The two major party candidates in the Virginia governor race have been the subject of so many scandals and controversies that the election may come down to which skeleton is last out of the closet.
It certainly won’t be decided by which candidate — Democrat Terry McAuliffe or Republican Ken Cuccinelli — is more beloved by Virginians. Never in the age of modern politics and polling in the state has a gubernatorial race featured two individuals so disliked by voters, said Larry Sabato, longtime political science professor at the University of Virginia.
“Who knows what’s going to come out on either of these two guys,” Sabato said. “That’s the great imponderable. We don’t know plenty and we won’t know what can come out or if it’ll come out before Election Day.”
Polls show McAuliffe with a consistent lead of around 5 percent, fueled by a huge gender gap. The latest Washington Post poll shows him with a 24-point lead among female voters, the result of ads saying his Republican rival opposes all abortions and sponsored legislation to make it more difficult for women to get a divorce.
The focus on Cuccinelli's social positions has hurt his likability, with half of Virginians holding an unfavorable view of the attorney general. But it has done little to improve McAuliffe's standing among voters. An NBC/Marist poll shows McAuliffe's unfavorables jumped 10 points since the start of summer to 34 percent, with 41 percent expressing a favorable opinion.
The disdain has pushed some voters to consider Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. Calling him a longshot is generous, but Sarvis can shake up the final results. The Post poll put his support at 10 percent.
Sarvis told the Washington Examiner that he knows his campaign is feeding off the negativity toward Cuccinelli and McAuliffe. But the software developer and former Republican candidate for state Senate also believes his campaign positions, centered on economic and social freedom, provide an acceptable choice in a race between a career Democratic party fixer and a conservative with a history of divisive social battles.
“With all of the scandals going on and the amount of cronyism and corporatism, our message is captivating to people,” Sarvis said. “In this race, I am the moderate. People are waking up to that.”
But support for third-party candidates tends to dwindle as summer ends. Last year, Constitution Party presidential candidate Virgil Goode briefly enticed voters looking for an alternative before he flamed out with less than 1 percent of votes on Election Day.
But Sarvis’ numbers are high enough that he could earn a spot in the final debate two weeks before the November election. Kelly Zuber, news director for the Roanoke TV station hosting the debate with Virginia Tech on Oct. 24, said Sarvis “will certainly have an opportunity to participate” if he reaches double digits in a credible poll, a feat he appears to have accomplished.
"The two major candidates have run such negative campaigns against each other, it tends to create an opening," said Peter Brown with the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "It's incredibly difficult to imagine how [Sarvis] can win. So do his people stay with him or do they hold their nose and vote for one of the two major candidates?"
Cuccinelli is trying a campaign do-over to remind voters of his deep ties to the state and to emphasize his grasp of the issues. The change in focus has come just as the heat has turned up on McAuliffe. The Democrat lost out on an endorsement from a respected Northern Virginia business group and then got caught trying to pressure the organization to change its mind. That led to an ugly public backlash in which business leaders claimed McAuliffe wasn’t as knowledgeable as Cuccinelli.
As he often has does when in trouble, McAuliffe has pivoted to familiar ground: attacking Cuccinelli’s conservative past on social issues. But he also released an ad featuring popular Sen. Mark Warner in hopes of improving his image among skeptical voters.
And even as McAuliffe becomes increasingly unpalatable to voters, Cuccinelli remains much less liked. Is it possible to win an election with half the state holding an unfavorable opinion of you?
“No,” Sabato said. “They have to lower that and they know that. Differential in turnout can’t overcome that.”