virginia governor’s race tightening in its final days, Republicans and Democrats are looking to manipulate a bloc of libertarian voters who have withheld their support from the major parties but who could swing the hotly contested race if they return to the fold for Election Day.
A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday showed Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II trimming Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s lead in the Virginia governor’s race to 4 percentage points, suggesting the contest is much closer than some analysis has indicated.
The survey gave Mr. McAuliffe a lead of 45 percent to 41 percent, with 9 percent of likely voters opting for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. That advantage is down from 46 percent to 39 percent for Mr. McAuliffe in a Quinnipiac poll last week, when Mr. Sarvis had 10 percent.
Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said the results suggest that some people who committed to Mr. Sarvis might be “coming home” to Mr. Cuccinelli — good news for the Republican who has had a difficult time throughout the race solidifying support among members of his own party.
In an overwhelmingly negative campaign, Mr. McAuliffe has refrained from making any critical remarks about the third-party candidate, apparently content not to upset the Libertarian’s backers, who are disproportionately pulling support from his main rival.
Mr. Cuccinelli, on the other hand, has made a point of brandishing his libertarian credentials to attract Sarvis supporters who would be crucial to pull out a win over Mr. McAuliffe.
The Republican’s campaign announced Wednesday that former Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican and former presidential candidate, will rally Monday evening with Mr. Cuccinelli in Richmond. Mr. Paul, who often is described as a “libertarian folk hero,” endorsed Mr. Cuccinelli this month.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and Ron Paul’s son, campaigned with Mr. Cuccinelli this week.
The poll released Wednesday suggested that some crucial voters might not have settled on a candidate.
Political analysts have long speculated that Mr. Sarvis could be attracting disaffected voters turned off by what has been a contentious and unusually mean-spirited campaign.
Indeed, about 70 percent of Sarvis backers say they support him because they dislike the other candidates, versus one in five who strongly favor him.
Although 86 percent of McAuliffe backers say they definitely plan to vote for him, and 88 percent of Cuccinelli supporters say their minds are made up, Mr. Sarvis draws a far lower number of committed supporters.
“Only six in 10 Sarvis supporters say they definitely will vote for him,” Mr. Brown said.
The Quinnipiac results still show Mr. McAuliffe leading in the race for the Libertarian’s backers, with 47 percent of Sarvis voters saying he would be their second choice compared with 45 percent who say they would alternately vote for Mr. Cuccinelli. But that gap has closed significantly since last week, when 50 percent of Sarvis voters said that in lieu of their candidate they would support the Democrat and 42 percent chose the Republican.
The poll of 1,182 likely voters, taken Oct. 22-28, has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
Mr. Sarvis, a lawyer and software developer who as recently as 2011 ran for a state Senate seat in Northern Virginia as a Republican, has made clear he has no plans to throw his support behind another candidate in advance of the election. If he draws 10 percent of the vote on Election Day, he will secure the Libertarian Party automatic ballot access for the next several years.
“Look, Virginia voters are apathetic because the system is dysfunctional,” Mr. Sarvis said at a recent WRIC/Radio One forum. “I’m the only candidate who respects both your economic freedom and your personal liberty.”
Libertarian sympathies can be complicated. About 89 percent of self-described libertarians say they have negative views of the Democratic Party, and about 40 percent have unfavorable opinions of Republicans. A majority — 57 percent — hold favorable views of the Republican Party, according to the annual American Values Survey released this week by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.
Libertarians are also principled but not always easy to pigeonhole: A majority of libertarians support legal marijuana but not gay marriage, and would allow doctor-assisted suicide but wouldn’t raise the minimum wage. And they really don’t like Obamacare.
Mr. Cuccinelli recently has been making a clear push for libertarian-minded voters who might be leaning toward Mr. Sarvis, billing himself as “the most liberty-minded statewide elected official in my lifetime.”
But a poll released Wednesday by Hampton University’s Center for Public Policy suggests that Mr. Sarvis might not be losing his base at all.
The Libertarian drew 12 percent in that poll — up from 8 percent last month. The poll, of 800 likely voters and a 2.9-point margin of error, also gave Mr. McAuliffe an advantage of 42 percent to 36 percent over Mr. Cuccinelli.
The Democrat maintains about an 8.3-point advantage in RealClearPolitics’ average of public polls ahead of what is expected to be a frenzied final weekend of the campaign.
Former President Bill Clinton, President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden are making appearances on behalf of Mr. McAuliffe at get-out-the-vote rallies in the closing days of the race.
The events are mainly in Democratic strongholds, such as Northern Virginia and Richmond, as well as college-heavy areas such as Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Mr. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, has maintained a relatively low profile in Northern Virginia, instead trying to fire up his own base in places like southwestern Virginia and the Richmond suburbs.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who is immensely popular among “values voters” and evangelical Christians, will swoop into the state this weekend with his own army of supporters to knock on doors and get out the vote for the Republican candidate.
Mr. Cuccinelli also will get a boost from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Saturday and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who attended a Richmond fundraiser for the Republican last month, on Monday.