By Fred Backus, Sarah Dutton and Rebecca Kaplan
A bitter, divisive race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is over, but it's still too close to call a winner. Exit polls now show a tight race between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli in the race to become Virginia's next governor.
Virginia is one of two states choosing governors Tuesday, along with New Jersey - where- and are also taking place across the country including elections for big-city mayors and various state ballot initiatives.
According to exit polls, both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are doing very well among their own partisans - each getting more than nine in 10 votes from members of their own parties. Cuccinelli has a nine-point edge among independents, who make up three in 10 voters in Virginia. But McAuliffe is doing better than Cuccinelli in getting out his base: slightly more voters describe themselves as Democrats (37 percent) than Republicans (32 percent).
McAuliffe is also winning among voters under 50 and college graduates - both groups that McDonnell won four years ago - and he holds leads among moderates (21 points) and women (8 points).
Virginia voters may see Cuccinelli as more extreme ideologically than McAuliffe. Fifty percent see Cuccinelli as too conservative, compared to just 42 percent who see McAuliffe as too liberal.
There are important changes to the demographic turnout from four years ago that make the race close this year. The conservative vote is down slightly - from 40 percent in 2009 to 36 percent today - and they are slightly less supportive of the Republican candidate. White evangelicals - who voted strongly Republican today and four years ago - make up 27 percent of the vote, down from 34 percent in 2009. A majority of white voters - 56 percent - favor Cuccinelli in the race, but their percentage of the electorate is down slightly (72 percent now compared to 78 percent in 2009), while the percentage of black voters - who vote overwhelmingly Democratic - has risen (20 percent now compared to 16 percent in 2009).
Regionally, while Cuccinelli is winning (58 percent) in the more conservative and rural western and central regions of Virginia, McAuliffe has the edge in the the northern Virginia "exurbs" (48-45 percent), and has a majority (54 percent) in the Tidewater region of Norfolk and Virginia Beach - which voted for Obama last year but went Republican four years ago in the race for governor. In the heavily Democratic D.C. suburbs, McAuliffe is outperforming Cuccinelli by almost two-to-one.
How voters perceive the recent partisan battles in Washington give some indication of their voting preference today. Forty-five percent of voters support the 2010 health care law while 53 percent oppose it: nine in 10 who support the law are voting for McAuliffe, while slightly fewer who oppose it - eight in 10 - are voting for Cuccinelli.
The recent shutdown of the federal government also looms large in this state where a sizeable percentage lives in the shadow of the nation's capital. Thirty-one percent of voters say their household has been affected by the shutdown, and while 46 percent blame Mr. Obama more for the shutdown, 47 percent blame the Republicans. Those who blame the president more are overwhelmingly supporting Cuccinelli, while those who blame the Republicans more are overwhelmingly voting for McAuliffe.
In the weeks leading up to the election, McAuliffe held a lead in the high single digits over Cuccinelli. The most recent Quinnipiac poll out Monday showed McAuliffe up 46 to 40 percent, a smaller margin than a survey from Oct. 23 in which he was up 46 to 39 percent but up from an Oct. 30 poll that had him up only by 4.
Cuccinelli's only hope for victory lay in the possibility that Democratic turnout was extremely low - even lower than it usually is in the off-year elections when there is no presidential race to draw voters to the polls. McAuliffe's surrogates, including President Obama, Vice President Biden and former President Clinton implored Democrats to bring out their friends and neighbors in the days leading up to the election.
The Virginia race has been a particularly vicious contest marked mostly by personal attacks flung back and forth during the course of the campaign. Cuccinelli has charged McAuliffe with running a dishonest, unserious campaign; McAuliffe has attempted to paint Cuccinelli, a tea party favorite, as a far-right extremist out to end access to abortions and contraception. Even on policy issues, the fact-checking website Politifact said that both candidates "fared miserably on the Truth-O-Meter this fall."
"The major-party candidates have earned the citizenry's derision. The third-party alternative has run a more exemplary race yet does not qualify as a suitable option. We cannot in good conscience endorse a candidate for governor," said the Times-Dispatch.
Despite the bitter nature of the campaign, Virginia was the only competitive race on the map, which meant both sides poured their resources - including a host of star surrogates -- into the state. Cuccinelli campaigned with Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. McAuliffe, for his part, got help from close friends and closed out the campaign with appearances from and .
The lineup of surrogates and McAuliffe's deep network of sources he cultivated during his years as a Democratic fundraiser also helped him to pummel Cuccinelli in the money race. McAuliffe raised $34.4 million to Cuccinelli's $19.7, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
The final days of the campaign have served in part as a microcosm of the battles between President Obama and the GOP. Cuccinelli and his supporters have said that Virginia is the next "battlefield" in their fight against the Affordable Care Act, and both Biden and Obama warned that Cuccinelli to the no-compromise politics that led to the recent government shutdown, which had an outsized effect on Virginia's substantial federal workforce.