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Many popular media outlets this morning are reporting on yesterday’s elections and suggesting that the results were an early referendum on President Obama.  Most pundits are focused on the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia and the facts don’t lie.  In both states, Republicans won despite fighting against Democratic incumbency. In New Jersey, Corzine’s advantage was solidified even more by the amount of money he spent on the race.  According to the New Jersey state Election Law Enforcement division, he spent $23.6MM compared to Christie’s $8.8MM, an almost three-fold advantage.  Yet despite these monetary and incumbency advantages, Republicans ruled the day, but what conclusions can we draw from these results?

The exit polling in both states provides some interesting insights.  In the table below, we’ve outlined percentage of the vote that each candidates received versus President Obama’s job approval rating in each state based on the exit polls, and then compared that to the 2008 Presidential election results.

A Referendum? Not So Fast . . . - table

Interestingly, President Obama has incredibly strong job approval ratings in New Jersey and solid approval in Virgina.  In fact, based on the exit polls, more people approve of the job that President Obama is doing in New Jersey than voted for him in 2008.  While the Virgina numbers look less supportive as President Obama’s approval rating is well below his margin of victory in 2008;  the devil is once again in the details.  The exit polls for Virginia also showed that for those who voted in this gubernatorial election, 43% voted for Obama in 2008 and 51% voted for McCain.   So the issue in Virginia was one of turn out, which admittedly does has some implication relating to approval for the President, rather than some broad based sea change relating to approval of President Obama.  In fact,  one could actually argue that President Obama’s favorability went up with those who voted in Virginia as his approval rating in exit polls was 48%, while only 43% of those polled voted for him in 2008.

Was this election an indictment of Obama? No, far from it. If anything, the elections suggest that President Obama continues to maintain an almost Teflon like status despite declining numbers in some national polls.  So, what can we take from these elections as we look towards the 2010 mid-terms? Perhaps not much.  In fact as the Washington Post reported today:

“In the 15 gubernatorial elections since 1949, the voters of New Jersey and Virginia have chosen governors belonging to the same party 10 times (seven Democrats, three Republicans). In five of those 10 elections, the party winning both governorships went on to pick up seats in the House and Senate the next year. In three, a sweep of the statehouses augured precisely the opposite result in the subsequent congressional election. Once, Democrats won both governors' races and went on to get a split result (losing seats in one house, gaining them in another). Once, the same thing happened to Republicans. Not a particularly compelling pattern.”

If anything these elections may be an early indicator of a shift in sentiment back towards the Republicans, buts as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local”, which is the key takeaway, along with the amazing approval resilience of President Obama.

Daryl G. Jones
Managing Director