In Vote, Watch the Intensity Factor

By Gerald Seib, Wall Street Journal - November 3, 2009

Polls can measure many things, but one thing they have a hard time getting at is intensity: Yes, people will tell a pollster whom they prefer in a campaign, but do they feel so strongly about their choice that they'll actually go out to vote?

Only elections can answer the intensity question, which is the most important factor in Tuesday's off-year governor's elections in New Jersey and Virginia and, increasingly, a special election in a New York congressional district. Intensity, as much as outcomes, may provide the best insight into national trends heading into the much more meaningful election in 2010.

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Joe Biden campaigns for Bill Owens in New York's 23rd District on Monday.

Last year, Barack Obama and his Democrats owned the intensity factor. Lately it has seemed to lie with the Republicans. Anger is a great motivator, and there's plenty of anger on the GOP side over Democratic plans for health care and government spending.

But what does that mean in a real election? Maybe the intensity factor will mean only that core Republicans who were going to vote anyway simply punch the button a bit harder. Or perhaps the intensity will extend to the growing ranks of independents, many of whom went Democrat last year but now may want to vent recent unhappiness by casting a vote the other way.

Heading into Tuesday, the intensity factor takes on a quite different form in each of the three big races:

New Jersey: It's entirely possible that the intensity meter in this governor's race will show there simply isn't much on either side. An ugly campaign appears to have made each major candidate -- Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and Republican challenger Chris Christie -- less appealing. The mystery is how much intensity of support there is for an independent candidate, Chris Daggett, who is a potential stalking horse for Americans tired of both major parties.

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New Jersey Republican nominee for governor Chris Christie with his running mate Kim Guadagno

A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday shows Mr. Christie ahead of Gov. Corzine, 42% to 40%, with 12% for Mr. Daggett. Perhaps more important, it shows the extent of the two major candidates' unpopularity. Some 40% of those surveyed said they had an unfavorable view of Mr. Christie, and a whopping 53% had an unfavorable view of Gov. Corzine. Only 17% had an unfavorable view of Mr. Daggett -- but 57% said they haven't heard enough to know.

So the X factor is how intensely Mr. Daggett's supporters feel about voting for him. Almost four in 10 say they might change their mind and vote for someone else, and more say they'd switch to Gov. Corzine if they do.

At a time when disenchantment with both major parties is high nationally -- almost half said in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that they liked the idea of a third party -- the question of how many voters end up backing an independent is significant.

Virginia: This governor's race is where an intensity gap seems most likely, and most beneficial to Republicans. Final polls by both the Washington Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch show Republican Bob McDonnell with a double-digit lead over Democrat Creigh Deeds.

Just as important, the polls suggest a dispirited Democratic base and a fired-up Republican one. The Post, for instance, found about a quarter of Deeds voters say they are supporting him "not too" enthusiastically or "not at all" enthusiastically. More than nine in 10 McDonnell backers, by contrast, describe themselves as "very" or "fairly" enthusiastic about their choice.

And the Times-Dispatch poll shows 94% of Republicans planning to vote for their candidate, compared with 85% of Democrats planning to go for Mr. Deeds. The main purpose of a late-campaign visit to the state by Mr. Obama was to energize the Democratic base. Mr. Deeds's campaign doesn't seem to think it has much hope of winning many independents, and that its best shot lies in getting intensity up among core Democrats in the hope they will turn out in larger numbers than polls suggest.

New York 23rd congressional district: This traditionally Republican district is the site of a special election to fill a vacant seat. And the question at the campaign's end is whether national Republican leaders have managed to create more intensity on their side -- or, perversely, have managed to generate it for the Democratic underdog.

A quick recap: Republicans in the district picked a socially liberal candidate, Dede Scozzafava, to run for the vacant seat. That prompted a more conservative Republican, Doug Hoffman, to break away and run under the Conservative Party banner. That, in turn, prompted national Republican figures -- Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- to endorse Mr. Hoffman in a show of their own conservative credentials. Which prompted Ms. Scozzafava to drop out of the race during the weekend, and endorse the Democrat, Bill Owens. Suddenly, Mr. Hoffman is, in effect, the Republican nominee.

This is a district Republicans should win, and probably will. But watch what kind of intensity -- if any -- now emerges among moderate Republicans. "Will some of the more moderate Republicans stay home?" wonders Rep. Chris Van Hollen, head of the Democrats' House campaign committee. "Will they turn to the more conservative Republican candidate? Or will they support the Democrat?"

Those now may be Tuesday's most interesting questions.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at

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