Ahead of a big night in US politics involving gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, Paul Krishnamurty looks at the betting and wider implications for Republicans and Democrats...
"For Democrats, anything less than a clear win will be worrying. If they can’t defend Virginia, at a time when the Republican president has an all-time low approval rating, and whom around half of Americans believe committed a crime regarding Russia scandal, how can they seriously expect a breakthrough at the mid-terms?"
For all the turbulence in US politics over the last 12 dramatic months, it appears opinion has barely changed. A hypothetical poll taken last week suggests a rematch between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would more or less produce a tie, with the Washington Post concluding the former would probably win again.
Considering all the troubles Trump has endured in the meantime, that makes grim reading for the Democrats and confirms a painful lesson learnt last November. That, no matter how much Trump alienates a majority of Americans, this President's historically low approval ratings remain significantly lower than his potential vote share, especially if the Democrats can't find a popular candidate of their own.
Tightening polls are fraying Democrat nerves
It would be unfair to compare Ralph Northam to the damaged, scandal-ridden Clinton, but the Democrat candidate to be the Next Governor of Virginia is similarly failing to inspire. From earlier estimates of a double-digit lead in a state that appeared to be inevitably shifting towards his party, Northam's average lead is down to just 3.3%. Given that they have significantly undershot expectations in past Virginia contests, Democrats are right to be worried.
Tonight's race offers a fascinating insight into the current state of US politics, and will be widely interpreted as a pointer towards future national contests. Nine of the last ten Virginia gubernatorial races here went against the White House incumbent, with Terry McAuliffe breaking the run under Obama last time.
Given that Clinton also carried the state, defeat for Northam would be catastrophic for the Democrats. It would seriously dent confidence in their ability to mobilise anti-Trump sentiment ahead of next year's mid-terms - for which they are currently rated around 42% likely to win a majority in the House of Representatives, at odds of 2.3811/8 - let alone remove him from office in 2020. Worse, it would be seen as a vindication of Trump's style of politics.
Gillespie tactics look set to vindicate Trump and Bannon
Regarded as a moderate Republican by today's standards, Ed Gillespie only narrowly won the primary against a more Trumpist candidate and, in response, has veered Right with a culture war-focused campaign. His racially-tinged ads on crime and defence of Confederate statues taps into the division left by the Charlottesville riots and appears to be uniting Republican voters. If it yields merely an impressively narrow defeat, Steve Bannon will be one step closer to winning the GOP's civil war, taking the party in an alt-Right, white nationalist direction.
For Democrats, anything less than a clear win will be worrying. If they can't defend Virginia, at a time when the Republican president has an all-time low approval rating, and whom around half of Americans believe committed a crime regarding Russia scandal, how can they seriously expect a breakthrough at the mid-terms?
Northam predicted to survive onslaught with narrow win
Reflecting the poll movement, the betting has been all over the place with both candidates trading odds-on at some point. At 1.331/3, equivalent to a 75% chance, the signals currently point towards a narrow Northam victory and that is my prediction. Whilst it would be no surprise to see Gillespie trade shorter in-running during the results show but, when the larger Democrat-leaning counties declare, I reckon it will tip their man over the line.
The electoral story elsewhere in 2017 has involved a backlash against the rise of the alt-Right in 2016. In the UK and French elections, increased turnout among liberals produced much better results. Turnout is a perennial problem for the Democrats and failure to get black voters out in the same numbers as Obama ruined Clinton. In light of Charlottesville, the divisiveness and tightness of this race, I expect liberals and minorities will be motivated enough to sneak Northam over the line.
However unless Northam pulls off an unexpected landslide, don't expect any negative effects on our wider Trump-related odds. As our market on his exit date perfectly illustrates, opinion about him remains equally divided. For every punter that thinks the Russia scandal will destroy him, there is another happy to take their bet. Developments in that fast moving story are likelier to shift the odds in the near-term than any electoral results in this ultra-polarised, 50/50 country.