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NBC poll: McAuliffe now leads Cuccinelli

With just over 40 days left until Election Day for Virginia governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe has a five-point edge over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in a new
Terry McAuliffe - Jessica Taylor - 09/23/2013
Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor, visits former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder's Public Policy class at Virginia Commonwealth University...

With just over 40 days left until Election Day for Virginia governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe has a five-point edge over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in a new NBC4/NBC News/Marist poll, fueled by a significant advantage with female voters and the GOP candidate’s rising negatives.

McAuliffe leads Cuccinelli, 43%-38%. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis gets 8%, and 10% remain undecided.

The new poll, just ahead of a Wednesday debate between the two candidates moderated by The Daily Rundown host and NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd, is largely in line with other recent public and private polling, showing McAuliffe, a businessman and former Democratic National Committee chairman, taking a slight lead over Cuccinelli, the sitting attorney general.

The numbers have shifted significantly since NBC’s last poll in the race, which showed Cuccinelli leading 45%-42% among likely voters.

The biggest reason for McAuliffe’s lead are a significant gender gap and high unfavorables. McAuliffe is leading Cuccinelli by 18 points among women, 50%-32%, with repeated Democratic attacks against the attorney general’s conservative social positions seeming to resonate. Cuccinelli is leading among male voters, 44%-36%.

Cuccinelli’s unfavorables have flipped since the spring survey. Now, he’s underwater with likely voters--47% have a negative opinion of the GOP nominee, while just 34% have a positive opinion. That’s a significant shift since May, when 42% said they viewed Cuccinelli positively, with just 27% negatively.

McAuliffe, who’s faced questions over his GreenTech, his former electric car businesses, and the success of his other business ventures, still holds a net positive rating, with 41% of those polled saying they have a positive view of him, and 34% viewing him negatively. Republicans are sure to step up their attacks on McAuliffe in the race’s final months and more than a quarter of voters say they still don’t have an opinion of McAuliffe, leaving Republicans room to still define the Democrat.

McAuliffe also holds a narrow lead among independent voters, which now-embattled Gov. Bob McDonnell won 2-1 in his 2009 victory in the commonwealth. Among independents, 36% say they would back McAuliffe, with 34% for Cuccinelli. Sarvis takes 15% of independents, and he’s drawing slightly more from Cuccinelli than McAuliffe, too--suggesting he could take a point or two away from the GOP nominee. Five percent of Republicans are backing Sarvis, compared with just 2% of Democrats.

The survey of 546 likely voters was conducted September 17-19 and has a margin of error of +/-4.2 percentage points.

On Tuesday's The Daily Rundownwe will have more polling on Gov. Bob McDonnell and how he is viewed in the state.

NBC's Domenico Montanaro and Mark Murray contributed to this report.