Governor Debate (Virginia gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinell
AP, The Washington Post, Nikki Kahn, PoolVirginia gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe (left) and Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
In just under a week, many Americans will go to the polls in much lower-key election than they participated in a year ago, with only a few races for pundits to pontificate about. But key among them are the governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey -- a pair of contests that turn conventional wisdom on its head.

That conventional wisdom in this case comes from James Carville's 1992 cut-to-the-chase quip about what decides elections: "It's the economy, stupid!"

Take Virginia. The state's economy recovered well enough from the Great Recession that it sports a 5.8 percent unemployment rate -- far better than the 7.3 percent national average -- gives Virginia a ranking of 13 in the nation. One might expect that would incline voters to favor the party of incumbent Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, but Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe today is odds-on to win. He leads his Republican opponent, Attorney General Cuccinelli, by an average of 9.7 percentage points in the latest polls, according to RealClearPolitics, and has led in every poll since July 14.

Counter-intuitive politics also rules in New Jersey, where a weak recovery can be blamed for an 8.5 percent unemployment rate -- tied with Mississippi and Tennessee for 41st in the nation. Yet the Garden State's GOP incumbent, Gov. Chris Christie, is sailing to all but certain victory over State Senator Barbara Buono, leading by an average of 26 points in the polls.

Virginia in the Muddle

Virginia offers McAuliffe a perfect storm of factors propelling him to victory. The state constitution forbids governors from serving two consecutive terms, so the voters can't take the path of least resistance and reelect Gov. McDonnell. Virginians apparently take the opportunity to make new choices seriously: They've alternated between Democrats and Republicans in the governor's mansion every term since 1970.

Second, the election is going McAuliffe's way not so much because voters are enamored of him, but because neither Gov. McDonnell nor candidate Cuccinelli have been doing the party or themselves any favors. A summer scandal over gifts he received still clouds McDonnell's reputation, and he made it worse by taking the low road, throwing his wife of 37 years under the bus by blaming her for the improprieties.

Voters have a more negative view of Cuccinelli than McAuliffe, with the latest Quinnipiac poll pegging Democratic support for McAuliffe at 92 percent versus 81 percent Republican support for Cuccinelli.

It's no wonder Cuccinelli has circled the wagons, bringing in tea party firebrands Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as well as right-wing radio host Mark Levin to campaign. At this stage, he's more concerned about turning out the base than going for independents. A Republican "civil war" in the state between tea party insurgents and establishment conservatives can't help either.

Plus, even though the state is one of 23 currently displaying a Republican trifecta of control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature, Virginia has purple tendencies. Virginia went for President Obama in both 2008 and last year -- the first wins there for a Democrat since the 1964 Johnson landslide. Both of its U.S. Senators are Democrats, and the party has outgunned Republicans for Virginia's Senate seats since the mid-1800s.

The combination of a weaker opponent, the state's one-term limit, and a tradition of changing parties for governor has tipped the balance toward McAuliffe, despite Republican rule during a period in which the economy has fared better than that of 37 states and the District of Columbia. And Virginia voters overall have leaned far enough to the left that McAuliffe can brandish his "F" rating from the National Rifle Association and his support for universal background checks for gun buyers without tossing the election back to Cuccinelli.

Libertarian lawyer and businessman Robert Sarvis polled at 10 percent before favorable reviews of his performance at the final debate Thursday night. But his absence wouldn't help Cuccinelli unless virtually all his supporters broke Republican.

The Score at the New Jersey Shore

New Jersey incumbent governor Chris Christie seeks a second term next Tuesday, in a state that is oddly well suited to moderate Republicans.

By voter registration, Independents (at 48 percent) outnumber Democrats (32.5) and Republicans (19.6 percent). Despite a solidly Democratic Legislature, the party holding both U.S. Senate seats since, oh, forever, and the state going blue in the last presidential elections, moderate Republicans can win. Witness the popular Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman before the very popular Christie.

Christie has two other advantages. Incumbency means much more in New Jersey than in most states. The governor has great power, appointing all superior court judges, county prosecutors, and with state Senate confirmation, all cabinet positions. This can build allegiance among important campaign constituencies.

Second, thanks the state Republicans' history of hewing more to the business/establishment side of the spectrum, Christie doesn't have to risk alienating moderate voters by embracing tea partiers to bring out his base on Election Day.

Still, a Republican in New Jersey can't win without independents, and that doesn't happen by catering solely the 19.6 percent of voters who are registered Republicans.

So he has carefully made moves popular among Democrats and independents, such as increasing education funding to the highest level in state history -- though his ads avoid using the word "spending." And while he did veto a same-sex marriage bill passed by the Legislature, Christie later dropped the state's appeal to the state's Supreme Court of a trial court ruling legalizing the unions. New Jersey recently joined 13 other states where same-sex couples may wed.

And Republicans nationwide won't forget what many consider the nail in the coffin of Mitt Romney's 2012 defeat. Days before the election, Christie praised President Obama at great length for his help after Hurricane Sandy devastated the New Jersey coast. But Christie didn't stop at praise. In response to questions about Romney and politics, he lashed out, "I've got a job to do here in New Jersey that's much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff."

Meanwhile, four balanced budgets in a row bring smiles to the New Jersey business-establishment Republican wing -- still breathing in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

In the candidates' last TV debate, State Senator Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate, hammered away on issues important to the people of New Jersey, such as gun control, poverty, crime, and economic recovery. But implicitly admitting what matters more than any of those, she derided Christie's likability.

