Virginia Likes Palin, But Not What She Stands For
We sort of knew this just based on the enthusiasm that has followed Sarah Palin's nomination, but the results of today's Washington Post poll put it in clear, stark terms: The Republican vice presidential candidate is personally popular in Virginia--53 percent have a favorable impression of her, versus 38 percent unfavorable--but Virginians have strong disagreements with Palin on some key policy questions.
For example, the largest proportion of Virginia voters in nearly a decade of Post polling now supports having abortion be legal in most or all cases. Sixty percent of those polled support abortion rights, compared to 38 percent who believe the procedure should be illegal in most or all cases.
And although they may be intrigued or inspired by Palin, a majority of Virginians say that Barack Obama would be more likely to "bring needed change" to Washington than John McCain, with 56 percent of those polled giving the nod in that category to Obama over 36 percent for the Republican.
The poll's details bare the tension within many voters' minds between the idea that the country is in a bad way (83 percent say things "have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track") and the conflicting impressions we have of how the two presidential candidates would handle our woes. By a strong 51-41 margin, Obama emerges as the candidate Virginians believe would better handle the economy or fix the problems with major financial institutions (49 percent to 39 percent.) But McCain flips the trust meter on questions of security and safety: Virginians trust him more than Obama on those matters, also by a 10 percent margin (52-42 on his ability to handle the campaign against terrorism and 52-42 again on how he would handle "an unexpected major crisis.")
This all boils down to a very close race in Virginia, which, as we hear every day, is one of the crucial swing states in this election. Democrats can take some solace in the continuing strength of their party and its messengers in Virginia. Republican Senate candidate Jim Gilmore has not gained even the slightest bit of ground against Democrat Mark Warner in the race to succeed Sen. John Warner. Indeed, among registered voters, the poll found Mark Warner maintaining a commanding lead with 61 percent of the vote both a year ago and this week, while Gilmore has slipped in that time from 32 percent to 29 percent.
The gaps between the Senate candidates and their parties' presidential candidates are instructive: Obama lags Warner by 12 points in Virginia, while McCain is ahead of Gilmore by 15 percentage points, which is why you hear Warner very cautiously welcoming his "McCain-Warner voters" even as he pledges allegiance to Obama. This is also why Gilmore, a longtime skeptic about McCain, now eagerly links his name to the party flagbearer.
Virginians, always a fairly independent lot, continue their love affair with Democratic governors. Tim Kaine is riding atop a 66 percent approval rating, his highest in two years, and well above the 54 percent who approve of how Democratic Sen. Jim Webb is doing his job in Washington.
So, what will make the difference in Virginia in November?
The race is likely to turn on four factors:
1) The economy and which candidate grabs hold of the public's frustration and fear on a topic that is now #1 for fully 50 percent of Virginia voters. So far, according to the poll, Virginians are narrowly willing to go along with the mega-bailout that the president and Congress are coalescing around. But the 46-42 margin of approval is tight, and only 10 percent of those polled are strongly in favor of the bailout, while 21 percent strongly oppose it. Neither Obama nor McCain has spoken in ways that connect emotionally or rationally with that deep sense of unease that many, if not most, people have with the bailout, though McCain is now clearly testing out a more populist approach on the topic.
2) The Palin phenomenon is no passing fancy. Even if she continues to avoid questioning from the people or the news media, something about her continues to resonate with many people as an alternative to politics as usual. But as much as McCain holds on tight to Palin's coattails, will that be enough to persuade skeptical independents that this is the change they are looking for? Forty-five percent of Virginia voters who call themselves Christian describe themselves in our poll as "born-again or evangelical," but 67 percent of all polled say they are liberal or moderate. Will voters focus more on personality, identity and affinity, or on pocketbook and other policy questions?
3) Race is an important factor for 18 percent of Virginians in our poll, which is, depending on whether you are a glass half-empty or glass half-full kind of person, either remarkably low or frighteningly high. With 70 percent of those polled saying that the race of the candidate is not at all important in their choice of a president, Obama would seem to have room for some confidence that his performance in Virginia will be based on impressions of his ability and character, rather than the pigmentation of his skin. And when you compare those numbers with the answers on how important age is to voters, there's even more reason for Obama to be encouraged. A strikingly high 43 percent of those polled said the age of the candidate is an important factor for them. Perhaps some of those people are worried about Obama's relative youth, but more likely, most are referring to the fact that McCain is a septuagenarian. And of course there is also the likelihood that at least some people are more willing to tell a pollster that they are taking age into consideration than that they are willing to let race alter their vote.
4) Hope and fear. That great American campaign cocktail, the stirring call to patriotism and community, mixed with appeals to deep insecurities about personal well-being and national vulnerability, is at the heart of this campaign. Are Virginians more susceptible to messages questioning Obama's lack of background in military and foreign affairs because 38 percent of those polled are either themselves military veterans or have a vet in their household? Or does the increasing voting power of northern Virginia provide a boost to a Democrat such as Obama who is perceived to be more approving of government and thus of the many people here whose livelihoods depend on a government that works well and is respected?
All of which is to say that the presidential contest in Virginia remains very tight. As for Mark Warner, he could probably spend the next six weeks on, say, an Alaskan cruise, and still slide into the Senate. Which would give Virginia a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators, and a Democratic majority in one house of the state legislature--all in a state that hasn't voted Democratic in a presidential race since 1964. Tighten your seat belts--the wild ride is just starting.....
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