It’s increasingly likely that Democratic gubernatorial nominees Phil Murphy in New Jersey and Ralph Northam in Virginia will win their elections next month.
Murphy has a huge lead over GOP nominee Kim Guadagno and is a slam dunk for November. Northam has a more narrow but consistent advantage over Republican Ed Gillespie, an establishment Republican who is echoing some of Trump’s messages about culture and crime.
Unlike New Jersey, the Virginia contest is not over. But given President Donald Trump’s job approval, late-deciding “mood” voters in both states are unlikely to break toward the Republican nominees. That’s part of the reason why midterms are often challenging environments for the president’s party.
But will the two states’ results mean anything, even if the GOP wins both?
Democrats are likely to see their victories as evidence of Republican problems in the 2018 midterms. Many journalists will draw the same conclusion, especially if Gillespie ends up losing by a larger than expected margin.
The White House and many other Republicans, on the other hand, will dismiss the outcomes, arguing that Trump did not carry either state in 2016 and that Republican defeats are to be expected. And they will likely insist that the results may say something about politics in New Jersey and Virginia, or the candidates involved, but nothing more. (They may also argue many Northern Virginians work in “the swamp” and are part of the problem.)
In the case of New Jersey, Republicans surely are correct. Outgoing governor Chris Christie (R) is wildly unpopular, Trump received only 41 percent of the vote in the state, and the Garden State’s partisan bent work strongly against Lt. Gov. Guadagno. The GOP has zero chance of retaining the New Jersey’s governorship.
Democrats have the better argument about Virginia. But the true meaning of that state’s election will depend in part on the details of the results, not merely on who wins and who loses. Here are a number of things to consider as the results come in from the Old Dominion:
Democratic Percentage and Margin
The two parties have split the last six Virginia gubernatorial elections – the GOP winning in 2009, 1997 and 1993, while the Democrats won in 2013, 2005 and 2001 – but that is the extent of the similarities.
The Democratic victory margins were 2.6 points, 5.7 points and 5.2 points. The Republican margins were 17.3 points, 13.2 points and 17.4 points. The largest Democratic percentage of the vote won was by Mark Warner in 2001, when he drew 52.2 percent of the vote. The biggest Democratic margin was Tim Kaine’s 5.7 points.
In last year’s presidential contest, Hillary Clinton drew 49.7 percent of the vote and carried the Commonwealth by 5.3 points. Four years earlier, Barack Obama drew 51.2 percent of the vote in carrying Virginia by just under four points.
The overall picture is difficult to miss. In the best of years, Democrats win Virginia narrowly, with a 5-point victory being about as good as they can do. A Northam victory of about five points would be good for Democrats but should not set off bells and whistles about 2018.
That kind of win would suggest Virginia is about where it was in 2016 and would raise questions about whether Trump voters are losing enthusiasm for their president.
On the other hand, a Northam victory of double-digits (or anything approaching it) would be noteworthy – and worrisome for Republicans. It would suggest either a GOP enthusiasm gap or possibly defections of Trump voters to Northam, either or both an ominous sign for 2018.
Partisan and Demographic Group Turnout
Since elections are often about motivation, Republican and Democratic turnout levels among key demographic groups will be important. For Democrats, black, Hispanic and younger voter turnout should demonstrate whether key demographic groups that underperformed in 2016 are now energized because of the president’s agenda.
These groups won’t turn out at presidential year levels, of course, but comparing their turnout to 2013 numbers and to GOP turnout numbers should tell us something about enthusiasm in both parties.
Geography is also important, so turnout in Northern Virginia – and in all of the state’s counties with suburban swing voters – and rural Virginia should offer possible clues about the mood of usually Republican voters and of Democratic enthusiasm.
While partisan turnout is one side of the electoral equation, turnout by Independents is the other part.
Independent voters are usually less likely to vote in an off- off-year election than are strong partisans, but a dramatic shift in Independent voter preferences can have a substantial impact on both an election’s result and our understanding of Independent voters’ attitudes as the midterms approach.
Independent voters’ turnout and how Independents cast their votes next month could well tell us something more generally about Independent voters across the country.
Regardless of who wins in Virginia, the exit poll is likely to have plenty of nuggets of information about Trump’s standing with key voting groups, Republican and Democratic enthusiasm and why voters are behaving as they do. But you’ll probably need to get into the weeds to get the clearest picture of what is happening and what isn’t.