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First thoughts: Referendum on Obama?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** A referendum on Obama? Deep down, a political reporter's first instinct is to nationalize off-year and special elections. Why? It's the best way to try to make sense -- at least initially -- of a handful of races across the country. It's also the best way to sell a local race's importance to editors and producers. We all do it. So it shouldn't be surprising that almost everyone is nationalizing today's gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia, and even the NY-23 special congressional election. And the chief question they're asking is: Are they referendums on President Obama's first year in office? Yesterday, the New York Times wrote that the New Jersey race was "one of several [contests] likely to be viewed as a barometer of the president's popularity." And here was the AP: "A Corzine loss would be seen as a political embarrassment for the White House." 

*** Remember that candidates matter: If Democrats lose in New Jersey and Virginia, that certainly would be a shot in the arm for a Republican Party that hasn't fared well in the in the past two election cycles (losing control of Congress and the White House). That outcome also could give Democrats pause that the voter coalition that propelled Obama to victory last year (liberals, young voters, minorities, independents) appears dormant or is no longer intact. But is that a referendum on Obama? Not so much. For starters, how much does Creigh Deeds losing in Virginia say about Obama, when the president's approval rating in the state is at 57% among registered voters and 54% among likely voters, according to the most recent Washington Post poll? And if Jon Corzine's favorable rating in the Quinnipiac poll was at 38% back in March (near the height of Obama's honeymoon), and it's at 39% now, how does that say much about Obama and his popularity/presidency? Likewise, if Democrats are able to split the races by winning in New Jersey or even pull off the upset in Virginia, does that mean Obama's presidency is on easy street? Absolutely not. In short, these races say much more about Deeds/McDonnell or Corzine/Christie than they do about Obama.

*** But issues matter, too: By the way, even Republican Governors Association Chair Haley Barbour said today's races are NOT a referendum on the president. But Barbour argued that the policy climate they've set is on the ballot today. Evan Tracey, the campaign TV ad analyst for CMAG, points out that in just the D.C. market (read: Northern Virginia voters), more than $10 million in TV ads have run this year on various issues the president and his party are pushing. Did it set up a climate in Northern Virginia of government doing too much opening the door a tad more for McDonnell?

*** Bellwethers for 2010? Here's another question people are asking about today's contests: What do they say about the 2010 midterms? Again, it's hard to say. As we pointed out last week, Democrats won both the NJ and VA races in 2005 -- right after Hurricane Katrina -- which was an early sign of their success in 2006 (when they took back control of Congress) and in 2008 (when they won the White House). Yet in 2001 -- right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- Democrats also won the NJ and VA contests. But a year later, Republicans picked up seats in the House and Senate, and George W. Bush won re-election in 2004. Here's one other bit of history that's hard to dismiss: Since 1977 (so the past eight elections), the party that controls the White House has lost the Virginia gubernatorial contest. And since 1989 (the past five elections), the party controlling the White House has lost New Jersey.

*** Lessons learned: Still, these contests do tell a national story. But here's the thing: The lessons are already known, no matter the outcomes. Win or lose, Corzine won't get 50%, meaning more than half of the state voted to oust him in a very blue state. We know that the Republican Party has to deal with both an ideological and an establishment-vs.-grassroots rift. We know that not being associated with either political party is a net plus with many voters -- from Michael Bloomberg's expected victory, to Chris Daggett's influence in New Jersey, to Doug Hoffman's rise in NY-23. And we know that the president's coattails have gotten shorter. As one of us wrote, "So it isn't about whether or not Tuesday's elections matter. Tuesday is about which party learns the messages voters are sending. And which party over-interprets or under-interprets those messages."

