Measuring the National Mood from Mayoral Elections?

The governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey this fall will be used to assess the national political climate. But, as Chris Cillizza of ...
by | September 10, 2009

The governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey this fall will be used to assess the national political climate. But, as Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post noted recently, this is pretty silly.

We're going to judge the political environment based on just two states? That's like trying to decipher the image on a jigsaw puzzle with just two pieces. If Chris Christie's lead foot costs him the New Jersey governorship, will that be an endorsement of the Democratic Party or an endorsement of traffic laws?

I don't want to overstate the case. The Virginia and New Jersey elections could be influenced by the national climate. But, with just two major races, it will be nearly impossible to disentangle local and national factors.

So, here's an idea: Rather than just focusing on the two governor's races, why don't we also use this fall's 18 big city mayoral elections (Buffalo is my cutoff point for a big city) as a gauge of the political climate?

There's only one problem. It's a bad idea.

I was curious whether mayoral election results actually tell us anything about what will happen the next year. So, I looked back at how those 18 cities voted in 1993 (before the Republican landslide of 1994) and in 2005 (before the Democratic sweep of 2006).

In 2005, Democrats won the mayor's races in 16 of them. You'd think that those results foreshadowed the party's wins the next year, except that the Democrats won 15 of 18 mayor's races in 1993, right before they were routed. The only difference between the two years was the Republican victory in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1993.

Why would that be? First of all, most big cities are very Democratic -- so Democratic that they won't often elect Republicans, even in very Republican years.

Furthermore, many mayoral races are non-partisan both in structure (there aren't partisan primaries) and, to a large extent, in spirit. As a result, the national political mood has a limited impact on mayoral races.

If you want to prognosticate on 2010, the best thing to do is to not pay too much attention to this year's governor's elections or mayor's elections. Instead, it makes a lot more sense to look at the president's approval rating, the congressional generic ballot test and polling in specific races that will take place next year.

An appendix: You can see a chart with the mayoral results and the party affiliations of the winners below. Note that the politicians are listed with their party affiliation at the time of the election, which is why Michael Bloomberg is listed as a Republican and Norm Coleman is a Democrat.

Mayoral Elections  

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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