VA-Governor: Explaining Bob McDonnell's Lead

We now have two polls (from Rasmussen and SurveyUSA) indicating that Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell has held his lead over Democrat Creigh Deeds in spite ...
by | September 7, 2009

We now have two polls (from Rasmussen and SurveyUSA) indicating that Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell has held his lead over Democrat Creigh Deeds in spite of the attention McDonnell's master's thesis has received. The thesis included controversial claims about the role of women, homosexuality and contraception -- and plenty of other topics too. So, why isn't Deeds gaining?

I can think of at least three possible explanations. One is that Virginians aren't offended. I don't think there's any doubt that most Virginians support women working outside the home and believe that contraception should be readily available. Still, McDonnell supporters have been able to point out that he wrote the essay many years ago (though he was already in his thirties at the time).

McDonnell says some of his views have changed. Why, Virginia voters might wonder, should we care that a candidate wrote some controversial things two decades ago? Democrats have stressed that the thesis foreshadowed the obsessive social conservatism (as they describe it) that marked McDonnell's subsequent political career. With so much talk about the thesis itself, though, that message may not be getting through.

And, that gets at the second explanation. It's not clear that the story about the thesis is really getting through to many voters. For McDonnell, this is a fortuitous time to be getting some bad press. People are on vacation. Parents are getting their kids ready for school or moving their college kids back to their dorms.

Some Virginians undoubtedly aren't paying attention to the story at all. Others probably aren't focused enough on it to recognize what makes McDonnell's writings controversial. A Republicans who opposes abortion and gay rights -- so what?

Strangely, some people don't even read newspapers and blogs every day and don't spend their lives focused on the latest political news. Especially in a recession, a lot of people have better things to worry about.

And, that gets at point number three. So far as I can tell, there are two top issues in Virginia this fall. One is the economy, which is a top issue everywhere. The other is transportation, which is pretty much always a top issue in Virginia.

McDonnell's thesis would be more potent as a political scandal if it related to those concerns. If McDonnell had written that sitting in traffic on I-95 builds character, he'd be in a lot of trouble. It seems unlikely that many Virginians (and especially Virginia swing voters) are inclined to vote based on social issues this year. Maybe the revelations in the thesis can change that, but probably not.

I tend to think that this story can work as a motivation tool for Democrats. College students who didn't have an interest in the race for governor now might have a reason to care. Still, for Deeds and the Democrats, it doesn't look like a silver bullet.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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