There's a ritual, a kind of kabuki dance, to interpreting the results of the two gubernatorial elections, in Virginia and New Jersey, that are held the year after the presidential election. If one party wins both elections, its spin doctors claim that they are a verdict on the national administrationup if the national party's candidates win, down if (as in such elections going back now to 1989) the national party's candidates lose. The spin doctors of the other party quote Tip O'Neill's adage that "all politics is local" and say that the results were due to state and local issues and have no relevance to national politics.
There's some truth on both sides. State elections are, after all, about state issueswhy else would we have, as we do now, Republican governors in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont (John Kerry's three best states) and a Democratic governor in Wyoming (George W. Bush's No. 1 state in 2000 and No. 2 in 2004)? And yet the trends in national politics are sometimes echoed in the results in elections for governor. Issues that work for one party in state elections sometimes work for them in federal elections as well. I don't hold with the traditional view that governors have great power to deliver votes for their party's nominees in presidential elections. But state elections do have some implications for national politics.
Democrats, after their victories in the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, are arguing that these results, together with the national polls, show a repudiation of the Bush administration. Republicans are arguing that these were just local contests, with no national implications. They're both right and both wrong.
What strikes me most about the two state elections is how similar the results were to those in 2001 in the same contests. Virginia 2001: Warner (D) 52 to 47 percent. Virginia 2005: Kaine (D) 52 to 46 percent. New Jersey 2001: McGreevey (D) 56 to 42 percent. New Jersey 2005: Corzine (D) 53 to 44 percent. Republicans appear to have won, narrowly, the other two statewide offices up in Virginia this time; they won one and lost one four years ago. Republicans went into the 2005 election with 60 of the 100 seats in the House of Delegates; they emerged with 59 votes.
One thing election results can tell us a lot more about than a poll is turnout. Turnout in Virginia, with 99.67 percent of precincts reporting, was up 4 percent as against 2001 in a state where turnout increased in 2004 as compared with 2000 by 17 percent and in which population, according to census estimates, increased 5 percent in 2000-04. Turnout in New Jersey, with 97 percent of precincts reporting, was 2 percent below total 2001 turnout. Most likely the final figures will show a slight turnout increase. This in a state where presidential race turnout increased 13 percent in 2000-04 and population increased 3 percent. Caution: Sometimes turnout figures rise as more absentees are counted, etc.
From these numbers, Democrats can argue that voters in the 10th- and 12th-largest states had four years of Democratic governance and liked it enough to vote for four more. Republicans can argue that their party suffered no serious slippage and did as well when their president's job rating is hovering between 35 and 40 percent as they did when his job rating was up around 75 percent (the 2001 elections were held eight weeks after September 11). But neither party seems to have registered the gains in turnout that both parties did in 2004. John Kerry got 16 percent more popular votes than Al Gore. George W. Bush got 23 percent more popular votes than he did four years before. In Virginia, Kaine seems to have gotten 4 percent more votes than Warner, the losing Republican 2 percent more votes than the losing Republican last time. In New Jersey Corzine has on the board now 8 percent fewer votes than McGreevey. It doesn't look like he'll end up with as many. The losing Republican has 2 percent more votes than the losing Republican last time. That's in line with the shift in the presidential vote in the state from 56-to-40 percent Democratic in 2000 to 53-to-47 percent Democratic in 2004.
The national polls show a national electorate in flux. See this interesting article in the Washington Post cowritten by the reliable and unflappable Dan Balz. But the Virginia and New Jersey results show state electorates pretty much where they were in 2001. You could argue that means the Bush and Republican turnout and percentage increases of 2004 have disappeared. But that would still leave us as the 49 percent nation we were in 2000and not a nation that is swinging as heavily to the Democrats as it did to the Republicans in 1993-94.
The fact is that neither party had an ideal nominee in the race for governor of Virginia. Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, the former mayor of Richmond, was too urban and personally opposed the death penaltyalways a negative in Virginia. Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (he resigned the job to pursue his campaign, a tradition in Virginia) was from the far southwest corner of the state, and had a heavy mountain accent and a traditional religious persona that was a liability in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washingtonwhich moved against George W. Bush between the elections of 2000 and 2004, while the country as a whole was moving toward him.
Kaine's big advantage was his identification with incumbent Gov. Mark Warner, elected in 2001 by a 52-to-47 percent margin and with a job approval rating in the vicinity of 70 percent despite having, against his 2001 promise, pushed a big tax increase through the Republican legislature. Warner campaigned in 2001 as a NASCAR fan and won big votes in rural Virginia. Kaine was not able to do as well thereit's Kilgore's home territory. But Kaine improved on Warner's showings in the suburbsnot just the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington but the suburbs of Richmond (Henrico and Chesterfield counties) and in the Hampton Roads region around Norfolk and Newport News.
