The Election Wonk’s Guide to Tuesday’s Governor Races

Virginia and New Jersey—two states with a combined population of about 17 million—are voting today in the largest American elections since November 2016. Both states are choosing new governors and electing numerous state and local officials. So it’s worth asking: Who’s going to win? And what do those wins mean in the Trump era? I’ll break down each question for each state.

Virginia: Where We Are and Where We’re Heading

According to the average of current polls, Democrat Ralph Northam is the favorite to win Tuesday’s contest. But it’s not an open-and-shut case.

The RealClearPolitics average puts Northam ahead of Republican Ed Gillespie by 3.3 points, but polls aren’t perfect.

This table shows the final margin in the RealClearPolitics average for a number of statewide races in Virginia over the last decade. A quick scan shows that neither party consistently outperforms the other in the state. Republicans outperformed their final average in four of the nine races, and Democrats outperformed their polls in the other five. And an average polling error from this set of races would ( depending on who it favors) turn a 3.3 point Northam edge into a functionally tied race or an almost seven-point win.

This metric for error isn’t perfect – presidential, Senate and off-year gubernatorial elections aren’t the same. Pollsters face different challenges in each of them, and the specific conditions of each race (e.g., how many polls were fielded in the days leading up to the election) will affect the accuracy of any poll average.

Other methods of looking at the data also show that this race is close and a Gillespie win isn’t out of the question. If you calculate possible poll error based on past gubernatorial elections, the data shows that a Gillespie win is possible. And the sources of error outside the inherent randomness of surveys (e.g., justifiable differences in polling methodology) also increase the uncertainty. In other words, Northam isn’t guaranteed to win.

But Gillespie fans definitely shouldn’t order the victory champagne prematurely. It’s hard to tell ahead of time not only if if the polls are going to miss but also in what direction they might err. In other words, the polls could be right about Northam’s lead, or they might even understate his final margin. Maybe Northam picks up more undecided voters than Gillespie, or the electorate is more Democratic than some polls suggest. Maybe not. We simply don’t know which combination of factors will or won’t kick in and possibly push the final results off the polling average.

Northam still has a real lead and is the favorite, but he isn’t guaranteed to win. Think of it this way: if I had a God’s-eye view of the world and could run 100,000 completely comprehensive simulations of this race from the end of the primary through Election Day, I think Northam would win more races than he would lose. But we don’t get to live through 100,000 versions of this election—we roll the dice once. I think a modest Democratic win is the most likely outcome, but that doesn’t rule out a closer race, a Gillespie win, or a solid victory for Northam.

New Jersey: It’s Much Less Suspenseful

New Jersey’s gubernatorial race is much less suspenseful than Virginia’s. Right now, Democrat Phil Murphy leads Republican Kim Guadagno by double digits, and he’s had a double-digit lead in every poll on RCP. A convincing Murphy win would also make sense intuitively—New Jersey is a blue state, and incumbent Republican governor Chris Christie is historically unpopular (Guadagno is his lieutenant governor).

Obviously there’s no such thing as a 100 percent certainty in electoral politics. But if Guadagno were to win, it would represent a truly enormous polling error. So if you love close elections, you’re probably better off watching Virginia’s results than New Jersey’s.

What Will the Results Mean?

I’ve argued (as have others) that it’s not easy to draw a straight line between the results of gubernatorial races and the national political environment. Other indicators—like presidential approval, House generic ballot polls, congressional retirements and more—are arguably a better gauge of how the country feels about Trump and whether voters will give Democrats the House and/or Senate in 2018. And in New Jersey, Chris Christie’s low approval rating makes it hard to extrapolate from those results to the rest of the country.

But there’s a broader context for these races, especially when it comes to Virginia. In 2016, Donald Trump won the White House partially by trading white, well-educated, traditional Republicans for blue-collar, culturally conservative (but not always fiscally conservative) whites. That happened in Virginia too.

This graph shows how well the rate of college education among whites predicts Trump’s improvement over Romney (and where Romney outperformed Trump) in each county and independent city in Virginia. While there’s more than one factor at work here and all graphics like this have ecological issues, the message is relatively clear. Trump traded upscale whites for downscale whites in the Old Dominion state.

If Gillespie wins or comes reasonably close, it’ll be important to watch the demographic breakdown of his support and gauge whether he was able to bring in both traditional Republicans and new Trump converts.

If so (as others have already pointed out), other Republicans might try to imitate Gillespie’s strategy and balance Trump-ism and their more traditionally conservative politics. And in a GOP where multiple models of conservatism (e.g., the Trump-skeptical position of senators like Susan Collins, John McCain, and Lisa Murkowski; the Trump-ier section that channels its energy into primary challengers like Arizona’s Kelli Ward and Alabama’s Roy Moore) are competing for dominance in the party, it’ll be important to track how well attempted syntheses like Ed Gillespie perform.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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