This Week’s Elections Don’t Mean the Sky Is Falling

Rachel Maddow is often an oasis of sanity in the barren wasteland of corporate media. Last night, she identified an historical pattern that nobody else seems to have paid much attention to (I recommend watching what she had to say, but I’m writing about it anyway).

Here’s the pattern in pictorial form. The first column is a president’s first year in office. The second column is the winner of the New Jersey governor’s race later that year. The third column is the winner of the Virginia governor’s race held the same day.

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It’s an oddity of the political calendar that New Jersey and Virginia hold their elections for governor one year after presidential elections. That means when a new president is elected, like Reagan in 1980 and Biden in 2020, the governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia are the first chance voters get to choose their state’s leader but also, less obviously, to react to there being a new person in the White House. This explains why NJ and VA governor’s elections are viewed as a referendum on a president’s first year in office. 

Looking at the chart, you’ll notice that in three of the seven years (1988, 2000 and 2016), when a  Republican won the presidency, his party lost the two governor’s races.

Likewise, in two of the seven years (1992 and 2008), when a Democrat won the presidency, his party also lost the two governor’s races.

It was only in 1981, and again this year, that a new president’s party won even one of the two governor’s races.

In other words, Biden and his party did better this week than any president has done since Ronald Reagan, forty years ago.

As a matter of fact, in 1981, with Reagan now in the White House, the Republican gubernatorial candidate beat the Democrat by fewer than 2,000 votes (an exception that almost proves the rule that the president’s party loses these elections). If the Democrat had done a bit better, Joe Biden would have been the first brand-new president to hold onto the NJ or VA governorship in 44 years. (Winning a second term makes NJ Governor Phil Murphy the first Democrat to win two elections since then. He currently leads his Republican opponent by 44,000 votes).

As Maddow pointed out, the New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races are the first opportunity for voters who opposed the new president to register their anger at the polls, while the voters who helped elect the new president are (less passionately) waiting to see what the new president can deliver. That’s why a new president’s party ordinarily loses both the New Jersey and Virginia governor races.

The fact that a Democrat won New Jersey this year is, therefore, a good sign, not a bad one. You wouldn’t know that from reading a paper or watching TV (maybe that’s because those in the media who comment on elections are surprised that Democrats don’t do even better, given the Republican Party’s descent into fascism).

Finally, Maddow also points out that in two special elections this year, Democrats did quite well. A Democrat was elected to Congress with 60% of the vote in New Mexico, even though Republicans claimed they had a great chance to win. Three months later, California’s Democratic governor won that ridiculous recall election, also with 60% of the vote. The 2022 election will almost certainly be difficult, but the sky is not falling based on this year’s results.