Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe spent May introducing themselves to Virginia voters with warm and fuzzy campaign ads and populous policy pitches. But heading into June, the candidates for governor are largely disliked by voters, an increasing number of whom now say they can't decide between the two.
The most recent poll from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-affiliated outfit, has McAuliffe pulling in 42 percent of the vote compared to the 37 percent supporting Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general. But slightly more than 20 percent of voters claim to be undecided, up from 13 percent in January.
More ominous for both contenders is the reality that many voters simply don't like them. Even though Cuccinelli's popularity is up since January, 44 percent of voters still have an unfavorable opinion of Cuccinelli compared to the 32 percent who like him.
McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who entered the race virtually unknown across the state, is finding that as the race wears on he has actually become less attractive to voters. Virginians were evenly divided over whether they liked the Democrat six months ago, but now 33 percent say they don't like him compared to the 29 percent who do.
If neither candidates' popularity rises in the fall, the campaigns are likely to drop their efforts to attract moderate voters and focus instead on rallying their most adamant supporters, said Virginia Tech political science professor Craig Brians.
"It becomes 100 percent about turning out the base, those people who will vote even if they have to hold their nose when they push the button," said Brians.
While the candidates have portrayed themselves in the best possible light over the airwaves, they have savaged each other on the campaign stump as partisan ideologues.
That can send mixed messages to voters, said Mo Elleithee, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.
"Both guys have just started communicating in a mass scale and people are only now starting to get information on the candidates," said Elleithee. "They're seeing positive messages from each guy on TV and they're only reading negative messages in the newspaper. So it's very, very confusing."
Republican strategist Brian Donahue said recent elections show that voters are becoming more engaged with the candidates earlier in the campaign so support for either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe could rise or fall quickly as the race wears on.
"There's greater ebb and flow but voters are not making decisions a week before the election. They're making decisions in August and early September (in recent elections)," said Donahue. "We've seen a lot of candidates and campaigns loose gas before the fall."