Reading tea leaves: What Virginia and New Jersey exit polls say

The two biggest elections Tuesday provided an imperfect template for predicting the future.

In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie so thoroughly blew away his Democratic opponent that conclusions are skewed. It would be a miracle, for instance, if Christie duplicated his showing and won close to a quarter of black voters in a 2016 run for president. In Virginia, the main candidates were so flawed you could almost hear voters begging for a “none of the above” option before they grudgingly gave the governor’s office to Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

But draw conclusions we shall. Here are some glimmerings, via exit polling, from Tuesday’s vote in the hottest contests.

Key voter groups:

Bad news for Republicans. Virginia provides the most accurate assessment, since it has become a reliable reflection of the country overall. The Republican Party is looking to expand its reach among women, minority voters, young voters and moderates. In all cases it failed. Women sided with Democrat McAuliffe over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, 51% to 42%. Black voters backed McAuliffe 90% to 8% (there were not enough Latinos or Asians to calculate their percentages). Voters under age 30 voted for the Democrat 45% to 40%. And moderates gave McAuliffe an expansive lead, 56% to 34%. Granted, for all those groups Cuccinelli was a tough sell, since he has been a culture warrior in a state that is rapidly moderating, and those voter groups tend to be repelled by approaches like his. But Cuccinelli accurately reflects where many Republicans are, and his is the image many voters see when they think of the Republican Party. Unless, that is, someone obliterates that image with his own.

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Chris Christie:

Someone, that is, like Chris Christie. To look at the exit polls, Christie performed like a Democrat in a Democratic state. It was hard to find a voter group he didn’t command (other than those pesky under-30 voters, who narrowly went to Democrat Barbara Buono). He won women handily (57% to 42%) and moderates even more handily (61% to 37%.). A third of Democrats voted for him. But while much of Christie’s popularity stemmed from his leadership of the state during his first term, at least some of it resulted from the fact that he was running against a nonentity who lacked support even from Democratic Party big-shots. Worth noting: Christie defeated Buono by more than 20 points. Asked if Christie would be a good president, voters from his state said he would, 51% to 44%. But he lost a hypothetical presidential ballot against Hillary Rodham Clinton, 48% to 44%. All of which suggests that there are limits to his reach when he’s in a real contest, at this point anyway.

The Republican brand:

It is badly tarnished. At least part of that stems from its association with the uncompromising tea party wing, which has powered its way to dominance in the sole Republican area of the country, the South, and in pockets elsewhere, and which propelled the hugely unpopular government shutdown. In New Jersey, the tea party was opposed by 45% of voters; in Virginia, 42% objected to it. Fewer than 2 in 10 New Jerseyans and fewer than 3 in 10 Virginians supported the tea party. That is important because the winner of the 2016 Republican nomination will have to appeal to tea partiers to some extent in order to become the party’s standard-bearer. Even Christie spoke approvingly of the tea party in a CNN interview on election day.

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Appealing to the untethered voter:

Good news for candidates: You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be no more imperfect than the other guy, so long as you are walking the same path voters are. Pity the poor voter in Virginia, smothered in negative advertising about the failings of each side. Asked separately whether McAuliffe and Cuccinelli had “high ethical standards," majorities concluded that neither man did. What it came down to was not ethics but political persuasion. Half of voters said that McAuliffe’s positions were neither too liberal nor too conservative, but just about right. Only 37% said the same about Cuccinelli; fully half said that he was too conservative for their tastes. The question for Republicans in 2016, coming off two successive presidential losses and a brewing civil war between the establishment and the tea party: Will the winning candidate surmount the party’s positions, or be consumed by them?

Twitter: @cathleendecker


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