Here’s a secret: Most of the people you see yapping on cable TV aren’t all that interested in government. Sure, they have broad ideological inclinations, but the details of health-care policy leave them bored, confused, or both. What they live for is politics: Who’s up, who’s down, who’s nasty, who’s nice. Pundits often tut-tut about how presidential campaigns start too early, long before most Americans care. But one of the reasons they start so early is that pundits care: After all, every moment they’re talking about Sarah Palin’s chances in Iowa is a moment they’re not talking about fee schedules for Medicare Part B.
When it comes to national politics, in other words, next Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections probably don’t matter, and even if they do, they probably don’t matter in the way people assume.
That’s why this is such a tough year. If 2008 featured lots of politics and very little government, 2009 is the reverse: epic policy battles, but no presidential campaign in sight. Even the midterms are more than a year a way.
In this barren landscape, New Jersey and Virginia—which hold gubernatorial elections next week—represent a kind of oasis. To be sure, few national pundits have much interest in the local wonkery that generally dominate these campaigns: transportation, education, economic development. But campaigns have winners and losers, and from that any pundit worth her salt can spin a tale about the mood of the electorate, the state of the parties, the fortunes of the president. It’s not exactly election eve 2008, but you take what you can get.
I sympathize; I really do. The only problem with all the tea-leaf reading that next Tuesday will bring is that it will be meaningless. As the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato has pointed out, the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections have zero predictive value. Since 1965, in fact, the party that has won the governors’ mansions in Trenton and Richmond has more often than not lost seats in the midterm elections the following fall. (And the midterms, in turn, say nothing about the presidential election two years later.)
That’s partly because these are gubernatorial races. No one on the ballot in either state has voted on Obama’s stimulus plan or the House or Senate’s health-care bills. And even if some voters do use next Tuesday to register an anti-Obama protest vote, that says nothing about what the electorate will do when Obama’s name is actually on the ballot. In fact, for a president, incurring voter anger in your first and second year in office isn’t such a bad thing. Presidencies have an arc. The key is to make sure that your trough comes early so that you’re gaining strength as reelection rolls around. That’s what Ronald Reagan did: The GOP went one for two in the 1981 Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections; then lost 26 House seats in the 1982 midterms, during the depths of recession. But by 1984, the economy was rebounding and Reagan cruised to victory. Similarly, in 1993, Bill Clinton’s first year, Democrats lost in both Virginia and New Jersey before getting crushed in the 1994 midterms. But Clinton won easily in 1996. The counter-example is George H.W. Bush. Republicans held their own in his first midterm elections, in 1990, and Bush’s popularity zoomed skyward in 1991, after America’s victory in the Gulf War. But like a sports team that peaks too early, he was in free fall by the time he came up for reelection in 1992.
So let’s imagine that Democrats lose next week because the GOP’s conservative base flocks to the polls while liberals stay home. For Obama, that wouldn’t be so terrible. The more confident right-wing Republicans become, the more likely they will nominate a Palin-like zealot in 2012. And the more likely Obama will be able to use the GOP’s zealotry to lure independent voters to his side, as Clinton did in 1996, when he made Newt Gingrich a central focus of his reelection bid.
When it comes to national politics, in other words, next Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections probably don’t matter, and even if they do, they probably don’t matter in the way people assume. On the other hand, they could have profound implications for New Jersey’s property-tax rate, and for Virginia’s toll roads. Riveting, I know.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.