Viginia Race Becoming More Interesting

By Jim Ellis

March 30, 2017 — A new poll continues to show that former Virginia US Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Charlottesville) is pulling even with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in the Democratic gubernatorial primary scheduled for mid-June. Until Perriello became a late entry into the statewide campaign, Northam looked to have an easy ride to the party nomination.

Now, the latest Christopher Newport University survey (March 16-26; 831 registered Virginia voters) finds Northam and Perriello tied at 26 percent preference less than three months before the June 13th statewide primary election.

The March poll is the second that the university has commissioned. Their first, in mid to late January (Jan. 15-28; 1,002 registered Virginia voters; 464 self-identified Democrats and Independents who lean Democratic), found Northam holding an 11-point lead over the former congressman but with 59 percent of the primary electorate undecided.

A mid-February Quinnipiac University poll (Feb. 10-15; 989 registered Virginia voters of whom 462 self-identify as Democrats) projected Northam and Perriello tied at 19 percent apiece.

The latest CNU study also arrives at the tie conclusion, and its segmentation provides us better insight about how the primary is beginning to unfold.

With Perriello coming from the party’s left wing, and Northam garnering most establishment Democratic primary voters’ support, the Virginia gubernatorial primary appears to becoming a microcosm of the same political dynamics so prevalent in the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

Here, the CNU data portends that Clinton voters break for Northam in a 34-25 percent margin, while Sanders’ supporters lean toward Perriello, 32-21 percent. As this campaign better develops and voters become more familiar with each man, the Clinton-Sanders split is likely to polarize even further.

The geographical cell groups are also telling, and actually harbor better news for Perriello. The fact that he is tied statewide when the northern Virginia vote is breaking for Northam by a 22-14 percent clip gives Perriello ample opportunity for growth. Becoming better known, he should be able to sway the liberal base voter who dominates northern Virginia’s Democratic primary composition.

As expected, Northam does best in his home base in and around the Tidewater region, leading 33-19 percent within the cell sample labeled “Hampton Roads.” Perriello has substantial leads in the Richmond region, which includes most of his old 5th Congressional District (38-27 percent), and in southwest Virginia, 43-23 percent. In this latter case, Northam has the chance to improve his position within what is generally a more moderate to conservative region.

Another growth area for Perriello, which tracks with the reported northern Virginia geographical segmentation, is the ex-congressman maintaining only a one-point 30-29 percent edge over Northam among self-identified liberals. Since Perriello is the more liberal of the two men, he has growth potential within this subset. Conversely, Northam trails among self-identified moderates, 20-23 percent, which gives the lieutenant governor clear growth opportunities.

On the Republican side, former national GOP party chairman Ed Gillespie is developing a commanding lead over Prince William County Board of Supervisors chair Corey Stewart and state Sen. Frank Wagner. According to the 349 self-identified Republicans and those Independents who say they lean toward the GOP, Gillespie jumps to a 38-11-10 percent advantage over Stewart and Wagner, respectively.

The overall sample skews more Democratic, which in this instance is good because it is becoming apparent that the more significant action is in the Dem primary. Christopher Newport did not release its general election ballot test data, but the sample skew suggests that the Democratic candidates will enjoy leads in the various candidate configurations likely sampled.

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