Sabato's Crystal Ball

Off-Off Year Elections

They Seem Important at the Time

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics June 18th, 2009

People who live for politics appreciate what real votes in real elections mean. It’s pure heroin for junkies.

There is no cold turkey like the one between the end of a presidential election and the midterm election that occurs two full years later. The presidential high–the flood of votes in all fifty states for the Electoral College and the thousands of contests for every other office under the sun–is intense. It takes weeks to devour the totals, and months to think through what they mean.

Then comes the void, an emptiness that rivals the black vacuum between galaxies. Six months after a president is chosen, the political community has the shakes, and begs for votes, real votes, any votes. And that is why New Jersey’s and Virginia’s contests for governor always assume a larger role than their actual importance merits.

Here we are in the off-off year again, and sure enough, the statehouse battles in the Garden State and the Old Dominion are the focus of a surprising degree of attention. Wild claims are already being made about the ultimate meaning (more about that later) but at the Crystal Ball, we understand. Speculate away, friends, and get that perfectly legal “election high.”

The match-up in New Jersey is the simpler one. It is a straightforward clash about the incumbent. One-term Democrat Jon Corzine has had a controversial governorship, full of mishaps, girlfriend problems, and tax increases. Corzine has simply worn out his welcome with many New Jerseyans, and he has the potential to become the next Jim Florio, the tax-raising Democratic governor who was sent packing in 1993 after one term.

Florio was defeated by moderate-liberal Christine Todd Whitman, the last Republican to win statewide office in New Jersey. Whitman’s two gubernatorial victories, in 1993 and 1997, were the exceptions to an increasingly Democratic voting pattern in the state. GOP candidates for U.S. senator, even moderate ones, are apparently unelectable. Incredibly, the last Republican triumph for U.S. Senate occurred thirty-seven years ago, when liberal Clifford Case (R) captured his last Senate term. Case was defeated in the Republican primary in 1978 by conservative Jeffrey Bell, who lost to Democrat Bill Bradley in November.

New Jersey is somewhat more willing to elect a Republican governor, though. In addition to Whitman’s two terms in the 1990s, moderate-liberal Tom Kean (R) served eight years between 1982 and 1990. The GOP hopes its nominee, moderate-conservative Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney, will restore its foothold this year. Christie was assisted by a GOP primary challenge from the very conservative Steve Lonegan. In a sense, Lonegan positioned Christie in the middle of the spectrum by attacking him from the right. Christie’s 55% to 42% triumph over Lonegan on June 2nd was decisive, and it launched Christie into the general election with a healthy lead over Corzine.

The real question is whether New Jersey is now so Democratic that even the disliked Corzine can manage to scrape to victory. There is little question that President Obama and Vice President Biden will be making a “party unity” argument this fall in multiple appearances for Corzine. And Republican candidates have been known to sport decent leads in summer polls in the Garden State, only to lose when it counted in the fall. Both the wealthy Corzine and the national GOP-supported Christie will have enough money to make their case in the coming months.

The statehouse fight in Virginia has a substantially different cast. As the last state with a one-consecutive-term limit, Virginia never has an incumbent seeking reelection, and the 2009 open seat race to succeed Gov. Tim Kaine (D) has undergone a radical transformation.

For much of the year, national and state political observers tagged the unopposed Republican nominee, former state attorney general Bob McDonnell, as the autumn favorite. In part, this is because of a three decades-long Virginia trend to elect a governor opposite to the party of the president. Beginning in 1977, for eight consecutive elections, Virginia has elected a Republican governor every time a Democrat was in the White House or a Democratic governor every time a Republican occupied the Oval Office.

To some degree, this is a natural early-midterm reaction, a kind of snapback, which reflects the natural American tendency to want to check and balance power. Note that New Jersey has exhibited the same phenomenon since 1989 (five consecutive times). Yet we should stress that this voting pattern is a tendency, not an iron rule of politics. The string in both states will be broken at some point.

A second reason why McDonnell was considered the early favorite was because of the identity of the Democratic frontrunner to oppose McDonnell. Even though Democrats had had a splendid decade in Virginia–winning the governorship in 2001 with Mark Warner and in 2005 with Tim Kaine, defeating incumbent GOP U.S. Sen. George Allen with challenger Jim Webb in 2006, taking control of the state Senate in 2007, and winning Virginia’s 13 electoral votes for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008 (the first time since 1964)–the party was seen as having a weak field in the 2009 gubernatorial contest.

