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.
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.
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.