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A Split Decision In November?

A Split Decision In November?

By Sean Trende - October 16, 2009

Four important elections will be held two-and-a-half weeks from today. There’s a Congressional race in upstate New York, where Republicans will fight, both against a Democrat and among themselves, to hold onto a district they have held ever since the Republican Party was founded. There’s the New York City mayoral race, where Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent Mike Bloomberg will fight sagging poll numbers and spend untold millions of his personal fortune try to hold on in one of the bluest localities in America.

But the main events will be the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. These races will not only excite the winner, they could potentially have an impact on the shape of the health care debate. If Republicans win both, and especially if they win them handily, it may cause blue dog Democrats and other Democrats from Republican-leaning districts to conclude that the tide has shifted substantially against Democrats, making them less willing to support the President's agenda. On the other hand, if Democrats win both – especially the Virginia race – it will be taken as a sign that the swing against Barack Obama since Election Day 2008 has been vastly overstated.

Even as late as July, the conventional wisdom was that the GOP was on track to win both races. Today that picture is more complicated. Virginia moved to a tossup shortly after Labor Day, but now seems to have shifted back to a likely Republican win. The Republican candidate in New Jersey, on the other hand, may be in the process of pulling off a choke not seen since Greg Norman lost the 1996 Master’s.

Virginia

The Virginia gubernatorial race pits former Attorney General Bob McDonnell against state Senator Creigh Deeds. The two candidates faced off in the 2005 Attorney General race, which McDonnell won by fewer than 1,000 votes. This race does not promise to be nearly as close.

Since winning the Democratic primary in June, Deeds briefly surged to a lead in the polls, and then fell behind by about ten points. The dynamics changed again in late August, when McDonnell revealed that he had authored a thesis while attending Liberty Regent University. The Washington Post examined the contents of the thesis, and they proved explosive. To quote the Post, the thesis:

described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family . . . said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators" . . . [and] described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.

The tenor of the race was instantly transformed. Analysts immediately began comparing the event to George Allen’s infamous “macaca” moment. The polls didn’t move at first. But eventually Deeds narrowed the gap between him and McDonnell to within the error margin.

In the past few days, however, polls have shown movement back toward McDonnell. Five consecutive polls have pegged McDonnell’s edge at around 10%. Unless Deeds has a stunning revelation up his sleeve this race is a likely Republican victory.

Why has “thesis-gate” not really caught on? There are several reasons. First, the macaca comment was an unambiguous comment that was caught on camera. Millions of people could see exactly what George Allen said and exactly how he said it, and knew that he used that word in 2006.

The McDonnell comments, by contrast, were written twenty years ago. Reasonable minds can differ on whether McDonnell would still stand by those writings today. Additionally, few people have bothered to read the thesis. Unlike the videotaped macaca comment, the largely-unread thesis is open to interpretation in advertisements, and McDonnell has been able to argue that the comments quoted by Deeds are simply taken out of context. In other words, McDonnell has been able to create doubt about what the thesis really says, a path that YouTube rendered unavailable to Allen.

Second, people forget just how conservative the Commonwealth of Virginia is. For all the talk of its trending toward the Democrats, it is a state that just three short years ago passed a fairly draconian measure that banned both same sex marriages and any form of civil union, and that it did so by a fairly strong 57%-43% margin. Mark Warner won narrowly in 2001 by running as a self-described conservative Democrat, while Tim Kaine won narrowly in 2005 in the midst of a nationwide Republican collapse. And Republicans still won three of the four downticket races in those years.

In other words, there are probably quite a few people who agree that traditional nuclear families should be favored over homosexuals, and that feminists are “detrimental” to the country. There are almost certainly more people who agree with these statements than there are people who believe it is okay to use a racial slur. Given that Allen barely lost in 2006, that difference is critical.

Third, McDonnell had a superior campaign response. George Allen probably could have saved his candidacy by quickly apologizing to the teen, and moving on. After all, if he had changed the minds of only 3,700 people, he’d have held on to his Senate seat.

Instead, he made the absurd argument that “macaca” was a reference to the student’s mohawk haircut and refused to apologize until after the story had taken on a life of its own. The story also led to a slew of other stories about a noose that he kept outside of his law office, racial comments he supposedly made during the 1970s and 1980s, and his supposed efforts to conceal his partial Jewish heritage. In other words, by failing to get in front of the story, Allen allowed Macaca-gate to create a full-blown narrative against him. In a year where George W. Bush was radioactive, that was enough to topple the junior Senator from Virginia.

McDonnell, on the other hand, emerged from Labor Day with a strong response. He immediately got out in front of the story, holding conference calls with newspapers and explaining his present views. He ran advertisements citing his accomplishments on women’s issues, and spotlighting his daughters, one of whom is an Iraq War veteran. Perhaps his most compelling response has been an ad that featured a diverse assortment of female Assistant and Deputy Attorneys General defending his record and his efforts to further their careers. In effect, this gave voters who were unsure about Creigh Deeds but also concerned about McDonnell’s thesis a compelling counternarrative they could latch onto, something Allen never managed to do.

Finally, Deeds’ campaign has been terrible. Part of it isn’t his fault; unlike Allen, the thesis turned out to be a one-off story, not the tip of the iceberg for a series of unflattering news profiles. Yet Deeds has also grossly overplayed his hand. From what I’ve seen on T.V. in Richmond, the only thing the average Virginia knows about Creigh Deeds is that he doesn’t like Bob McDonnell’s thesis. Note that this doesn’t say anything about Creigh Deeds. His primary advertisements give voters no idea what Deeds’ transportation plan is, what his budget plan is, and what his stance on any number of issues relevant to the Commonwealth is. While this may have been enough to woo some Northern Virginia voters into the Deeds camp, it has done little for the voters in the rest of the state. Indeed SurveyUSA’s regional polling has shown some movement toward Deeds in NoVa, but has shown movement toward McDonnell elsewhere in the state.  In addition, Deeds suffered quite a bit of negative publicity when he gave a meandering, contradictory answer on whether or not he'd raise taxes, which allowed McDonnell to shift the debate back toward Deeds.

