There's always a dispute over whether the elections held one year after a presidential election are politically significant. You can argue it both ways, and once you know the results, you can pretty well guess which way each party will argue. Still, it's worth taking a look at them, for voters will be choosing the mayor of the nation's largest city, the governor with the greatest institutional power (in New Jersey), and the governor whose jurisdiction includes Washington, D.C.'s Northern Virginia suburbs. Also, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put several propositions on the California ballot. If passed, they will significantly reduce the institutional strength of the state's Democrats. If defeated, they will show that Schwarzenegger's political capital is pretty well exhausted after two years in office.
New York mayor. This race is pretty much over. Look at the poll results collected by the invaluable www.realclearpolitics.com, and you will see that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is well ahead, a Republican winning absolute majorities in Democratic New York City. Manhattan liberals are not about to turn control of the city's police force over to Bronx Democrat Fernando Ferrer, and at least some polls show Bloomberg leading among blacks as well as whites. Crime continues to decline at astonishing rates in New York, and few voters want to see that change.
It's interesting that New York City, one of the nation's prime liberal constituencies, has elected an undeniably liberal mayor only once since 1969. That was Democrat David Dinkins, elected in 1989 and rejected in favor of Rudolph Giuliani in 1993. The last undeniably liberal mayor before that was John Lindsay, elected by pluralities rather than majorities in 1965 and 1969; each time he carried Manhattan by more than his citywide plurality and lost the four outer boroughs. Crime shot up during his term, and the city lost 1 million people in the 1970s. The voters' reaction was obviously negative. New Yorkers may be liberals, but they're not crazy.
New Jersey governor. This one is getting closer. Jon Corzine spent $65 million getting elected to the Senate in 2000 and seems to be spending similar magnitudes now. In between, Corzine has contributed millions to New Jersey's county Democratic machines and has gotten in return support from the crucial party bosses (George Norcross in Camden County and John Lynch in Middlesex County). These were the men who helped to engineer the withdrawal of Robert Torricelli from the 2002 Senate race and the substitution of former and future Sen. Frank Lautenberg and the resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey. They also helped to sweep aside Acting Gov. Richard Codey in favor of Corzine. New Jersey Democratic politics is not gentle.
Republican nominee Doug Forrester, who lost to Lautenberg in 2002, seems to be an unimpressive candidate. Corzine led him by wide margins in polls from the June primary until mid-September. In the four most recent polls, Corzine's lead has been between 4 percent and 7 percent, and he has run below 50 percent in all of them. New Jersey is a low-information state, so running below 50 percent is not necessarily a danger sign, and Corzine's money will be employed to produce turnout in the state's heavily Democratic central cities. But sometimes you can have too much money. In 2000, Corzine got bad publicity when his campaign bused in residents of Philadelphia homeless shelters and halfway houses to work on turnout efforts. He won, but by only 50 percent to 47 percent. And New Jersey is not quite as Democratic as it was then: George W. Bush was beaten 56 percent to 40 percent in 2000 but only 53 percent to 46 percent in 2004. Corzine surely remains the favorite. But an upset looks possible.
Virginia governor. The most recent polls show Republican Jerry Kilgore (who, in accordance with Virginia custom, resigned his post as attorney general to make the race) with narrow leads over Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine; one poll shows the race tied. Kilgore is hurt by the independent candidacy of Republican legislator Russell Potts. Potts and Kaine supported the big tax increase of popular incumbent Democrat Mark Warner; Kilgore opposed it but does not propose repeal. Kilgore is from far southwest Virginia, hundreds of miles from the Northern Virginia suburbs, and Kaine has a liberal record as mayor of Richmond, including opposition to capital punishment, a liability in most of Virginia. In 1993 and 1997, Republicans closed strongly by appealing to bedrock conservative sentiment, but that didn't work against self-financer Warner in 2001. This is a state George W. Bush carried 54 percent to 45 percent. But this race could go either way.
California referendums. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put his reputation on the line by backing ballot propositions that, if passed, would break the power of important Democratic interests: Proposition 74, which would increase the time required for teacher tenure; Proposition 75, which would require public-sector unions to get approval to use members' dues for politics; Proposition 76, which would impose limits on state spending; and Proposition 77, which would take the power to redistrict legislative and congressional seats away from the (heavily Democratic) Legislature and give it to a panel of retired judges. Last spring, the public-employee unions started spending vast sums on TV ads attacking Schwarzenegger, and his approval ratings have plummeted. Polling before this month has showed his ballot propositions trailingusually a sign of impending defeat, since Californians tend to vote against propositions they're not sure of, and support for propositions tends to decline during campaigns.
Polling up to late September showed 76 and 77 losing, 74 ahead by unimpressive margins, and only 75 leading by significant margins.
But last month, Schwarzenegger's personal and ad campaigns in favor of the propositions started. SurveyUSA polls, conducted by telephone machines from September 30 to October 2, showed all four of his propositions leading by substantial margins. This represents so striking a shift that many political professionals were skeptical of the results. But they appear to be corroborated by Schwarzenegger's internal polling, as reported by California Republican insider Bill Whalen in www.weeklystandard.com and by a television poll taken this week. Here is Whalen's report of the numbers.
Here's what the governor's internal polling shows:
Prop. 7455% Yes44% NoProp. 7560% Yes37% NoProp. 7658% Yes36% NoProp. 7759% Yes36% NoHere's a survey, done this week, by KABC-TV in Los Angeles and KPIX-TV in San Francisco:
Prop. 7455% Yes44% No Prop. 7560% Yes37% NoProp. 7658% Yes36% No Prop. 7759% Yes36% NoSchwarzenegger seems sure to be outspent by the unions. He and his political consultant Mike Murphy have gambled by waiting until the last six weeks of the campaign to spend their money and allowing the governor's job rating to remain at perilously low levels for many months. That takes a lot of nerve. I'm still retaining some skepticism about these late poll results. I've seldom seen opinion turn around in favor of ballot propositions so late in the game-though it did with the ballot propositions Schwarzenegger supported last February. Turnout matters here, and Schwarzenegger benefited from low Democratic turnout in the October 2003 recall election that made him governor. To me, this is the most fascinating and the highest-stake election this November. And I hesitate to predict anything about the outcome-except that it will be important, one way or the other.