The conventional wisdom on New Jersey: Huge Chris Christie win sets him up to steamroll his way to the Republican nomination in 2016, proving that a more mainstream conservative can win in a blue state. The conventional wisdom on Virginia: Ken Cuccinelli’s stinging loss in a purple state in an off-off-year election against Terry McAuliffe, a flawed Democratic candidate, shows not only that he was too extreme but also that Virginia is inching its way into the Democratic column. As the Times put it in its headline, “McAuliffe Win Points to Virginia Changes.”
Well, God invented conventional wisdom so people like me could beat it down. In New Jersey, Christie doesn’t emerge from his victory nearly as strong as he appears to. And the Virginia outcome isn’t really very strong for Democrats, especially down the ballot. No, I’m not buying into the right-wing spin that Cuccinelli’s narrow margin of defeat really represents some kind of loss for Obamacare. It does not. What I’m saying is something different. But let’s start with Joisey.
Barbara Buono, Christie’s Democratic opponent, volunteered for a suicide mission when she agreed to run against him. Surfing on an ocean of media hagiography, Christie seemed unbeatable just when it was time for Democrats to declare themselves. Buono couldn’t raise money, couldn’t attract much media, couldn’t get anyone to believe she could make it close, let alone win.
In such a circumstance, a lot of voters just mentally write that person off. Most people don’t care passionately about politics. Most people care…some. When they look at a race and see someone who looks as if she’s going to get clobbered, they just decide they’re not voting for her, in the same way they might decide they’re not going to let themselves get too invested in the idea of Rutgers knocking off Florida State in a fantasy matchup.
So Christie got a lot of those votes. He got high percentages from Latinos (around half) and blacks (21 percent). Does it mean he’d get them running for president? No way. Indeed, the exit poll result that showed Hillary Clinton beating him 48-44 demonstrated Christie’s national weakness, at least against her. Think about it. On the night of his greatest triumph, a smashing 22-point win, exit poll respondents walked right out of the booth and said, “For president? Are you kidding me? Hillary all the way!”
About 2 million votes were cast Tuesday. We should perhaps be careful about reading too much into exit polls, but the results suggest that running for president against Clinton, Christie, who corralled nearly 1.25 million votes Tuesday, would give back about 370,000, or roughly 30 percent of them. That sounds about right to me.
People make different calculations voting statewide and nationally. Massachusetts voters, for example, have often elected Republican governors in recent times, but they would never let a Republican get within 20 points of winning the state in a presidential election. New York had a Republican governor in George Pataki not all that long ago; Connecticut had one just recently; Pennsylvania has one right now, and Michigan, and Wisconsin, and Maine, and New Mexico. Likewise, a few red states where Democrats haven’t been winning many presidential votes lately (Kentucky, Arkansas, West Virginia, Montana) have Democratic governors. News flash: People can distinguish between voting for a governor and voting for a president.
The Clinton exit-poll number, the 61 percent of Jersey voters who backed a minimum-wage hike that Christie had vetoed, and his basically nonexistent coattails suggest to me that he will have a hard time winning his own state in 2016, especially if he does a little pandering to the right between now and then, as he’ll surely have to. I don’t deny that he is a skillful politician. What I do deny is that a blowout gubernatorial win under these circumstances means much of anything about the presidency three years hence.
As for Virginia, I mostly come away from that race shocked that someone as divisive and reactionary as Cuccinelli could get 45.5 percent of the vote. His tally, combined with the Libertarian guy’s 6.6 percent, suggests that Virginia is still fairly red. I was also staggered that Cuccinelli beat McAuliffe among white women by 16 points. Surveys before the voting indicated that McAuliffe was much closer than that among white women.
Of course, a presidential-year electorate will be different. It will be younger, more black and brown, and so forth. I would think Clinton, if she were the nominee, could beat Christie there with a large enough “on-year” turnout. But if 46 percent of Virginia is willing to vote for that little reptile Cuccinelli, a die-hard caucus in that state is going to put up a fight. I don’t see McAuliffe’s win as the “bluing” of Virginia. That’s going to take one more presidential election, and it may well be that only Clinton can do it.
Finally, it’s lots of fun to watch the sparring between Republicans about why Cuccinelli lost. The establishment types say the party should have nominated someone more mainstream, while the Tea Partiers blame the establishment for abandoning Cuccinelli too soon. The truly enjoyable thing about this fight is that both arguments have enough of a grain of truth in them to keep the quarrel going on into next year. So let the Tea people keep launching their cannonade, and let the establishment overrate Christie. That’s about as good an ending as this election could have had.