Monday, January 21, 2013

Popular as he may be, Gov. McDonnell would struggle in future statewide races, per PPP

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) has been polled twice by two major polling companies at this early stage in 2013, and both find Virginians APPROVING of his job performance by large margins. Yet despite his strong standing with voters, he would struggle in a 2014 Senate race, or a 2016 presidential race, according to Public Policy Polling.

Quinnipiac University's survey indicated that Gov. McDonnell emerged from the 2012 Presidential race with his best net job approval rating since December of 2011, with 54% of Virginians expressing approval of the job he is doing, while just 27% express disapproval. Public Policy Polling was in the field one week earlier than Quinnipiac, and found McDonnell sporting an impressive 48/35% job approval/disapproval rating, though notably less impressive than Quinnipiac. In fact, as the chart below indicates, Governor McDonnell has maintained stellar approval ratings throughout his entire term in office (which doesn't expire until January 2014), averaging 55/30% across 51 polls over the last 3 years:

Two of the four most frequent pollsters in Virginia  diverged somewhat from the average, with PPP tending to show McDonnell MUCH less popular than Quinnipiac's average, Rasmussen's average, AND Roanoke's average. In fact, Bob McDonnell only manages a +11 average job rating from PPP (46/35%), as compared to the +25 rating from the average of all polls (55/30%).

But PPP's divergence from the average aside, McDonnell still loses to possible 2014 challenger Mark Warner, as well as possible 2016 challenger, Hillary Clinton, despite having respectable numbers himself. While PPP's average job rating for McDonnell may be 46/35%, their most recent survey shows McDonnell with a slightly more respectable +13 job rating (48/35%). Despite those good numbers, he would still lose a 2014 Senate battle to incumbent Senator Mark Warner (D) by double digits:
Mark Warner (D):  52%
Bob McDonnell (R):  42%
Undecided:  7%
How does someone so popular do so poorly in a statewide political race? It's because McDonnell's foe, Mark Warner, is even more well-liked than the Governor, boasting a 52/31% job approval rating. Quinnipiac finds Mark Warner with stronger numbers than PPP (59/27% job approval rating), though unfortunately does not test a hypothetical match-up between Warner and McDonnell.

Even worse for McDonnell, when pitted against fmr. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical 2016 presidential match-up, he loses his home state by 5 points:
Hillary Clinton (D):  49%
Bob McDonnell (R):  44%
Not sure:  7%
And the news only improves slightly for McDonnell when you dive into PPP's internals. For example, their survey respondents identified as 73% white, 18% black, and 9% other. That is a more racially diverse electorate than the ones Virginia saw in their last two non-presidential years of 2009 and 2006. But as most observers would tell you, Virginia is not the same state it was in 2006. The growing influence of the D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia have made this once decidedly red state a blueish-purple state. Though for the sake of argument, how would the results involving McDonnell, Warner, and Hillary have looked had PPP found racial/ethnic identification identical to the 2009 Governors race (78% white, 16% black, 6% other)?

Basically, Gov. McDonnell is not well positioned to defeat Mark Warner or Hillary Clinton in Virginia at this early stage, no matter what past contest the racial/ethnic make-up of the PPP poll looks like. He simply loses too many white voters to both of the Democrats he is tested against, which typically spells doom for a Republican. Against Senator Warner (D), McDonnell carries the white vote by just 49-45%. In 2012, George Allen (R) carried the VA white vote against Tim Kaine (D) by 20 pts, 60-40% (while still losing overall 53-47%). And while McDonnell out-polls Hillary Clinton with white voters by a 51-43% margin, that doesn't even compare to Romney's massive 61-37% win in 2012 (not to mention Romney still lost the state 51-47%!).  Furthermore, McDonnell carried the white vote in his successful 2009 run against Creigh Deeds, 67-32%. And as George Allen barely lost overall to Jim Webb (D) in 2006, he still carried the white vote (58-42%) by a larger margin than McDonnell does against either Warner OR Hillary in the PPP poll. Bottom line: McDonnell is not going to win under any scenario where he carries the white vote by less than double digits. Period. No matter the turnout. But just for fun, the chart below provides the result of the PPP poll had it been reweighted to the racial/ethnic I.D. of the 2012 Presidential race (70% white, 20% black, 10% other), the 2009 Governor's race (78% white, 16% black, 6% other), or the 2006 Senate race (78% white, 16% black, 6% other).

If PPP's findings are otherwise correct, the popular Governor of Virginia falls well short of Senator Mark Warner and Hillary Clinton in virtually every racial/ethnic turnout scenario of the last several Virginia elections. The best McDonnell can do against Warner is trail by 7 points, 50-43%, and that's only if McDonnell is so lucky as to see as favorable GOP demographics as we saw in 2009. The best McDonnell does against Hillary Clinton is 48-45%, again, only in the event of '09-like turnout.

Even when weighting the PPP poll to the partisan identification of the 2012, 2009, and 2006 contests, McDonnell manages to snatch a slight lead in just one scenario:


Despite PPP pouring some cold water on Gov. McDonnell's future political ambitions, the still-popular Governor can take solace in at least two things: 1) PPP has a slight bias against McDonnell, at least in terms of his favorability ratings, as compared to the average of pollsters (see the chart above), and 2) PPP's finding of McDonnell at only +4 with whites, if born out, would be historic, at least when compared to past Virginia elections. In fact, no Republican for statewide office has won the white vote by less than 14 points since 1992, with one exception: 2008 (and that was Mark Warner, who stomped Jim Gilmore in the 2008 Senate race overall, 65-34%). 

Is the PPP survey a good poll for the McDonnell team? Well, not particularly, and certainly not if he's looking to the Virginia Senate. But as bad as it looks, 2014/2016 is a long way off. And Bob McDonnell still has a year to improve (or harm) his standing with Virginians. Also keep in mind that while it's possible Warner or Clinton could nearly tie McDonnell with white voters, as PPP finds, the last 12 of 13 statewide elections would suggest otherwise. Count me as one that's personally rooting for Warner v. McDonnell, '14.

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