Poll Results Daunting for Democrats in ’09 Gubernatorial Races

by Stuart Rothenberg September 14, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

Given that I’ve spent the past 30 years reporting on and analyzing candidates, campaigns and elections, it should come as no surprise that I believe that campaigns matter. I’ve seen more than enough candidates who appeared headed to victory stumble their way to defeat during the post-Labor Day stretch.

But cycle fundamentals are crucial, too, and poll numbers in the middle of September often are good predictors about the final result.

Yes, voters are increasingly likely to pay attention to candidates and campaigns as the calendar rolls through September and into October, so voter sentiment can change as events occur. But that is at least somewhat offset by the tendency of many voters to dismiss TV ads and charges late in the campaign as nothing more than election year politics.

Purely from a technical point of view, recent poll numbers in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races remain horrendous for Democrats. And what has to be really scary to party strategists is the similarity in their candidates’ positioning in the two contests.

Public opinion analyst Mark Blumenthal of Pollster.com astutely observed a week ago that the best way to understand what is going on in the Garden State gubernatorial race is to focus on Gov. Jon Corzine’s (D) numbers in ballot tests, not on the margin of Republican challenger Chris Christie’s lead. The governor, after all, is a known commodity to Garden State voters, so his strength in ballot tests reflects the public’s view of his candidacy.

Corzine’s showing in ballot tests over the past 33 polls, dating back to a mid-January Monmouth University/Gannett survey, has ranged from a low of 35 percent to a high of 42 percent, a weak showing for a sitting governor. And Corzine hit 45 percent in that Monmouth/Gannett poll only when matched against conservative Steve Lonegan, who lost to Christie in the June GOP primary.

Corzine’s consistency suggests that he has hit something of a ceiling in the state. While incumbents — even Democratic incumbents — often underperform in New Jersey, in part because of the importance of the New York City and Philadelphia media markets, they rarely are in as bad a shape as Corzine is this late in an election year.

Four years ago, in polling conducted in mid-September and early October, Corzine was drawing 44 percent to 48 percent of the vote against his GOP opponent, Doug Forrester, in five nonpartisan polls (Fairleigh Dickinson University, Quinnipiac University, Monmouth/Gannett, Star-Ledger/Eagleton Institute of Politics and WNBC/Marist Institute for Public Opinion). But Corzine was then a sitting U.S. Senator, and he also held a lead of 2 to 8 points over Forrester in those same polls’ ballot tests.

Blumenthal’s point about Corzine’s numbers is also relevant in Virginia, where Democrat Creigh Deeds’ ballot test numbers are eerily similar to Corzine’s.

True, there is no incumbent seeking re-election in Virginia, but Democrats have held the governor’s office for eight years, and that makes the Democratic nominee this year the de-facto incumbent in the minds of many voters.

Deeds has drawn 37 percent to 43 percent of the vote in 10 polls conducted since July. In each of those surveys, he trailed Republican nominee Bob McDonnell by anywhere from the low single digits to the midteens. (Deeds looked much stronger in two mid-June polls, but those results undoubtedly were skewed by his June 9 primary victory, making them largely irrelevant.)

In six of the last eight surveys of likely voters, McConnell was over the 50 percent mark in the ballot test against Deeds, and in the other two, the Republican was at 49 percent.

Four years ago, the Virginia governor’s race looked tight. A mid-September Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey of likely voters had Jerry Kilgore (R) leading Tim Kaine 41 percent to 40 percent. A month later, the same survey showed Kilgore ahead 44 percent to 42 percent. A mid-October Diageo/Hotline poll showed Kaine leading Kilgore 41 percent to 40 percent among likely voters.

Kaine eventually went on to win the race by almost 6 points, and he certainly was helped by then-President George W. Bush’s sinking poll numbers, as well as outgoing Gov. Mark Warner’s (D) popularity. Kaine also painted Kilgore as too conservative for the state, particularly for crucial Northern Virginia.

While Deeds and Corzine will now have almost eight weeks to change voters’ minds, they start from deep holes.

This time, neither Deeds nor Corzine get much advantage by blaming Bush for the economy or the public’s discontent (though they have already tried to do so), and the GOP has nominated candidates in both states who seem intent on ensconcing themselves in the political middle, exactly where most swing voters are. Because of that, many voters dissatisfied with the direction of the country, or of their state, will be more inclined to cast their votes for the Republican nominees than they were four years ago.

Corzine and Deeds will likely have to launch increasingly tough attacks on their GOP opponents, seeking to make the elections referendums on the Republican nominees. But that strategy will also give Christie and McDonnell the opportunity to paint their opponents as desperate and negative. A quick surge in multiple polls by either Democrat could change the dynamic, of course.

As Yogi Berra might put it, the two contests aren’t over until they are over, but the fundamentals, as reflected in state ballot tests, simply don’t look good for Corzine or Deeds.