Obama pollster: N.J., Va. races "not etched in stone"
As the only two states that elect their governors in the year following presidential elections, New Jersey and Virginia have exhibited a clear pattern in recent contests.
In each of the last six such elections, New Jersey has elected a governor who hailed from the opposite party of the newly elected president, while Virginia voters have done the same in the Old Dominion's last nine gubernatorial contests.
The trend would appear to bode poorly for whichever Democrat squares off against the Garden State's Chris Christie, as well as the Democratic nominee in Virginia's open election (incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell is term-limited).
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But still basking in the glow of last month's victory, President Obama's chief campaign pollster, Joel Benenson, on Wednesday said that historical trends, though important, are not determinative in those two states' races.
"If you looked at historical patterns, you would say Barack Obama lost this election because no president had been elected with the unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent," Benenson said at a breakfast gathering with Washington reporters. "No president had been re-elected with a right-track number that was underwater to the degree our underwater number was. These things are informative, but they're not dispositive. Demographics and history are not destiny."
Benenson suggested that the strength of the individual candidates and their campaigns will matter far more than the historical trends in both states and that Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey are capable of finding winning formulas despite ingrained factors working against them.
Benenson noted that turnout in non-presidential election years typically declines by 30 to 34 percent, which could aid a Republican nominee backed by a motivated conservative base.
Still, he said that Democrats have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
"Yes, turnout is going to be down, but I think that each election has a life of its own," he said. "People who look unbeatable in November a year out can look very vulnerable by the time you get to July the following year. These things aren't etched in stone, and dynamics change. You don't know what's going to be the overriding issue in an election in a state like New Jersey or Virginia one year from now."
In looking back on the 2012 presidential race, the pollster devoted a large portion of his comments to criticizing the methodologies of public polls that tended to fluctuate widely throughout the election, which affected the media's coverage of them.
He said that the contours of the general election matchup between Obama and Mitt Romney were "pretty constant all the way through," and he noted that over 90 percent of voters had a defined view of the Republican nominee by the end of the GOP primary season.
"Voters are not as variable as the public polls would show," he said. "They don't bounce around."
Benenson said that the Obama team's decision to launch a large-scale negative TV advertising campaign last spring was "probably the highest-stakes decision we made."
The camp's final internal polling of battleground states proved to be essentially spot-on, he said, noting that his modeling for Democratic base groups -- including young people, African-Americans, and Latinos -- was "never overly optimistic."
Benenson said that Romney's most damaging wounds were self-inflicted during the Republican primary fight when the former Massachusetts governor positioned himself to the right of his more conservative opponents on immigration reform.
The pollster accused the Republican Party of having a "tolerance problem" and predicted that the GOP would continue to have a difficult time winning over younger voters.
"Our generational divide in America over and under 40 is profound," Benenson said. "And attitudinally, on a values basis, on a level of tolerance, that is what's going to reshape America. We have a sizable portion of people who are simply coming to the political discussion with a very different set of personal values, personal relationships, personal beliefs, who are very in tuned with, I think, the kind of open, tolerant America that embraces its diversity and a range of people, and it's going to be a big challenge, I think, for the Republican Party, if they don't find a way to connect with folks."
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