Nov. 3, 2009— -- Vast economic discontent marked the mood of Tuesday's off-year voters, portending potential trouble for incumbents generally and Democrats in particular in 2010. Still the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey looked less like a referendum on Barack Obama than a reflection of their own candidates and issues.
The gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey looked less like a referendum on Barack Obama than a reflection of their own candidates and issues. Still, the two Republican victories, in predominantly Democratic New Jersey and in purple Virginia, had to smart.
Just under half the voters in Virginia, 48 percent, approved of the way Obama is handling his job, rising to 57 percent in New Jersey. Most in both states, in any case, said the president was not a factor in their vote.
Perhaps most striking were economic views: A vast 89 percent in New Jersey and 85 percent in Virginia said they were worried about the direction of the nation's economy in the next year; 56 percent and 53 percent, respectively, said they were "very" worried about it.
Voters who expressed the highest levels of economic discontent heavily favored the Republican candidates in both states – underscoring the challenge Obama and his party may face in 2010 if economic attitudes don't improve. The analogy is to 1994, when nearly six in 10 voters said the economy was in bad shape, and they favored the out-of-power Republicans by 26 points, helping the GOP to a 52-seat gain and control of Congress for the first time in 42 years.
In Virginia on Tuesday, voters who were "very" worried about the economy concern supported the Republican winner, Bob McDonnell by a wide margin, 77-23 percent. In New Jersey, while the gap wasn't quite so broad, voters who were most worried about the economy backed the Republican Chris Christie by 61-34 percent as he unseated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine.
McDonnell also won those who called the economy the single most important issue in their vote, by 15 points. Corzine won economy voters by a wide margin in New Jersey, suggesting some fight on the issue for Democrats in 2010. But Corzine badly lost voters who were focused on property taxes, and they were almost as numerous as economy voters in his state.
Another challenge for Corzine – and a sobering result for incumbents more broadly – was that the top candidate attribute selected by voters in his state was the desire for a candidate who "can bring needed change," the same mantra Obama rode to victory a year ago. This year, "change" voters favored Christie by 67-26 percent.
A key factor, as in most elections, was independents: Obama split Virginia independents with John McCain in 2008, en route to becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since 1964. McDonnell, though, won independents by a thumping 66-33 percent.
Corzine, too, lost independents in New Jersey by a wide margin, 60-30 percent – the reason he lost a state where Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 10 points.
Twenty-four percent in Virginia said they'd cast their vote in part to show opposition to Obama, 17 percent to support him – a 7-point negative gap, although most, 56 percent, said he was not a factor in their vote. In New Jersey it was an even split: Nineteen percent said they cast their vote in part to express support for the president, an identical 19 percent to show opposition to him, while 60 percent said he wasn't a factor.
At the same time, substantial numbers in both states expressed a view that government "is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals," a measure of concern about activist government. And conservatives accounted for more voters in both states than they did in 2008 – their turnout was up by 7 points in Virginia and by 5 in New Jersey.
Also notable was the very sharp drop-off in voting by young adults: Voters under age 30 accounted for just 9 percent of voters in New Jersey (compared with 17 percent in 2008) and 10 percent in Virginia (down from 21 percent a year ago). Young voters were Obama's biggest supporters last year, but their uncertain turnout makes them a less reliable base. And while Corzine won them broadly Tuesday, under 30s in Virginia favored the Republican, McDonnell, by 10 points.
A summary of results in each state follows.