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NJ and Virginia: Lagging Political Indicators?

RICHMOND, Va. - The odd-year governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey have long been touted as a glimpse at the voting trends for the next election. But in reality, they have more often been a reaction to the last election.

In eight elections beginning in 1977, Virginia has picked a governor representing the party not in the White House. New Jersey has done that in five straight elections since 1989.

The states have done that whether the presidents were relatively popular or unpopular. They have done it in good economic times and bad.

The results from this political odd couple were precursors of a Republican surge in 1994 and a Democratic comeback in 2006. But in other elections, they appeared to have little relation to what happened in congressional and gubernatorial elections the next year.

There are differences of opinion as to what Virginia's and New Jersey's gubernatorial election results mean, with some historians and political scientists viewing them as anomalies and others believing the races demonstrate voters' instincts to not put too much power in one political party.

Scandal or demographic changes have affected the states' contests. But the run of out-of-power party successes in both states is a bad sign for the Democrats as Nov. 3 approaches.

In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine is in a virtual polling tie with Republican Chris Christie, although Corzine has closed gaps and appears to have the better chance for a Democratic win next month.

New Jersey has been reliably Democrat in presidential races since 1992. But budget troubles have made Corzine, like all incumbents in these recessionary times, vulnerable to voter anger and angst.

In Virginia, Republican Robert "Bob" McDonnell, the former attorney general, has held a modest and persistent lead in the polls over Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds.

Virginia has increasingly moved left in recent years, with President Barack Obama in 2008 becoming the first Democrat to capture Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But Obama's health care reform push is unpopular here, and his job approval was at 44 percent in the latest Mason-Dixon poll released Tuesday.

Some analysts hypothesize that the proximity of the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections to the previous presidential campaign gives voters their first opportunity to address the mistakes of a new president, or to keep a re-elected one in check.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato wrote this recently on what he called the "presidential jinx:"

"By November of a new presidential term, the honeymoon glow is gone, and presidents have made many controversial decisions. The euphoria that accompanies the opening of an administration - the feeling that anything is possible, that many problems can be tackled and solved, that the world can be transformed in positive ways - has evaporated, replaced by the sobering reality and intractable nature of many long-term predicaments."

Certainly, that could describe the Democrats' predicament a year after Obama's election. The economy is struggling to shake off recession, the war in Afghanistan has escalated, and the health care debate has gotten partisan and angry.

But others aren't sure that the White House makes a bit of difference in these two odd-year races.

In Virginia, for instance, the campaign is being fought on local traffic problems, taxes, the state budget, and whether a controversial college thesis McDonnell wrote 20 years ago exposes him as anti-working woman. A year after Obama won on a polished "audacity of hope" theme, the television advertising war has been very negative, and Deeds' rough communications skills have hampered his campaign.

"What is going on nationally doesn't seem to have nearly as much impact on Virginia races as local factors - the quality of the candidates, what issues they are talking about," said George Gilliam, a historian at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.

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