WASHINGTON (AP) _ A handful of elections in a small number of states will give hints about the American public's state of mind _ providing lessons for both Republicans and Democrats a year ahead of pivotal 2010 midterm contests.
Among the questions that may be answered are: Did President Barack 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 Republican Party overcome fissures within its ranks to find a winning strategy?
On Tuesday, 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.
These races are hardly bellwethers; people are voting on local issues and personalities. Still, national forces such as the recession are having an effect, and Obama has spent considerable time campaigning this fall, particularly for candidates in Virginia and New Jersey.
“This guy has been working as hard as he promised. And so now the question is, how do you respond?'' Obama said Sunday as he urged voters to back embattled Democratic incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey. “We will not lose this election if all of you are as committed as you were last year.''
Despite Obama's involvement in the races, even Republicans caution against reading too much into the election's results.
“It's a great overstatement to say this is a referendum on President Obama, but his policies have had a lot of effect on people's thinking,'' Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican Governor's Association, told CNN on Sunday. “People are worried about jobs. … Most Americans can't understand why the government keeps spending so much money. They don't see much effect from it.''
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 Republican-leaning states such as Virginia.
The unknown is whether those voters will stay with Democrats or turn out at all if Obama isn't on the ballot.
Both Corzine and Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds in Virginia desperately need party loyalists and 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.
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 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.
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 Republican Party 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 Republicans. The race underscored a deep schism between the Republican Party and its conservative base.
The party divided between Republican 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 Republican establishment swung behind Hoffman as it looked to ensure a Republican victory in the longtime Republican district.
One day later, Scozzafava underscored the Republican Party split by endorsing Owens.
In that case, this is the take away: The Republican Party still isn't unified _ no matter the scorecard on Tuesday.