*** Other races to watch: Besides the NJ/VA/NY-23 contests, Maine is voting on a ballot initiative whether to overturn the state's law allowing same-sex marriage, and the outcome could go either way. Also, New York City, Boston, and at least a dozen more big cities are holding mayoral elections. Polls close in Virginia at 7:00 pm ET; in Maine, New Jersey, and Boston at 8:00 pm; and in New York at 9:00 pm. One final thought here: What should the House GOP leadership (read: Pete Sessions) worry about more -- a Hoffman loss in NY-23 or a Garamendi (D) victory by less than five points in CA-10? Folks, the special election in blue CA-10, which Ellen Tauscher represented before heading to the Obama State Department, might be closer than many people expected a week ago….

*** How would a recount work in NJ? New Jersey is shaping up to be the closest election tonight. So what if it's so close that the winner is unclear? Well, there's no automatic recount. In other words, no vote margin triggers an automatic statewide recount. Instead, a candidate would have 15 days (Nov. 18) to request one. (They'd file in New Jersey Superior Court). There is a fee that the petitioning candidate has to incur (the Secretary of State's office didn't know how much), but all other costs are incurred by the counties. Candidates have 30 days to contest the election if they feel it was fraudulent. Once a candidate files, that would trigger an investigation. Impress Your Friends at the Water Cooler Alert: The last time a candidate requested a recount was in 1981 by Democrat Jim Florio, who in the end lost to Republican Tom Kean by 1,797 votes. The closest gubernatorial elections since '81 were in '93 and '97, when Christie Todd Whitman won by fewer than 25,000 votes. By the way, our exit poll/ballot counting experts in the NBC News boiler room tell us as many as 100,000 votes won't be counted tonight in New Jersey. If we haven't called this race by midnight, could it be we won't be able to call it for days?

*** Turnout watch: Turnout in New Jersey's last gubernatorial contest, in 2005, was 2.3 million; in 2006, it was about 2.25 million for the Menendez-Kean Senate race; and in last year's presidential, it was around 3.8 million… Turnout in Virginia's last gubernatorial contest, in 2005, was about 2 million; in 2006, it was about 2.4 million in the Webb-Allen Senate contest; and in last year's presidential, it was about 3.7 million.

*** Obama supporters disappointed? This New York Times piece is indicative of what we've seen/heard from some Obama supporters lately: They are disappointed with Obama, discovering that campaigning is a lot easier than governing. "Interviews with voters across Iowa offer a window into how the president's standing has leveled off, especially among the independents and Republicans who contributed not just to his margin of victory in the caucuses here but also to the optimism among his supporters that his election would be a break from standard-issue politics."

*** Abortion returns to the health-care debate: It has been a while since the talk of "death panels" or abortion has dominated the health-care debate. And it's probably not a coincidence that the prospects for reform now seem better than they did during that crazy August. But the issue of abortion has returned for the Democrats. The Washington Post: "While House leaders are moving toward a vote on health-care legislation by the end of the week, enough Democrats are threatening to oppose the measure over the issue of abortion to create a question about its passage… 'I will continue whipping my colleagues to oppose bringing the bill to the floor for a vote until a clean vote against public funding for abortion is allowed,' Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said… He said last week that 40 Democrats could vote with him to oppose the legislation -- enough to derail the bill."

*** The GOP's health plan: Meanwhile, House Republicans plan to -- finally! -- unveil their health-care bill this week. And it doesn't look anything like any of the Democrats' legislation. Two big differences: Their legislation won't prevent health insurers from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions, and it won't provide money to help those without health insurance. House Minority Leader John Boehner said "that the measure would not include language banning insurance companies from denying coverage to consumers with preexisting conditions, a prominent feature of Democrats' bills in both the House and Senate," the Washington Post writes. "And while some Republican health-care proposals have called for giving individuals tax credits to help them buy insurance, that idea won't be included in this week's GOP bill because it would cost too much."

*** Obama's day: The president meets at the White House with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at 9:10 am ET (Merkel also addresses Congress today). At 2:40 pm, Obama participates in a U.S.-E.U. summit. And he meets with Defense Secretary Gates at 4:30 pm and with Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) at 5:15 pm (both of which are closed to the press).

Countdown to MA Special Primary: 35 days
Countdown to MA Special Election: 77 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 364 days

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