RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A new statewide poll shows Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin running neck and neck in Virginia’s race for governor, with undecided voters leaning towards the GOP nominee.

An 8News/Emerson College poll released Thursday shows McAuliffe captured the support of 49% of likely voters compared to Youngkin’s 45%, a lead within the margin of error of plus or minus 3.4%.

“Statistically speaking, the poll isn’t telling you that McAuliffe is going to win or Youngkin is going to lose. It is really saying it is a dead heat,” said Emerson College Polling Director Spencer Kimball.

The poll results came on the day of the first debate between the gubernatorial candidates and just before the start of early voting in Virginia this Friday. 

The candidates agreed to two debates, one at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy and the other at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in northern Virginia. Tonight’s debate begins at 7 p.m. and will be livestreamed on and on other news outlets across the state.

Of the 778 people surveyed, about 5% were undecided and 2% said they would vote for someone else. When asked which candidate they were leaning towards if they had to choose one, most of the undecided participants sampled, 63%, said they would pick Youngkin.

Asked if that could be a deciding factor in the race, Kimball said, “It really could and it makes sense. McAuliffe is a known brand so if you’re on the fence at this point about McAuliffe then you may be thinking Youngkin is the alternative.”   

Eighty-four percent of those polled said they were certain of their decision, but 16% did admit they could change their mind before casting their vote. These figures nearly match the gap of participants who said they were “very likely” to vote on Nov. 2 – 86%, of respondents said they are very likely to vote and 14% said they were “somewhat likely” to vote.

In regards to their political preference, 36% of participants said they identify as Democrat, 29% Republican and 34% independent. More than half, 52%, said they voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, compared with 42% who said they voted for Donald Trump.

The poll found 82% of Republicans support Youngkin and 90% of Democrats back McAuliffe, but the majority of independents surveyed, 54%, said they would support the GOP candidate.

Thirty-five percent of independents favor McAuliffe and 9% were undecided.

A majority of women plan to vote for McAuliffe, 53%, but support for the candidates is more equal amongst male voters. Forty-eight percent of men plan to vote for Youngkin and 45% for McAuliffe.

McAuliffe received 63% support in northern Virginia, a blue-leaning region, and 64% in the southeastern region. In the poll, Youngkin did well among participants living in Virginia’s western region (60% support) and southern coastal region (55% support).

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4%, with higher margins of error for subsets based on gender, age, party breakdown, ethnicity and region. Click here to download the full poll results.  

Emerson College conducted the poll on Sept. 13-14, 2021, and contacted likely voters using cellphone sample using SMS-to-web, a landline sample using IVR and an online panel provided by Amazon MTurk. Third-party candidate Princess Blanding was not included in the poll.

Nexstar Media Group, the parent company of WRIC 8News, contracted Emerson College to conduct the poll. 

This story is developing. Stay with 8News for updates.