Beware of the dreaded Only-Game-in-Town Syndrome. Next Tuesday night -- as actual statewide election returns flash across TV screens for the first time since Barack Obama's election -- political junkies will face a nearly irresistible temptation to divine cosmic patterns from the gyrating digits. Amid this frenzied rush to election night judgment, it seems almost futile to play the killjoy and shout, "But the wheel is crooked."
No matter how they are spun, rerun and overdone, the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races are not national referenda. Even if the expected occurs -- and Republican Bob McDonnell romps home in Virginia and New Jersey Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine wins a second term -- it will be difficult to decipher an overarching message on Nov. 3. These statewide races will tell us far more about voter attitudes towards roads in Roanoke and property taxes in Paramus than anything about the 2010 congressional elections or Obama's political future.
Moreover, the political cultures of both these East Coast states (carried by Obama in 2008) are idiosyncratic. Not since 1973, when Richard Nixon was desperately clinging to his Oval Office desk, has Virginia elected a governor from the same party as the president on the other side of the Potomac. Without a major television station to call their own, New Jersey voters (living in the shadow of the New York and Philadelphia media markets) have tended to loudly grumble about their governors and then passively vote for continuity. Only one incumbent Garden State governor has been defeated in November in more than six decades.
Right wing activists gleefully have been billing the three-way battle for the vacant congressional seat in the rural fringes of northern New York as a proxy struggle for the 2012 future of the Republican Party, pitting the likes of Sarah Palin (who has endorsed Conservative insurgent Doug Hoffman) against party pragmatists like Newt Gingrich (who is backing GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava). But many of the 150,000 or so voters heading to the polls in New York's 23rd District on Tuesday will be attracted primarily by local races on the ballot. After you also subtract out Democrats supporting Bill Owens (who is leading in many polls), it may be challenging to locate 23rd district voters who actually see this congressional race in the same dramatic clash-of-cymbals (and clash-of-symbols) terms it has been portrayed in the national media.
Without exit polls in the 23rd district, TV talkers, partisan pundits and armchair analysts will be free to overinterpret the results almost any way they choose. But elsewhere, at least, the high-decibel debates will be data-driven. Unlike in 2005, when few outsiders cared who would be sworn in as governor in Richmond and Trenton, this time around there will indeed be exit polls in Virginia and New Jersey. And in New York City, voters will also be asked to fill out questionnaires on the mayor's race after they cast their ballots on old-fashioned close-the-curtain-and-pull-the-lever voting machines.
Okay, it is white-flag time. Nothing written here will prevent you from trying to squeeze a few droplets of Big Picture meaning out of Tuesday night's returns. But if you are stubbornly determined to try to find lasting answers in the 2009 results, then ignore the macro (counting up what party won what) and concentrate instead on the micro (small trends buried in the exit polls and the actual returns). These are the type of things that Campaign 2009 may help us better understand.
Anger at the Two Major Parties: The brass knuckle New Jersey gubernatorial race has become a classic none-of-the-above election with both Corzine and his GOP challenger, Chris Christie, consistently boasting higher negative poll ratings than positive ones. Small wonder that independent candidate Chris Daggett -- a moderate Republican who won credibility with his endorsement by the Newark Star-Ledger -- has been scoring in the low double digits in almost all New Jersey polls for a month. Traditionally, third party candidates fade on Election Day as putative supporters cast hold-your-nose ballots out of fear of wasting their vote. With Daggett's name buried on the New Jersey ballot, it would be a significant indication of voter discontent if Daggett receives, say, 15 percent of the statewide vote.
The race in New York's 23rd district is less about third party politics (even though Hoffman is running on the Conservative Party line) than it is about divisions within the GOP over the perception that Scozzafava (who supports gay marriage and takes a pro-labor stance) is too centrist to be a true Republican. The irony is that Democrats Corzine and Owens could both win on Tuesday because of the presence of a third candidate on the ballot.
The Under-30 Vote: Until 2008, waiting for the youth vote was akin to waiting for Godot. Despite the hype, it would never show up. But last year, Obama swept voters born after 1978 by a stunning 66 percent to 32 percent margin in the national exit polls. One of the most important questions in politics -- with the potential to shape the political direction of America for decades -- is: Will this surge of youthful support for Obama be passed on to other Democrats or was it rooted in the peculiar circumstances of 2008?
Most published pre-election polls do not include age breakdowns. It is intriguing, however, that a recent Washington Post poll in Virginia showed that beleaguered Democrat Creigh Deeds was running ahead of McDonnell among voters under 35, while trailing badly with voters above that age. What is definitely worth looking for in the exit polls in Virginia and New Jersey are both the partisan breakdown among under 30 voters and their turnout levels.
Both gubernatorial races this year have an old-fashioned flavor with negative TV spots driving the polls. Maybe some candidate has been successfully text messaging and tweeting without the political press corps noticing. But the dominant feeling after watching the campaigns is that it is 1997 all over again.
The Richest Men in Politics: New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg -- who has now spent a record quarter of a billion dollars on his political career -- is coasting to re-election to a third term by operating a massive income-transfer program that is enriching the local television stations and his own campaign consultants. Outspending his rival by a four-to-one margin, Corzine, the former chairman of the investment bank house of Goldman Sachs, is the only New Jersey gubernatorial candidate with the resources to advertise on the World Series telecasts in a state ripped asunder by Yankees' and Phillies' loyalists. If Bloomberg's New York City victory margin over Democrat Bill Thompson is less than 10 percent or if Corzine falls short on Tuesday, it may signal that in these tough economic times ludicrous overspending may cost self-funded candidates more votes than it gains them.
There are other things worth noticing Tuesday such as turnout levels among African-American voters in gubernatorial races. Obama's own campaigning in New Jersey has been designed to motivate partisan Democrats -- and if enthusiasm levels for Corzine lag on Election Day, it may suggest that the president's coattails are a tad shorter than expected. But, ultimately, it is safe to conclude that as go Virginia and New Jersey so goes...well...pretty much nothing else.