Virginia almost live

The polls closed in Virginia – the only one of today’s three elections that wasn’t going to be a landslide – about an hour and a three-quarters ago. It’s not close enough to bother with actual live-blogging, but it’s worth a post because the uninitiated might easily assume it was very close, or even that the opinion polls were strikingly wrong. (Read last Friday’s preview here.)

With 65% of precincts reporting, Republican Ken Cuccinelli is registering a lead of about 4%, 48.4% to 44.5% for Democrat Terry McAuliffe. (I’m using the very user-friendly live coverage from the New York Times.) In most states, figures like that would be cause for Republican celebration.

But Virginia isn’t most states. Compare the exit poll, which predicts a comfortable victory for McAuliffe, about 50% to 42.5%. That’s very much in line with what opinion polls have been saying for the past several weeks.

So why don’t the vote tallies say the same? Because Virginia is a very non-homogeneous state, and it matters a great deal where the votes are coming from.

Fortunately, the Times’s map tells you that. The places that report first, as you’d expect, are mostly smaller rural counties. Cuccinelli does very well there: in the western half of the state he’s winning every county, and there are very few where he’s not getting more than 60%. But that still doesn’t amount to a lot of votes.

In the east, and particularly in the urban areas of the north-east, the James estuary and central Richmond, it’s quite a different story. Those areas vote Democrat, but they take longer to come in.

When they do, however, there are a lot more votes there. (That’s why they take longer.) Look at Fairfax county, for example; it’s currently showing McAuliffe with a 20% lead. More than 70,000 votes have been counted there, but that’s still only 28% of the precincts. There are many more to come, and McAuliffe will get most of them.

So while, of course, the exit poll could easily be out by a couple of points either way, there’s no reason at all to think that it’s got the result wrong. Virginia is set to break its long-standing record of going against the president’s party and elect a Democrat governor.

In other news, the Times has already called the New Jersey governor’s race for Chris Christie, with only 3% reporting. No figures yet for New York City, but expect it to be equally one-sided.

I’ll try to post updates during the afternoon.

*UPDATE* 11.15pm Virginia time

In the last 20 minutes, Cuccinelli’s official lead has come down to just 1.2%, 47.2% to 46.0%. Among large pro-Democrat areas still outstanding are 45% of Farifax county, 55% of Prince William county, 48% of Hampton, 64% of Norfolk and 37% of Newport News. There’s really nothing comparable still to come on the Republican side.

I should also have mentioned the Libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis, who is polling a creditable 6.9%, although that’s not as much as some of the polls had been saying. I doubt it’ll be enough for Cuccinelli to blame him for McAuliffe’s (presumed) victory.

*FURTHER UPDATE* 11.55pm Virginia time

And with 94% of precincts in, McAuliffe has now hit the lead. It’s only by half a percentage point (46.9% to 46.4%), but it’ll grow. The pattern is very much the same as when Obama carried the state last year by nearly four points after trailing all night, although this probably won’t be quite as close.

*ALMOST FINAL UPDATE* 12.35am Virginia time

That’s pretty much a wrap: with 98% of precincts reporting, Democrat McAuliffe is ahead by 1.4%, or a bit over 30,000 votes. The New York Times and other outlets have called it for him. The outstanding votes are almost all from his strong areas (mostly Norfolk, Hampton, Prince William county and Loudoun county), so he’s in no danger at all. Just as the polls said.

In New Jersey, Republican incumbent Chris Christie has won by more than 20% with 78% reporting. Republicans look to have also picked up a couple of seats in the state legislature, but not enough to challenge Democrat control in either house.

New York had the latest close of polls, so there’s only 8% counted there, but that’s enough to declare victory for Democrat Bill de Blasio, who has a lead of more than 46%.

*FINAL WORD* 9.45pm Wednesday, Virginia time

The final count has McAuliffe the victor with 47.7% against Cuccinelli’s 45.2% and Sarvis’s 6.5%. That’s  a clear win, but it’s a lot closer than expected. The last polling average at RealClearPolitics (converted to three-party terms) put them at 48.5%, 41.3% and 10.2% respectively. So what seems to have happened is that a large chunk of the support of Sarvis, the Libertarian, reverted to Cuccinelli on the day.

The Republicans can certainly take some consolation from the fact that they got so close even with such an obviously unsatisfactory candidate. That’s the point Nate Cohn makes today in the New Republic. But what he doesn’t mention is that McAuliffe was a pretty unsatisfactory candidate from the Democrats’ point of view as well, so I don’t think this should be as much of a dampener on Democrat hopes as he makes out.

It does, however, suggest that maybe some voters are reluctant to admit to pollsters that they’re planning to vote for an extremist candidate, and so maybe “tea party” candidates are having their support systematically understated in the polls. With hindsight, I shouldn’t have been so dismissive of Cuccinelli’s prospects in the opening paragraph above.

No surprises in the other two contests: Christie finished with 60.4% of the vote, more than 22% ahead of his Democrat opponent, and de Blasio won an even more crushing 73.3% in New York City.

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