Former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a late entry into the gubernatorial sweepstakes, had scads of money and staff but no major Virginia connections. Few knew he lived in Virginia before he expressed interest in running for governor last summer. A close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton–who as candidates had never won Virginia–McAuliffe was from New York, with the accent to prove it, and he had reportedly considered running for statewide office in Florida a few years back. Nonetheless, McAuliffe’s large war chest and high media profile made him the polling favorite. Privately, few senior Democrats believed he would be able to defeat McDonnell; some predicted a McDonnell landslide, though they never said so publicly.

The second candidate, former Del. Brian Moran of Alexandria, had been the presumed Democratic favorite before McAuliffe’s entry into the primary. But his campaign never took off, a widely held perception that induced McAuliffe to run. Moran naturally resented what he regarded as McAuliffe’s interloping, and soon he was moving left to try to outflank McAuliffe among the small electorate of liberal Democratic Party activists. This was a reasonable primary strategy but one that would have left Moran highly vulnerable in a general election in centrist Virginia.

More important, Moran began attacking McAuliffe on the campaign stump and in advertising. This created the conditions that allowed a classic campaign formula to be triggered, an equation designed to catapult a little known candidate into the winner’s circle. Trailing Candidate B (Moran) went negative on the leading but flawed Candidate A (McAuliffe), reinforcing doubts about A but also generating a backlash to B. An opening was thus created for little known Candidate C (state Sen. Creigh Deeds), who became the second, acceptable choice of both McAuliffe and Moran supporters. Of even greater importance was that Deeds became the new preferred choice of the large corps of undecided Democrats who were in a quandary and worried that both McAuliffe and Moran were unelectable against McDonnell.

The single most important moment of the primary campaign came on May 22, when The Washington Post unexpectedly endorsed Deeds in a lengthy and emphatic editorial. Arguing that Deeds was both the most likely winner in November and also the candidate best positioned to deliver on Northern Virginia’s list of policy needs, The Post legitimized a vote for Deeds among the 35-40% of likely primary voters who resided in NoVa. Both McAuliffe and Moran live in NoVa, so this nod was extraordinarily helpful. In addition, The Post’s editorial constituency is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the high-information voters likely to vote in a Democratic primary were susceptible to the paper’s influence. (Had this been a Republican primary, a Post endorsement might well have backfired on the intended beneficiary, such is the distaste most GOP base voters have for the newspaper.)

Everything came together beautifully for Deeds in what will now serve as a textbook case study of how an underdog can score an upset. Deeds was dramatically outspent by McAuliffe and Moran: McAuliffe shelled out $5.8 million to Moran’s $3.1 million and Deeds’ lowly $2.3 million. But the results of the June 9th primary yielded a landslide for Deeds, who garnered almost 50% of the vote to 26% for McAuliffe and 24% for Moran. Deeds carried ten of eleven congressional districts, losing narrowly only in the heavily African-American Richmond-Tidewater Third. Amazingly, Deeds swept all three NoVa districts against the two NoVa candidates, winning even the Eighth district, which is represented by Brian Moran’s brother, Congressman Jim Moran.

Deeds’ big, unexpected win over Terry McAuliffe has given him the aura of a giant-killer and a big bounce as he heads into the general election. Once trailing McDonnell by double digits, Deeds led McDonnell by 47% to 41% in the only post-primary poll yet taken.

Of course, there is every reason to believe that this will be a close, competitive election. First, we have only to remember the original Deeds-McDonnell confrontation in 2005 for state attorney general. This produced the closest statewide election in Virginia history: 970,981 for McDonnell to 970,621 for Deeds, an astonishingly small, recounted margin of 360 votes. McDonnell outspent Deeds by a substantial sum, by the way, and was considered the definite favorite before Election Day, but Tim Kaine’s considerable 113,000-vote plurality for governor generated some coattails for his ticket-mates. In 2009 Deeds will be well funded, as will McDonnell, so that neither candidate will have a decisive financial advantage. On the other hand, there will be no coattails to grab onto for Deeds. As the nominee at the top of the ticket, it is his responsibility to produce them.

