The word Virginia voters most commonly associate with their gubernatorial candidates is “dishonest,” according to poll results released Thursday that offer a glimpse into the collateral damage inflicted by the candidates’ negative campaigns.
When asked the first thought or word that came to mind in response to hearing each candidates’ name, “dishonest” came up 13 percent of the time for Democrat Terry McAuliffe and 10 percent for Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the state’s attorney general.
“Voters continue to learn more about the candidates, but, in this case, familiarity appears to be breeding contempt,” said Dr. Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College, which released the poll. “When ‘dishonest’ is the most common response to each, you know the candidates are not generally popular.”
Overall, the poll puts Mr. McAuliffe at 35 percent, Mr. Cuccinelli at 33 percent and Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis at 8 percent. The survey, conducted Sept. 9-15 of 874 likely voters, had a margin of error of 3.3 percent.
The Roanoke poll also presented a potential quandary for Mr. Cuccinelli.
Two-thirds of voters were at least somewhat familiar with controversies surrounding the attorney general’s receiving gifts from a wealthy businessman and his office’s giving legal advice to out-of-state energy companies that donated to his campaign — two issues with which Mr. McAuliffe’s campaign has relentlessly used against him.
Mr. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, has criticized Mr. McAuliffe for his role with GreenTech Automotive Inc., a small-car company he cofounded in 2009 that has not lived up to projected job or production levels and is currently under investigation by the federal government.
But less than half of voters were familiar with Mr. McAuliffe’s involvement with the company.
That leaves the campaign with a possible choice of working to improve Mr. Cuccinelli’s favorability ratings or trying to drive Mr. McAuliffe’s favorability down, said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor and longtime observer of politics in the state.
“If you’ve taken a look at the last couple of weeks, it’s clear that [Cuccinelli’s] been trying to be a bit more positive — that he’s trying to contrast his policy knowledge with what he calls McAuliffe’s casualness,” Mr. Holsworth said.
Mr. Cuccinelli took the dramatic step Thursday of unveiling a half-hour television ad in which he makes his case to be governor before a studio audience. He also rolled out a separate ad touting the recent endorsement of the political arm of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
Meanwhile, Mr. McAuliffe released an ad Thursday hitting Mr. Cuccinelli on the energy issue.
The ads come after a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday that also shows the race within the margin of error says more voters now see it as a mudslinging contest than did a month ago.
In August, 32 percent of voters said Mr. Cuccinelli was spending more time explaining what he would do if elected governor, and 52 percent said he was spending more time attacking Mr. McAuliffe.
This week, the split dropped to 24 percent who said the campaign was about issues and 60 percent who thought it was about attacks. Mr. McAuliffe saw a similar trend. His split was 25 percent to 56 percent last month and 19 percent to 68 percent this week.
But if the attacks are meant to damage the candidates in the minds of the voters, the numbers also show that to a certain extent they’re working.
Thirty-nine percent of voters in the Quinnipiac polling thought Mr. McAuliffe was honest and trustworthy last month — the same number as this month. But the percentage of voters who think he’s not honest and trustworthy jumped six points over that period, from 36 percent to 42 percent.
Mr. Cuccinelli experienced a similar backward shift. Forty-two percent of voters last month said he was honest and trustworthy, compared to 43 percent who said he was not. That split jumped to 39 percent trustworthy to 49 percent untrustworthy in the Quinnipiac poll this week.
Still, Mr. Cuccinelli won the support this week of 44 percent of voters who say honesty is extremely important to them, compared to 40 percent for Mr. McAuliffe.
And, in the end, style might trump substance — or at least come close.
“The nature of this campaign has been calling the other candidate unfit for office,” Mr. Holsworth said. “It’s not a contest of ideas.”