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As Virginia goes, so goes not much

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Advice to readers about the coming orgy of analysis about the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections: Ignore it. Disquisitions on The Meaning of It All for President Obama or the 2009 results as a harbinger for Congress in 2010 have scant basis in reality.

Over-interpreting election results is an occupational hazard for political reporters. This problem is particularly acute in the year after a presidential contest, when we are suffering from a bad case of electoral withdrawal.

Thus, the New York Times instructs that the contests offer "some clues about how Americans are viewing Mr. Obama, as well as an early measure of the landscape for next year's midterm elections." National Public Radio says "the off-year elections are being watched by national politicians as a referendum on President Obama and his party."

If so, a look at the history of these races suggests the prognosticators might as well be watching sunspots.

In the 15 gubernatorial elections since 1949, the voters of New Jersey and Virginia have chosen governors belonging to the same party 10 times (seven Democrats, three Republicans). In five of those 10 elections, the party winning both governorships went on to pick up seats in the House and Senate the next year. In three, a sweep of the statehouses augured precisely the opposite result in the subsequent congressional election. Once, Democrats won both governors' races and went on to get a split result (losing seats in one chamber of Congress, gaining them in another). Once, the same thing happened to Republicans. Not a particularly compelling pattern.

Nor does it help to expand the field to examine the consequences of a split result. That's happened five times since 1949 (three times with a Democrat winning Virginia and a Republican taking New Jersey; twice the other way around). Three times Democrats have picked up seats the next year, twice the party has lost seats.

Does it make any difference which state the Republican (or Democratic) winner is from? Not really. Of the three times a Democrat won in Virginia while a Republican was elected in New Jersey, Democrats won seats twice and lost seats once. In the two split verdicts in which the Republican took the Virginia statehouse while the Democrat won New Jersey's, Democrats -- you guessed it -- won seats once and lost seats once.

As Maine goes, so goes the nation, the saying goes. When it comes to Virginia and New Jersey, though, there's no predictive value.

Well, you may wonder, what about the five most recent elections since 1989? After all, the states have changed and elections have become more nationalized. Fair enough -- except that here the correlation is just as weak. Democrats took both governorships three times (1989, 2001, 2005). In two of the subsequent congressional elections (1990 and 2006), they gained seats. In one, 2002, they lost seats. And in the two cycles in which Republicans won both governorships (1993 and 1997), Democrats lost seats once (1994) and gained seats once (1998).

Finally, do the off-year results foreshadow anything for a president's reelection three years down the road? Hardly. Of the 10 elections in which one party won both states, a president of that party was elected six times in the following presidential contest.

Of course, there are years in which a president's political woes contributed to his party's poor showing in the off-year elections and the congressional midterms. The prime example is Bill Clinton's experience of 1993-94, in which Republican gubernatorial victories presaged a shellacking in Congress. Democrats lost the House (down 54 seats) and Senate (down 8) -- and then Clinton went on to win reelection. The next best example is George W. Bush in 2005-06, in which Democratic gubernatorial wins paved the way for large gains in the House (plus 31 seats) and Senate (plus 6).

So it's possible, for example, that Obama's performance has turned off some of the Virginians who voted for him last year and played a role in the race between Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell. But Deeds was a lousy candidate, McDonnell a far more adept one. Virginia is a purple state, but purple with a decidedly reddish tinge.

But as to the question of whether Tuesday's results portend very much for Congress in 2010 or Obama in 2012, the answer is: not really, all the commentary notwithstanding.

marcusr@washpost.com

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