McDonnell Won Due to Turnout, Independents

Updated 2:25 a.m. ET, Nov. 2009

Republican Bob McDonnell defeated Democrat R. Creigh Deeds today in his bid to wrest control of the Virginia governor's mansion from Democratic control, continuing a long Virginia tradition going back to 1977 of voting for a governor from the opposing party of the sitting president.

Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell won in Virginia by shoring up support among Republicans, conservatives, evangelicals, by being competitive among moderates, lower income voters, and the younger voters who showed up to the polls, and by garnering the support of independents. McDonnell also benefitted from a decline in turnout among so-called "surge" voters from 2008 – namely African Americans and voters under thirty.

Both candidates won nearly all the votes of members of their respective parties, but McDonnell took a decisive 66 percent majority of the independent vote – a group that was divided between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008.

McDonnell's victory in this off-year election has as much to do with who didn't vote as who did. African Americans broke overwhelmingly for Deeds, there weren't enough of them. Though African Americans made up 20 percent of voters in 2008, they made up just 16 percent of voters today in Virginia. Voters under 30 made up only 10 percent of the voters in Virginia – half the percentage that turned out in 2008 – and more than half of those who did turn out voted for McDonnell. In the 2008 election for president six in 10 voters under 30 picked Barack Obama.

Regionally, McDonnell won handily in the more conservative and Republican western and central regions of Virginia, garnering 66 percent. But McDonnell also won 58 percent the swing regions of Richmond and the lower Potomac River, 54 percent the Tidewater region of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, and 53 percent of the vote in the greater D.C. suburbs in the north – a heavily populated region that was instrumental in bringing about Democratic victories in Virginia in 2005, 2006, and 2008.

Although most voters for each candidate said that Barack Obama was not a factor in their vote, four in 10 Deeds voters said their vote was in part to express support for the president, while four in 10 McDonnell voters said their vote was in part to oppose the president. Voters were divided in their approval of how President Obama is handling his job – 48 percent of those who voted today approve while 51 percent disapprove. Eight in 10 voters who approve of the president voted for Deeds, while more than nine in 10 who disapprove of the president voted for McDonnell.

Overall, the electorate that came out today to vote in the Virginia governor's race was older and was composed of more white voters than the electorate that brought about an Obama victory to the state a year ago. In general, this electorate was more likely to say that Deeds was too liberal (47 percent) than that McDonnell was too conservative (33 percent).

A clear philosophical difference can also be seen among the supporters for each candidate in their views of the role government in public life – 80 percent of Deeds voters think government should do more to solve national problems, while 86 percent of McDonnell voters think government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.

Although Deeds brought up the issue of McDonnell's twenty-year-old graduate thesis as an issue in the campaign – where McDonnell described working women and homosexuals as detrimental to the traditional family – the issue does not appear to have caught much traction in this election. Just 22 percent of voters said the thesis made them less likely to vote for him, while more than six in 10 said it made no difference – including most women overall, as well as most women who work full time. Overall, 54 percent of women and 62 percent of men voted for McDonnell.

In terms of issues, 47 percent of voters today picked the economy as the one issue that mattered most in deciding how they voted for governor, far ahead of health care (24 percent), taxes (15 percent), and transportation (7 percent). Eighty-five percent of voters said they were worried about the direction of the nation's economy, including 53 percent who said they were very worried. Sixty-three percent of voters who said they were worried about the economy voted for McDonnell.

See the Full Exit Poll Election Night Coverage:

All Election Night 2009 Results
Republicans Sweep N.J., Va. Gov. Races
N.Y. Democrat Owens Wins House Seat
Maine Voters Reject Gay Marriage
Breckenridge, Colo., Votes to Legalize Pot

What McDonnell's Win Means for the GOP, Obama
Corzine's Fall Has Been Festering for a While
What Doug Hoffman's Loss Means to Conservatives
Lessons for the White House from '09 Election Results
Why Christie Won in New Jersey
McDonnell Won Due to Turnout, Independents
Exit Polls in Va. and N.J.: The Obama (Non) Factor?

Fred Backus is a CBS Poll Analyst.