Third Party Candidates
Mel Evans  /  AP
The three candidates for governor of New Jersey, from left, Democrat Jon. S. Corzine, Independent Chris Daggett, and Republican Chris Christie. Third party candidate Daggett has gone from an afterthought to a player, who could upend a major race in off-year elections Tuesday.
By AP National Political Writer
updated 11/1/2009 12:54:31 PM ET 2009-11-01T17:54:31

President Barack Obama isn't on the ballot. Neither are all members of Congress, nor most governors.

But to varying degrees, the outcome of a few disparate elections Tuesday could provide clues about how people — particularly independents, who typically determine a winner — feel about their country, their president and the party in power one year after Democrats won the White House.

The results also could provide important lessons for Democrats and Republicans a year before the first major electoral test of Obama's strength: 2010, when there are 37 races for governor, at least 36 in the Senate and all 435 in the House.

This year, Virginia and New Jersey are choosing governors, voters in upstate New York and northern California are deciding who should fill two vacant congressional seats, and New York City and Atlanta are picking mayors. Maine will vote on whether to permit gay marriage while Ohio will choose whether to allow casinos.

Voting on local issues, personalities
To be sure, these races are hardly bellwethers; people are voting on local issues and personalities. Most voters in Virginia and New Jersey, for example, say their like or dislike of Obama isn't what will drive their decision. Still, national forces such as the recession are having an effect.

This much is clear: Tuesday will give a picture of public attitudes in certain places and measure which party has energy on its side heading into a high-stakes election year. Some questions will be at least answered partially.

Among them: Did Obama's campaigning in Virginia and New Jersey persuade the diverse voting coalition that lifted him to victory in 2008 to turn out for Democratic candidates in 2009? Did fickle independents stick with the Democratic Party? Did the out-of-power GOP overcome fissures within its ranks to find a winning strategy?

The answers to those questions and more will provide hints about the nation's possible political future and shape the actions of Democrats and Republicans heading into 2010.

Here's what to watch for on Tuesday:

Obama's 2008 Coalition:
Does Obama have coattails?

The president won by cobbling together new voters from traditional Democratic base demographics, particularly blacks, youth and Hispanics, along with disaffected Republicans and self-identified independents nationwide and in traditionally GOP-leaning states such as Virginia.

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The unknown is whether those voters will stay with Democrats or turn out at all if Obama isn't on the ballot.

Both embattled Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey and Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds in Virginia desperately need party loyalists ands Obama 2008 voters to swamp the polls.

Corzine's challenge is complicated by independent Chris Daggett, who's siphoning away votes in the three-way contest that includes Republican Chris Christie.

In Virginia, Deeds is trailing Republican Bob McDonnell in polls largely because independents are tilting away from the Democrat. So the voters Obama lured into the electorate become even more important.

Obama went in big in both states, campaigning on the Democrats' behalf and allowing his image to be used in TV ads for them, linking himself to their fate.

He didn't really have a choice. The Democratic base would have chafed at the party standard-bearer turning his back on the rank and file, and Obama's influence will be questioned regardless of whether Democrats win or lose the races.

Independents:
How do they feel?

Independents always have heft, but frustration across the country with both Republicans and Democrats is adding to it. How that anger manifests itself could signal anti-incumbent sentiment among a group that leaned left last year. Do independents stay home? Do they vote against the party in power?

Or, in New Jersey, do they vote for a third-party candidate trying to capitalize on the disillusionment? Can Daggett harness people's bitterness or will he become a typical spoiler because of financial and organizational deficiencies?

Regardless, Democrats and Republicans almost certainly will have to revamp their strategies to ensure they're attracting both independents and base voters next fall — or risk repeats of 2009's three-way races.

Virginia may offer the best measure of independent voters' sentiments.

This longtime Republican stronghold has become a new swing state in presidential elections largely because of the swiftly growing far-flung suburbs outside Washington that are filled with independent-minded voters. Obama targeted such areas to become the first Democrat to win the state since 1964, and they will determine who wins Virginia on Tuesday.

New Jersey historically has been a Democratic-leaning state in White House races, and Obama has stronger ratings in the state than in Virginia. Yet, in New Jersey, too, independents' behavior will be critical given Daggett's candidacy.

The GOP:
Can Republicans win again?

For decades, Virginia and New Jersey have chosen for governor the party that's not in the White House. So Democrats say Republicans should win both.

But Democrats control the White House, Congress and the governor's mansions in both states. So a Democratic loss in either state will be a setback. And one or more victories will be heartening to a GOP that lost its grip on Congress and the White House in back-to-back elections.

Look to Virginia to see how Republicans may try to rebound next fall.

If McDonnell wins, it will be partly because he focused on pocketbook issues rather than emphasizing social issues even though he's a conservative and Deeds attacked him as outside of the mainstream.

This may be the take away: the economy trumps all. Social conservatives get on board.

Conversely, a special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District already has provided a troubling lesson for the GOP. The race underscored a deep schism between the Republican Party and its conservative base.

The party divided between GOP candidate Dierdre Scozzafava, who supports abortion rights and gay marriage, and Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate. That split threatened to give Democrat Bill Owens the win. Then, trailing badly in polls, Scozzafava bowed out Saturday, and the GOP establishment swung behind Hoffman as it looked to ensure a Republican victory in the longtime GOP district.

In that case, this is the take away: the GOP still isn't unified — no matter the Tuesday scorecard.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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