Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Is this race a referendum or bellwether? Yes - sorta'.

Mr. Treash asks: I actually have a serious question... If Terry McAuliffe is victorious tonight, it will be the first time since 1973 that Virginia voters elect a governor from the political party of the sitting president. How much of a statement of support is this for the President, or is this more a statement of Cuccinelli's inability to connect with independents, and more importantly, women?

That is a great question - and a tough one to answer easily.  A couple points might help us with this.

First, neither McAuliffe nor Cuccinelli are popular - sure, both have some strong supporters, but neither is beloved in the Commonwealth by the masses.  The upshot is this is a mini-max, versus a maxi-min election.  What, you say, is that?  Well, sometimes we try to maximize our benefits while minimizing our costs and risks, other times we try to minimize our costs and risks while maximizing our benefits.  The former reflects stronger feelings about the benefits, the latter stronger feelings about costs and risks.   Thus, in Virginia, most people who are voting seem to be voting against someone more than they are voting for someone (which probably helps explain the bump Sarvis and the Libertarians have received in polls, significant for a third party).

Secondly, state elections have far lower turn-outs than national elections.  The upshot is that these reflect the opinions of people who are generally more politicized, older, and wealthier - our ability to infer association with the national agenda then is a little more limited than might be the case in a traditional congressional or presidential election year - the lines are less blurred.  That is even despite the fact that one of the candidates in this race (Cuccinelli) has specifically tried to invoke the election as a referendum on the administration in a bid to get moderate-Obamacare-skeptics to back him (and I think it has worked, explaining in part the narrowing of the race to a bit).

That said, I think that we have a race in Virginia that on its own merits captures demographic shifts in that state more than it illustrates more transient opinions on particular issues - so its national importance is largely that it gives us a better sense of how those shifts might affect the Electoral College in Virginia and similar Sunbelt states (notably North Carolina) in a few years.