The Virginia Senate race is about as much of a toss up as it could be: Tim Kaine and George Allen tie at 47% in our first poll since Jim Webb announced his retirement.
Kaine is slightly more popular than Allen, sporting a 46/38 favorability spread to Allen's 39/40. Both benefit from a pretty unified party base, with 87% of Republicans going toward Allen and 86% of Democrats to Kaine. Allen is able to earn the tie despite the fact that there are likely to be more Democratic than Republican voters in a Presidential year electorate because independents lean toward him by a 50/41 margin.
At first glance Allen's lead with independents is curious because they have a slightly negative opinion of him and a slightly favorable opinion of Kaine. The reason for that disconnect may actually be explained by the Virginia Presidential numbers we'll release tomorrow, which show Barack Obama in a very solid position to win the state again next year. The conventional wisdom has been that if Obama wins the state the Senate race is likely to come with him, but could there actually be a group of independent voters that go Obama/Allen in the interest of divided government? These early figures hint at the possibility of that and it's something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Allen leads the other two Democrats we tested against him, a pair of Congressmen defeated in last year's election. It's 48-41 over Tom Perriello and 47-42 over Rick Boucher. On the surface you might look at Kaine's tie with Allen and the deficits of Perriello and Boucher and think the Democrats really need Kaine to get in the race. What might be more instructive though is that Allen's number is pretty much unchanged regardless of the Democrat pitted against him- 47% against Kaine and Boucher, 48% against Perriello.
The main reason that Perriello and Boucher do worse than Kaine is that there are three times as many undecided Democrats as Republicans with them in the picture, whereas with the former Governor the percentage of undecided voters by party is equal. That's probably just a function of name recognition- 57% of voters in the state don't know enough about Perriello to have formed an opinion about him and the same is true for 60% of voters when it comes to Boucher. Perriello and Boucher might start lower than Kaine, but their ceilings aren't necessarily any lower than Kaine's.
None of that is to say Kaine wouldn't be the strongest possible candidate for Democrats next year. In a year where they have to play a lot of defense you'd rather have a candidate who starts out tied than one you have to spend a lot of money on to get to a tie. But with voters in the state completely divided about Allen the Democratic nominee is going to have about a 50/50 chance of winning whether it's Kaine or someone else.
If Allen somehow got taken out from the right in the primary any of the Democrats would start out with an advantage. If Bob Marshall was the Republican candidate, Kaine would start out with a 49-35 advantage, Boucher would lead 40-32, and Perriello would lead 39-35. If Jamie Radtke was the Republican candidate, Kaine would begin up 49-33, Boucher would have a 40-29 edge, and Perriello would lead 40-32. Marshall and Radtke are complete unknowns, with only 20% and 17% respectively of Republican voters knowing enough about either of them to have formed an opinion.
This- perhaps like Colorado in 2010- looks like it will be the quintessential toss up race of the 2012 cycle. It starts out basically as a tie and with the possibility of pretty polarizing candidates on both sides of the aisle it doesn't seem likely to stray too far from that over the next 20 months.
Full results here