That's her roadblock on the way to the governor's mansion. New Jersey must like Christie a heck of a lot to give him an average 26 percentage point lead over Buono in the polls. But the same choices that make him palatable to Northeastern Republicans and N.J. moderates could cost him should he seek higher office in 2016.

Likable Enough?

At the end of the day, in 2013, what trumps the economy is apparently trust, charisma ... that intangible quality that leads you to decide you'd prefer to have a beer with one candidate more than the other. Virginia's Cuccinelli is viewed more negatively by voters in his party than McAuliffe is by voters in his. And regardless of the unemployment rate, New Jersey voters just like Christie.

Come next Tuesday, as the numbers come in, they'll prove Carville's truism somewhat lacking: Actually, it's the likability, stupid.

Tom Jacobs is Lead Advisor for Motley Fool Special Ops, a premium investment service concentrating on special situations such as spinoffs. He is also the author, with The Motley Fool's John Del Vecchio, of What's Behind the Numbers?: A Guide to Exposing Financial Chicanery and Avoiding Huge Losses in Your Portfolio (McGraw-Hill). Follow his articles and @TomJacobsInvest. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Goal Setting

Want to succeed? Then you need goals!

View Course »

Banking Services 101

Understand your bank's services, and how to get the most from them

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

56 Comments

Filter by:
Adele

ReThugs ALWAYS LIE. Dishonesty is in their DNA.
If you don't believe this - check it out - info at end and easy to do.

The national debt is a bit over 14.4 trillion dollars - including internal debt owed to government trust funds like Social Security, Medicare, Highways etc. - of that 14.4 fully 12.4 belongs to just 3 presidents: Reagan, Bush and Bush. - that includes the amount the debt increased on their watch (from fiscal year to fiscal year...) plus the interest on their increases that was passed on to their successors - 2.2 trillion dollars of Clinton's debt was interest on the debt increase under Reagan and pappy Bush. Of course almost all of Obama's debt is due to GWB's two wars, the unfunded Medicare part D (designed to bust Medicare), tax cuts for millionaires, and the Great Recession - but we are only subtracting the 700 billion in interest on the Reagan/Bush/Bush debt from his 'responsibility'. Oh, and Congress? Congress, whether Democratic or GOP controlled, never passes a final budget more than a percent of so different from the president's budget proposal - and often authorizes less - so you can't argue that Reagan's or Bush's deficits are because of Congress.

Debt before Reagan-Bush I's first fiscal year begins (9/30/81)......($0.998 trillion) !
Debt at end of Reagan Bush I administrations (9/30/93).................$4.411 trillion
Increase.......................................... ......................................................$3.414 trillion
Interest cost of Reagan Bush I debt increase during Clinton..................$2.212 trillion ! !
Debt at beginning of Bush II first fiscal year (10/1/01).....................($5.807 trillion)
Debt at end of Bush II administration (9/30/09)................................$11.910 trillion
Increase...................................................................................................$6.102 Trillion
Subtract portion of Obama stimulus spent before end of final Bush fiscal year.........($0.036)
Interest on Reagan, Bush, Bush debt during first two Obama fiscal years....$0.714 Trillion

Grand total Debt "owned" by Reagan, Bush & Bush ..........................$12. 406 Trillion

There you have it - over 85% of the national debt is completely due to 3 Republican presidents.
This analysis is mostly from zFacts.
Data sources: Treasury Direct 1, Treasury Direct 2, Recovery.gov

November 04 2013 at 3:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Adele

http://videocafe.crooksandliars.com/heather/bill-moyers-obamacare-right-wings-alamo

WATERLOO for the Republican Crazies

November 03 2013 at 5:16 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Adele's comment
betty_brock

No, for the borrow, print, tax and spend Dems who are killing the taxpayer.

November 04 2013 at 2:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to betty_brock's comment
Adele

Give it a rest. You never have any documentation for your lies and you have not one brain cell working. How in the world did you find the financial pages? With your intellect you should just go back to cleaning latrines.

November 04 2013 at 3:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
Frankie

Virginia will get a Democratic Governor and New Jersey will keep the republican. End of story.

October 31 2013 at 4:40 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
willypfistergash

Stick to your fool economic reports tom. You lose cred when you print biased crap like this with labels like right wing. Funny, you don't inclide the big money donors to mcauliffe or call them names lime left wing.

October 31 2013 at 1:14 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
willypfistergash

Has mcauliffe come up with an economic or growth plan? Anything? Or has it only been false.smears and negative campaigns agsinst his opponent.

October 31 2013 at 1:11 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to willypfistergash's comment
Ron

Sounds like the Romney game plan right?

October 31 2013 at 9:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Ron's comment
willypfistergash

Not so much, moRon.

November 01 2013 at 11:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down
ga7smi

Virginia has a lot of gov't emloyees hence low unemployment

October 31 2013 at 12:37 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ga7smi's comment
willypfistergash

Keep things like that in mind when you people start barking about which states get the most federal dollars

October 31 2013 at 12:54 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
tracy

I am a Virginian and I am voting for Sarvis. Both Dems and Repubs are crooked and self serving and have their own agenda and need to be taken down, I will not waste my vote on these idiots any more. We need to send a message to Washington DC that anyone can run and anyone can take your place.

October 31 2013 at 12:00 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
HARV

Democrats for Christie

October 30 2013 at 11:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
betty_brock

Libs would like to blame the wars but Obama and his thugs are much more destructive.

October 30 2013 at 9:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to betty_brock's comment
Ron

Obama killed 4800???

October 31 2013 at 9:42 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Ron's comment
willypfistergash

babies?

November 01 2013 at 1:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
betty_brock

It's about who will give them the most freebies, stupid.

October 30 2013 at 9:56 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply