Gillespie vs. Northam: New Polling

By Jim Ellis

Jan. 17, 2017 — It’s hard to believe, but already we are not particularly far from a series of new election campaigns taking center stage. In addition to the five special congressional elections, the significant regular 2017 contests include the governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia, along with the New York City mayor’s race.

At the end of last week, New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) filed paperwork to run for governor, as expected, but is rather strangely refusing to confirm that she will actually become a candidate. Rumors are swirling that Hillary Clinton is considering challenging Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, but little realistic chance exists that such a race will materialize.

Late this week, polling surfaced in the Virginia governor’s race, a contest that may well become the flagship campaign on the 2017 political calendar. A group called Conservatives for Clean Energy contracted with reliable Republican pollster Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies (POS) to survey the candidates vying for the Commonwealth’s top position.

Though the poll was conducted in December (Dec. 11-13; 500 likely Virginia voters), the results are similar to those found in a corresponding Quinnipiac University survey (Dec. 6-11; 1,098 registered Virginia voters). Normally, such outdated studies would provide us very little usable data, but with the Christmas holidays occupying a great deal of the time between the polling and release dates, the data has remained salient because little has changed politically in the intervening time period.

According to POS, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) leads former Republican National Committee chairman and 2014 US Senate nominee Ed Gillespie, 43-38 percent, which is consistent with Quinnipiac’s 38-34 percent ballot test conducted within the similar polling scope.

But when the Republican candidates were interchanged with Northam, the margin changed only slightly. Against Prince William County Board chairman Corey Stewart (R), Northam’s advantage grew to 42-35 percent on the POS survey while the Q-Poll found a 38-29 percent spread. If state Sen. Frank Wagner were the Republican candidate, the POS result again delivered a consistent 43-37 percent Democratic edge. Quinnipiac found a slightly larger 39-30 percent margin when Sen. Wagner is paired against Lt. Gov. Northam.

The Virginia polling is what one would expect at the beginning of a race where the electorate leans Democratic and the Republican candidates have low name identification.

The POS geographic segmentation provides us a glimpse into why Northam maintains his small lead in all situations. In his Tidewater home base, the region Northam represented in his years as a member of the legislature before becoming lieutenant governor, the Democrat steamrolls Gillespie by a 23-point margin, 52-29 percent. It is this type of margin from a populous region that provides him with the statewide advantage.

The fact that the race is close with all three underdog candidates being largely unknown but still commanding a sizable support coalition suggests that this low turnout gubernatorial campaign has the potential of being close, or even yielding an upset Republican win. Obviously, much will change when the campaign begins in earnest, but neither party’s political professionals will be dissuaded by what these polls are telling them.

The advent of former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Charlottesville) surprisingly jumping into the Democratic primary could cause some waves in what was thought to be a locked down nomination process. Perriello will challenge Lt. Gov. Northam from the left, which will mean strong support coming from his Charlottesville base and the potential of gaining legs in vote-rich northern Virginia. As is the case for many underdogs, Perriello’s ability to obtain adequate financial support will largely determine if he can find away to steal the party nomination away from Northam.

This will be an important early gubernatorial campaign, and carries significant 2021 redistricting cache for the party that claims this office come November.

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