Monday, August 31, 2009

Have the Races Changed in New Jersey and Virginia?

[They haven't in the polls with few exceptions.]

As we get ready to usher in the fall campaign once Labor Day passes next week, both gubernatorial races this year are at something of a crossroads. In both cases, the Democrat is trailing and in both cases, the Republican has been faced with some negative news recently. In New Jersey, Chris Christie is weathering the storm of links to the Bush administration as well as a series of personal issues. [Well, that makes it sound like a drug problem or something of that ilk. Speeding tickets and loans to subordinates aren't drug problems, but they don't come free of any negatives.] Further south, in Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell is being haunted by his own words from twenty years ago, in the form of a Regent University master's thesis.

My first reaction to the McDonnell news was that if Democrats wanted to use the thesis effectively, they would have to be selective with it and not bombard people on the chance that it could trigger a backlash. After all, the Virginia electorate that has been picked up in polls since the June primary has tilted to the Republican end of the spectrum. This news isn't necessarily going to change their minds; it might energize them further. The power of this story, though, is in its narrative capacity. Democrats and the Deeds campaign have been pushing the "this isn't the real McDonnell" card since the spring, but they now have something to hang that on and refer back to ad infinitum. Anytime McDonnell says something that in anyway links back to the thesis, Democrats will pull it into the "that's all part of his blueprint" narrative. And while there is the chance that that also risks a backlash, it is a gamble that could also play well with apathetic Democrats and independents, who have to this point remained on the sidelines in this race*. But to say that that isn't a tightrope act for Democrats and Deeds is a mistake. The degree to which Deeds can find that balance between effectively playing this (and making trouble for McDonnell) or seeming desperate will determine the direction of this race down the home stretch.

[That said, I still want an answer to Jonathan Martin's tweet yesterday (I'm paraphrasing): If the thesis is so damaging, how did oppo researchers miss it in the 2005 attorney general race or any other office McDonnell has run for?]

In New Jersey, the narrative has progressed to its second step (beyond the Bush connection). Instead of the debate being on moderate/not moderate turf, as in Virginia, this one seems to revolve around Christie's judgment (the bent of the news does lately, anyway). So, while Christie maintains a lead in the polls, you can certainly see that the stories have shifted in this race from "throw the bum out"/anti-incumbent stories to "does Christie have the requisite judgment to be governor?" stories. And that isn't a good change in the prevailing winds for the challenger.

Does that mean trouble for the Republicans currently leading the polls in both states? Possibly, but it could end up costing the Democrats if their actions are perceived as desperate. The latter is more likely in Virginia simply because of the underlying partisan composition of New Jersey. Corzine just simply has a cushion (even while trailing) that Deeds does not in Virginia.

A couple of other caveats:

1) Timing. Is this too early for a closing narrative to emerge? If either becomes established, will it be stale by time the waning days of October roll around? The press may be looking for something new by then.

2) Decision-making: I need to check on this in the gubernatorial context, but it is true that in presidential races, most likely voters have made up their minds by around Labor Day. James Campbell would also contend (and has shown) that the polling around that time of the race is also the best indicator of the November election results. I'll have to check on both, but I thought I'd throw both ideas out there. Obviously the presidential race is a bit more high-profile, which hypothetically would mean that voters may wait a little longer in a gubernatorial race.

In any event, these items merit tracking over the next few weeks.

*The Public Policy Polling survey due out of Virginia purportedly shows heightened interest from Democrats versus a month ago (and this poll was in the field before the thesis news broke for the most part). However, McDonnell still has a 2:1 advantage among independents (again, pre-thesis).

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jeffkramerak said...

who knows what the deal is here...things have been crazy ever since the new year with politicians! They can't be trusted, PERIOD.

Josh Putnam said...

This sounds like some of the discontent that PPP found in their national poll on Congress this week. Neither party seems to be safe at this point in time.