VA-Governor: A Delayed Thesis Effect?

For anyone, such as myself, who spends countless hours reading about politics (for work and for pleasure), one of the easiest mistakes to make is ...
by | September 21, 2009

For anyone, such as myself, who spends countless hours reading about politics (for work and for pleasure), one of the easiest mistakes to make is to forget how normal people view the world. We have a good example of this danger, I think, in the Virginia governor's race.

When Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell's controversial graduate thesis first became public, it was big news -- to the small minority of people who closely follow state political news on a daily basis. But, the first two polls that came out after the thesis story broke showed McDonnell maintaining a large lead. SuveryUSA had him ahead by 12 points, while Rasmussen placed his lead at 9.

My reaction was that the story probably wasn't going to have that big of an impact on the campaign. The news was public, the polls hadn't moved, end of story. Democrats seemed a little more fired up for the campaign, but, other than that, McDonnell had dodged a bullet.

In the past week, though, we've had four new polls in the Virginia governor's race which tell a different story. McDonnell leads by between two and seven points. The race is tightening.

It's not completely clear that the thesis is the reason Democrat Creigh Deeds is gaining ground. After all, in an open-seat race in a swing state like Virginia, McDonnell's double digit lead always looked unsustainable.

Nonetheless, it's perfectly plausible that the thesis would have had a delayed effect on the election. Most people don't pay a lot of attention to news about state politics in August. In fact, most people don't pay a lot of attention to state politics anytime.

Maybe folks are hearing about the thesis slowly, through word of mouth or when they happen to see a Deeds campaign ad. The story could be moving voters away from McDonnell, just not on the schedule that professional political prognosticators would have expected.

One person who pretty clearly thinks this scenario is playing out is Bob McDonnell. Otherwise, he wouldn't be running campaign commercials responding to the controversy.

Another reason this explanation is plausible: As Chris Cillizza notes, a majority of Virginia voters still say they haven't heard much about the thesis controversy. As they slowly hear about it, McDonnell's numbers could continue to tumble.

On the other hand, there could be other time bomb controversies that work in McDonnell's favor as they slowly enter the public consciousness. Deeds bungled his responses on taxes after a recent debate. The immediate effect on the election was minimal. The longer term effect? We'll have to wait until regular people start hearing about it.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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