10/17/13: A changing electorate in the Old Dominion?

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

CONVENTIONAL wisdom has long held that the electorate that votes in Virginia’s off-year elections looks far different from the one that shows up in presidential contests. This is why Virginia has been labeled a purple state — voters chose a Democratic president in 2008, followed by a Republican governor in 2009.

Voters again chose Barack Obama in 2012. It would be expected, then, that the GOP candidate for governor would be leading in this year’s contest. Not only is the electorate different, but Virginia has a history of electing the governor from the opposite party of the president.

Yet three weeks from the election, the Democratic candidate for governor is leading in the polls.

What is going on here?

A survey released Wednesday morning gives us a clue: Virginia’s off-year electorate is changing.

In its second survey in as many weeks, Christopher Newport University’s Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy looked at where voters stand on a number of issues.

Those surveyed support the expansion of Medicaid, repeal of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage and oppose using vouchers to provide public money for religious schools.

Further, they support a cap on gifts to public officials and taking redistricting out of the hands of the General Assembly.

This isn’t your daddy’s electorate.

In fact, it isn’t even the electorate of four years ago.

This CNU survey shows a 7-point lead for Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe.

Four years ago, the CNU survey taken at almost the exact time as this one showed a 14-point lead for Republican Bob McDonnell. He went on to win by 17 percentage points.

While the questions on the 2009 poll weren’t as specific as those in this year’s poll, there was one that asked respondents about the source of their support for a chosen candidate.

More than 81 percent of them said they generally supported the candidate, as opposed to just 16 percent who supported him based on a single issue.

The 2013 survey gives us more detail on why voters support one candidate over the other, but the result is the same: Voters support candidates whose views line up with their own. It is easy to see, then, why this electorate prefers McAuliffe.

On two questions, though, the 2009 and 2013 respondents agreed: ethics — in 2009 we had the Phil Hamilton scandal, this year Giftgate — and redistricting. In the intervening years, little has been done to address these two issues. The Wednesday survey gives a hint on that, too.

A large majority of those surveyed — 61 percent — don’t know if there is a contested House of Delegates race where they live. Another 17 percent don’t have a contested race where they live. Thus, despite the changing electorate, the composition of the House is virtually assured to remain unchanged.

If the electorate that is showing up in the opinion polls actually shows up at the polls in November, we will no longer be able to rely on conventional wisdom.

And maybe, in two years when the entire General Assembly is up for election, Virginia voters will be given the opportunity to support legislators who don’t rely on it, either.