There's this national implication here. Supporting tax increases does not produce political death. If voters feelas voters in traffic-clogged Northern Virginia and perhaps the other suburbs dothat higher taxes will produce goods that you wantfewer traffic jamsthey will support you. Ross Douthat and Reiham Salam in their brilliant article in this week's Weekly Standard argue that tax cuts are not such a strong political plus since ordinary people aren't so heavily taxed anymore. (More on this article in forthcoming blogs.) Voters are willing to be taxed more to get what they want. At the same time, unaccountably, Kilgore declined to sign Americans for Tax Reform's pledge not to raise taxesdespite the fact that the Warner tax increases have stuffed the state's tax coffersand he didn't promise to cut taxes either. So you could argue that he wasn't the ideal tax-cutting candidate. Even so, Republicans need to pay some attention to Douthat and Salam's argument that broad-based tax cuts aren't such great politics anymore as well as their argument that Republicans would do better to advocate different tax cuts now that tax rates are lower than they were.
The Virginia result also produces a loser and a winner in Democratic presidential politics. The loser is Hillary Rodham Clinton. That's because the winner is Mark Warner, who evidently has decided not to run against Sen. George Allen next year but has instead embarked on a candidate for president. There is something faux about Warner: He portrays himself as an entrepreneur who just happened to enter politics. The fact is that he is a guy who has been interested and involved in politics all his life, who won a lottery to get a cellphone license and then made a huge fortune off it, and then used the money he earned to run against Sen. John Warner in 1996 and to get himself elected governor of Virginia in 2001. (Not entirely a faux entrepreneur, I would concede: If I had won that lottery, I would probably have frittered away the business, whereas Warner had the competence to make it successful.) Warner evidently wants to run as the moderate candidate against Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a candidate who has shown that he can win in a state that voted for George W. Bush (and indeed every Republican presidential candidate starting with 1968). He won in 2001 and, running on his coattails, Tim Kaine won in 2005. Kaine's victory gives him a pretty strong argument against Clintonand for that matter against the Republican nominee (could it be Allen?) in 2008. This was a big win for Mark Warner.
What else does Virginia tell us? It tells us something about turnout. And here the lesson is not particularly favorable to the Democrats or the Republicans. As noted above, turnout seems to have increased less than population and much less than presidential turnout increased from 2000 to 2004. Both parties surely worked hard to gin up turnout. But neither seems to have succeeded in producing what they wanted. Turnout in several independent cities (which are county equivalents in Virginia, i.e. not part of any county) was down or up minimally: Alexandria (+0.1%), Hampton (+2%), Newport News (+1%), Norfolk (-3%), Portsmouth (-6%), Roanoke (-7%). The major exception was Kaine's hometown of Richmond (+4%). Turnout was not up much in inner suburban counties and cities: Fairfax (+1%), Chesapeake (-0.0%), Virginia Beach (+3%). Exception: heavily Democratic Arlington (+8%), Republican-leaning Chesterfield (+10%). There were big turnout gains in fast-growing exurban Republican-leaning counties: Loudoun (+32%), Prince William (+14%), Spotsylvania (+19%), Stafford (+17%). But Kaine carried Loudoun and Prince William, which gave majorities to Bush in 2004, and Kilgore carried Spotsylvania and Stafford by unimpressive margins. (These numbers were calculated quickly, and I'd be grateful for correction of any errors.) In some of these numbers, there's evidence of swelling turnout among Bush haters (Arlington maybe) but little evidence of increasing black turnout (except maybe in Richmond); there's a bit of evidence of increasing Republican exurban turnout (Spotsylvania, Stafford) but not much. Kilgore's gains over 2001 in his home area of southwest Virginia (where Mark Warner won in 2001 and ran very well in the 1996 Senate race) were impressive in percentage terms but did not put nearly enough votes on the board to elect him.
How does Kilgore's vote compare with Bush's? Kilgore ran behind Bush in all 11 of Virginia's congressional districts. He ran only 4 percent behind in the southwest Virginia Ninth District, his home turf, and 11 percent behind in the next-door district, the Shenendoah Valley Sixth, and the Second, which is dominated by Virginia Beach and Norfolk. In the other eight districts he ran between 6 and 9 percent behind Bush. It's not possible to compare the vote by congressional districts between 2001 and 2005, because the district lines changed in 2002. And for the moment I'm going to forgo the pleasure of comparing the results in all 95 counties and 40 independent cities.
I'll write more about the results in New Jersey, New York City, and California in the next few hours. Bottom line here: New Jersey looks a little more Republican in 2005 than it did in 2001, just as it looked somewhat more Republican in 2004 than it did in 2000. But in each case, the Democrat still won. New York City voted decisively against a left-wing Democrat and in favor of a liberal Democrat running on the Republican line who has wisely kept in place the police policies of Rudy Giuliani. Would you, however liberal you are, want to turn your police force over to an ally of Al Sharpton's? California voted down all the major propositions on the ballot, though some by a narrow margin. This is a stunning defeat for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a stunning victory for the public employee unions. More later.