The off-off-year gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia are commonly viewed as bellwethers for gauging the off-year congressional races that will follow. These two elections can claim that status because the historically strong performances by Republicans in 1994 and 2010 were preceded by Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia the year before, while the Democratic landslide of 2006 was preceded by Democratic wins in these two states.
This year, it has appeared for quite a while that the Republican in New Jersey — none other than Chris Christie — will roll to a big victory, but the Republican in Viginia — Ken Cuccinelli — will lose to former Clinton operative and amiable rogue Terry McAuliffe. Polls showed (and still show) Christie with a 20 point lead over sacrificial lamb Barbara Buono. Meanwhile, Cuccinelli trailed McAuliffe by 7 to 12 points in most polls, and by even more in polls conducted just as the government shutdown was ending.
Mixed signals, then, for the two parties, accompanied, to be sure, by plenty of tut-tutting by those who want Republicans to eschew both the Tea Party and the social conservative movement.
But aided, no doubt, by the Obamacare roll out fiasco, Cuccinelli is coming on strong in the closing days of the campaign. In the four most recent polls, he trails McAuliffe by 2 to 7 points.
If I have correctly learned the lessons preached by Nate Silver, this still means trouble for Cuccinelli. Indeed, it may be better to trail in the poll average by 10 points weeks before an election than to trail by, say, 4 points days before. (Silver himself is transitioning from the New York Times to ESPN, and I haven’t found his take, if any, on the Virginia election).
But there’s a wild card in this election. He is Robert Sarvis, the libertarian candidate. His share of the vote in the four most recent polls is, on average, 11 percent.
Third party candidates often fade badly when voters actually vote. If this happens to Sarvis — and Rand Paul is campaigning for Cuccinelli in an effort to make it happen — then one certainly can imagine a victory for the Republican, particularly if turnout is low, as it might well be in an off-off-year election featuring less than highly attractive candidates.
On the other hand, Sarvis’ poll numbers may be more indicative of his true (i.e., election day) support than those of a typical third party candidate. Why? Because given Cuccinelli’s vehement social conservatism, the Virginia race arguably creates a larger than normal space for a libertarian alternative.
I’m not getting my hopes up, but will be prepared to do my share of tut-tutting if Cuccinelli pulls this one out.