In a sense, the political world has been frozen in time since the 2008 election, when Barack Obama was elected by a percentage (53%) that a Democrat has not received since the 1964 Democratic landslide. And the political battle lines changed very little in the 2012 presidential election, when President Obama was re-elected 51-47% over his Republican challenger, despite a soft economy and a pessimistic national mood similar to 1992 and 1980.
Have the political fault lines changed much since the 2012 elections? Yes and no. The special elections held so far (two state senate recalls in Colorado, and special US Senate elections in Massachusetts and New Jersey) have shown that, in the absence of special factors, the partisan lines established in 2008 (which arguably were first set in 1992) have held. That means a repetitive pattern (outside the Deep South) of massive Democratic majorities in central cities, narrow margins in the suburbs, and big deficits in lightly populated rural areas. This repetitive pattern produced 55% Democratic victories in those two US Senate races.
There was a major exception to that rule in Colorado: gun control legislation passed earlier this year cost two Democratic incumbents their seats in districts that voted 60% for President Obama last year. Several factors were at play: (1) the senators’ refusal to listen to their constituents on this issue (similar to what happened before the passage of the Affordable Care Act/ ”Obamacare”), and (2) even though Colorado has shifted to the left in elections after 2002, gun ownership is an important part of the local culture. In other words, otherwise Democratic partisan sentiment was trumped by a feeling that elected officials were not listening to their constituents on issues important to them.
Of the races still to be settled on November 5, there are three we are focusing on: (1) the New York City Mayor’s race, (2) the New Jersey Governor’s race, and (3) the Virginia Governor’s race
New York City Mayor – While New York City voters have a near unanimous Democratic preference in most elections (81% of those in the “Big Apple” voted for Obama); it has not elected a Democratic Mayor since 1989. In fact, it can be argued that the last two mayors (Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg) were elected as a reaction against the perceived liberal excesses of the previous mayor. However, the political winds seemed to have shifted leftwards this year: Bill de Blasio (the Democratic nominee) is likely to win big even as he campaigns on an overtly leftist platform.
New Jersey Governor – While New Jersey has been forbidding territory for Republicans for years (the last time a Republican carried the state in a national election was 1988), a reaction against the liberal policies of its former governor in 2009 led to Republican Chris Christie getting elected. Once in office, he held the line on taxes and spending, and took on the teachers (but not the blue-collar) unions, and his confrontations received considerable publicity outside of New Jersey. However, while he maintained a respectable approval rating for a Democratic state, his political fortunes soared last fall, when the destruction of Hurricane Sandy, combined with his appearances with President Obama (and criticisms of Congressional Republicans) gave him a bipartisan aura. Ever since then, his re-election has not been in doubt, and he maintains about 60% support in recent polls – levels of GOP support not seen since the 1984/1985 GOP landslides in New Jersey. Given that reality, there are two unanswered questions about the race: (1) the size of his re-election margin, and (2) Christie’s victory’s creating coattails to enable the GOP to control the Legislature for the first time since 2001;
Virginia Governor – No states better exemplifies the tension between the current GOP coalition (Southerners, rural voters, religious conservatives) and the “Obama Democratic” coalition (the 36% of Virginians who are minorities, urban residents, a majority of suburbanites) than Virginia. Furthermore, Virginia’s politics are affected by the federal government’s economic footprint. The Washington DC suburbs are populated by those directly or indirectly working for Uncle Sam, while the Navy has a major economic and physical presence along the coast near North Carolina. In recent years, Republicans have typically won when economic issues like taxes are the focus, but have been less successful when social issues dominate.
Further complicating the race is the fact that the two major candidates for governor are unpopular due to their pasts and their issue stances, although Terry McAuliffe (the Democratic nominee) has been able to inoculate himself with his commercials featuring endorsements from local Republican elected officials. While this is happening, the Republican nominee (Attorney General Ken Cucinelli) has been unable to make a positive case for his candidacy, and has instead been stuck in attack mode. Not only have his poll standings suffered, but a Libertarian candidate is pulling an abnormally high 10% of the vote in some polls. While the Democrat is favored, there are two questions here: (1) can the Libertarians “come home” by November 5 to the Republican candidate? and (2) Will the Democrats sweep all three statewide offices on the ballot this year (the GOP Lt Governor’s candidate is similarly controversial) ?