Deeds is a native Virginian, a rarity these days since three of the last four Virginia chief executives were born and raised out of the state. A rural, western Democrat, Deeds is ideologically well positioned for the campaign. A moderate Democrat overall, with a conservative position on the Second Amendment, Deeds nicely fits the profile of modern successful Democratic candidates. He will have the active backing of Sen. Mark Warner and Gov. Tim Kaine, both of whom maintain high popularity. Kaine’s job approval is usually in the mid-50s to low 60s, while Warner’s is even higher, in the mid-60s to 70s. Virginians appear to be perfectly satisfied with the Warner-Kaine style of governance, and the burden is on McDonnell to show why a change is needed.

Moreover, McDonnell has no truly popular, vote-moving GOP figure, state or national, to campaign by his side. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, John McCain, George Allen, and Jim Gilmore are either unpopular, or have lost elections in Virginia, or both. Conservative talk-show hosts are no substitute. And sooner or later, McDonnell’s close ties to fundamentalist preachers Pat Robertson, whose university gave McDonnell his law degree, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., whose Liberty University is in a controversial scrape with the campus Young Democrats, will prove controversial.

However, McDonnell benefits from several key advantages. He has tried to project a moderate-conservative image that is more palatable to Virginians during his years as state attorney general. The Republican’s polished, low-key TV persona and physical attractiveness can prove a significant asset in suburbia, which usually delivers six out of every ten votes cast in statewide elections. Deeds has a pronounced rural twang and is far less comfortable and refined on television. Consciously or not, voters often take into account the image projected about their state, and therefore themselves, in selecting a governor. Though born in Pennsylvania, McDonnell grew up in Fairfax County and lived most of his life in Virginia Beach-the two largest suburban jurisdictions in Virginia. In the suburban sense, McDonnell is exactly what he appears to be. McDonnell’s service in the military also has special resonance in a state whose economy and culture is partly defined by the armed forces.

The tie-breakers in this election will be President Obama, the state of the economy, and the specific issues developed by both sides as the campaign progresses. So far, Barack Obama has maintained his popularity in Virginia. If that remains true, his appearances for Creigh Deeds in the fall could be very helpful, especially in Northern Virginia and among African-American voters. Despite The Washington Post’s endorsement, Deeds does not have a special cultural affinity for NoVa, but Obama–an even better suburban candidate than McDonnell–does. As for the black vote, Deeds lost in 2005 in part because he trailed Tim Kaine in heavily African-American precincts by a little over 3 percentage points. African-Americans were less excited about Deeds than other Democrats on the ticket at the time, but Obama could change that equation in 2009.

Nonetheless, if President Obama’s popularity goes south before November, either because of continuing economic dislocation or some other reason, then Virginians may well send the usual off-year message of “change and balance” by voting Republican for governor. Neither Deeds nor McDonnell can control the international economy or Obama’s Gallup Poll ratings, but these factors could determine their fates.

In a discussion of personalities and national figures, it is easy to forget that tens of thousands of voters will decide their choice based on the issue debates that are engaged over the next five months. The candidates differ considerably on transportation, taxes, education, social issues, and a host of other concerns. Often one or two of these issues come to dominate the campaign agenda, and the skill with which the candidates present their platforms can swing an election. The 2005 McDonnell-Deeds contest gives little real guidance here since a race for attorney general focuses on public safety more than anything else. Gubernatorial enterprises are much broader in their reach.

As the campaign unfolds, we will return to the two central elections of 2009 again and again. After all, they’re the only immediate game in town. But we at the Crystal Ball caution our friends about reading too much global significance into the results of a couple of isolated elections in an off-off year. We’ve been at this business a long time–since 1965, in fact. In the eleven sets of New Jersey-Virginia contests from 1965 to 2005, there has been a clear, compelling connection between the off-off year outcome and the following year’s midterm election pattern exactly twice. In 1993 GOP victories in the Garden State and the Old Dominion heralded the Republican landslide of 1994, and in 2005 twin Democratic triumphs augured the waning of the Bush era and the Democrats’ capture of Congress in 2006. (See the accompanying table.)

Please remember this when you hear national commentators claim that the 2009 elections will predict the 2010 results. Though that is possible, the bulk of modern history suggests otherwise.

A Stroll Down Memory Lane in the Off-Off Years