A campaign like Deeds’ would have worked in a year like 2006, when Republicans were operating under a heavy presumption of incompetence. It doesn’t appear to be working this year. Right now it looks as though McDonnell will win this race by double digits– the largest margin of victory for any statewide candidate in a decade. The biggest question right now is whether Republicans will sweep the down-ticket races, and how many seats they will reclaim in the House of Delegates.

New Jersey

New Jersey is kind of like the Virginia race in reverse. For most of the cycle, the race has been about incumbent Governor Jon Corzine, whose approval ratings have been in the gutter for much of his term. U.S. Attorney Chris Christie cruised to a comfortable polling lead in the summer.

This led to Christie’s problem. He initially presented himself as the “anti-corruption” candidate, and rather than spending the summer developing and presenting strong platforms on a variety of issues, he continued to cultivate his reformer image. In a state where the Republican brand is still unpopular, this was a critical error. He should have used the summer to put Corzine away by taking ownership of other issues, and choking off any potential avenue of attack from the governor. But he allowed himself to get comfortable.

So Corzine did what any team that’s ten points down does if it wants to win: He attacked. He attacked Christie for a loan he made to a subordinate and failed to disclose. He attacked Christie for his use of his government credentials to avoid traffic tickets. He attacked Christie for being a Bush/Rove appointee. He even attacked Christie for his weight. Anyone following the race closely half expected Corzine to show up at a rally and throw a literal kitchen sink at his opponent.

This did nothing to improve Corzine’s standing with the voters. In fact, he still has only cleared 42 percent of the vote in a single poll all year. The RCP chart tells the tale. What has happened is that the attacks on Christie have taken a heavy toll on the challenger’s popularity; his favorables are now only modestly better than Corzine’s. Since Corzine has damaged him on his signature issue – corruption – and since he failed to develop any alternative narratives supporting his candidacy over the summer, he has been left vulnerable in a state that is not favorably disposed toward his party.

In a normal two-person race, this probably wouldn’t have been enough to sling an unpopular Governor such as Corzine back into contention. What has really made this race problematic for Christie has been the emergence of Independent Chris Daggett. Daggett worked as an official in the administration of popular Republican Governor Tom Kean, and has worked in a variety of consulting firms since then.

Daggett has appeared moderate, likeable, quirky, and most importantly, knowledgeable about the issues. He likely won the October 1 debate, and received the endorsement of the state’s leading paper, The Star-Ledger. The result has been a sharp increase in his standing in the polls; he currently receives 11.6 percent in the RCP average.

This, in turn, has provided an alternate outlet for voters who can’t vote for Corzine, but are uncomfortable with Christie. And most importantly, it has lowered the threshold for what it takes to win. Corzine seems unable to top 43% in polls. But if Daggett receives 14% of the vote (as the last two polls have shown), then 43% will be enough to win.

That leaves the race with three “x” factors. Third party candidacies have a history of flaming out in the voting booth: It is one thing to tell a pollster that you will vote for a candidate who can’t win; it is another thing to pull the level in the voting booth. But sometimes they don’t; witness H. Ross Perot in 1992. Moreover, New Jersey's strange ballot positioning law ensures that Christie and Corzine are in the top position on the ballot, while Daggett will be buried among ten other third party candidates.  This could eat into Daggett's lead, especially among people who don't remember his name, or aren't enthusiastic enough about him to hunt for him on the ballot.  If pollsters like Rasmussen Reports and Daily Kos are correct, and Daggett’s “true” support is in the low single digits, then a Christie victory becomes much more probable. If SurveyUSA and FDU have it right, Christie is in serious trouble.

The second “x” factor is how undecideds break. The conventional wisdom is that they break against the incumbent, but the reality is more complicated. When one of the candidates is largely unknown, that candidate can bank on receiving a huge portion of the undecided vote. But when both candidates are well known, undecideds will tend to stick with the status quo (which is what happened to John Kerry in 2004). This is doubly true in a moderately Democratic state like New Jersey, where many of the undecideds can be assumed to have Democratic leanings. Remember that in 2005, Corzine led by only 6.4 points in the RCP average on Election Day. He won by 10.45 points.

Finally, there is the question of turnout. Republicans believe that their side is energized this election while the other side is demoralized. Is this true? If so, Christie may overperform his poll numbers.

I normally hate it when analysts call a race a tossup; if oddsmakers used the "pick 'em" designation with the frequency that analysts used the "tossup" category, they would all be out of jobs.  But this race really is a coin flip.  Forced to make a call, I'd conclude that the edge still goes to Christie, since Daggett will probably underperform somewhat and Corzine can't seem to get above 42% in the polls, but there are certainly strong arguments to be made the other direction.  Pay close attention to Daggett's numbers in the polls in the upcoming weeks, and see if Corzine can get to 45% in any polling.

If there is a split decision, both parties will have something to brag about. Republicans will likely emphasize McDonnell’s strong win in a state that had been one of the linchpins of the "Emerging Democratic Majority," and will emphasize New Jersey’s blue fundamentals. Democrats will emphasize Deeds’ weak campaign and argue that, in the end, voters in New Jersey decided they would rather re-elect a Governor with approval ratings in the 30s and 40s than vote for a Republican. This will probably be enough to cheer up the Republican base. It remains to be seen if it will be enough to affect the health care debate.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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