The Washington Redskins lost their last home game before the 2012 election; President Barack Obama still won the presidency. As a result, the already battered Redskins rule — which predicts that the incumbent party will win the election if the ‘Skins win their final home game before the election — found itself consigned to the scrapheap. After getting 15 consecutive elections right, it has been wrong two of the last three times.
Like most folk-wisdom based rules of thumb, of course, the Redskins rule is a mere coincidence: nothing about the way a bunch of guys throw around pigskin is actually going to impact U.S. presidential politics. But here’s one rule that probably does tell you something that’s interesting: because Obama, a Democrat, won the White House in 2012, elections in 2013 and early 2014 will see Republicans winning the governor’s mansions in the two large states where they are up (Virginia and New Jersey) while performing well in important special elections around the country.
The correlation in both states that hold governors’ elections on off-years is impressive. The winner of the New Jersey gubernatorial race has been from the party the president isn’t a member of in every election since 1989; the Virginia governor’s race has also gone in the opposite direction of the White House every year since 1978. Major special elections held between the presidential election and the Congressional midterms — like Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts’ January 2010 U.S. Senate election — have also tended to favor the party that doesn’t have 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Although the dynamics of each election differ a great deal, at least three easily observable factors tend to assure pretty good results in these off-year elections. First, the outcome of the presidential election energizes the losing party’s base while making a part of the winning party’s base complacent. Quite simply, the party that just lost the big prize wants some sort of consolation. Second, top candidates and their political consultants tend to join presidential administrations. Mark Warner and Chris Christie, for example, both would have been tempting cabinet appointees for Gore or McCain administrations. Finally, voters, having handed the reigns of government to one party, will often try to balance out whatever excesses they see by voting for the other one in state elections. Obama’s abandonment of “purple” rhetoric in favor of big-government plans to take over the energy and health care economies, for example, almost certainly worked in favor of both Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
But even if the GOP has a good 2013, in other words, that doesn’t indicate how things will go for it in 2014. Democrats won both state governorships up in 2001 while gaining control of the Senate after Jim Jeffords left the GOP to become an independent member of their caucus. This run of good performance, however, didn’t prevent Democrats from losing House seats and control of the Senate in the 2002 mid-term elections. (Democrats did pick up three governors’ mansions that year, however.) And, in any case, good Republican performance in 2013 is not guaranteed anyway. While a Republican probably will win in Virginia, Christie’s current poll numbers make him anything but a shoo-in to win reelection in New Jersey.
Still, 2013 looks good for the GOP if historical patterns hold. It should offer conservatives at least a small consolation to Republicans that all is not lost.