Many years ago, one of the great Republican campaign consultants of the day, Eddie Mahe, wrote a fascinating, periodic memo, "Assumptions," where he laid out what might be expected in politics, domestic policy, economics and anything else he thought relevant.
The purpose of the exercise was not to show how brilliant he was but to lay out what could reasonably be expected to happen for clients and friends as the year progressed. Any developments beyond the parameters of what had been assumed would be noteworthy and were cause for increased focus; all the things that unfolded that were more or less predictable didn't need special attention.
So applying those assumptions to today's off-year elections, what should be considered a relatively expected event and what would constitute a surprise?
The lesson from Virginia for the GOP is that it's OK to nominate candidates with strong conservative bona fides, just don't nominate one whose personality and style suggests extremism, intolerance or anger.
In the Virginia gubernatorial race, the worst-case scenario for Democrats seems to be unfolding, with the Republican candidate, former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, pulling away from state Sen. Creigh Deeds.
It's hard to say what a good performance for Democrats would be -- perhaps losing by fewer than 10 points, hanging on to any statewide constitutional office, or losing fewer than five seats in the House of Delegates.
It would seem that too much was laid in the lap of Deeds. If he were matched up this year under these circumstances with Jerry Kilgore, the Republican nominee from four years ago, it's a decent bet Deeds would win.
While Deeds and his campaign may be fairly criticized on some levels, the more important factor is that McDonnell is a terrific candidate with a first-class campaign. Though very conservative, McDonnell seems stylistically very moderate, his rhetoric measured and nonthreatening. He sent out few signals that would have given his contentious master's thesis from Regent University more traction. Had the thesis hit a hard-edged, take-no-prisoners McDonnell, it might have killed his candidacy.
The lesson from Virginia for the GOP is that it's OK to nominate candidates with strong conservative bona fides, just don't nominate one whose personality and style suggests extremism, intolerance or anger. McDonnell's campaign went to great lengths to ensure it met that test. Why else would a Republican run ads on "green jobs?"
In the bizarre special House race in New York's 23rd District to replace Army Secretary John McHugh, the most recent poll shows Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman with a narrow lead over Democrat Bill Owens. The Siena College poll, taken the day after Republican Dede Scozzafava suspended her campaign, showed Hoffman with 41 percent, Owens with 36 percent and 6 percent saying they would still vote for Scozzafava, whose name remains on the ballot. Another 18 percent were undecided. The poll of 606 likely voters was conducted Sunday and has a 4-point error margin. Scozzafava endorsed Owens on Sunday.
After being neck-and-neck with Owens, the recent polling suggests Hoffman might be pulling away. But Hoffman might not capture any movement toward Owens among Scozzafava supporters who might be bitter about how their candidate was treated.
My money is on Hoffman winning, but for the purposes of our assumptions exercise, a win by Owens by 3 points or more would be noteworthy, as would a Hoffman victory by 7 points or more. Under the former scenario, it might mean there was resentment and fallout from the GOP's ideological purging exercise. Under the latter, it might mean Democrats are simply not turning out and that conservative voters are extraordinarily motivated. Anything in between can be chalked up to simply an extraordinarily strange race that is highly unlikely to be replicated anywhere in America, ever.
And finally, although it is certainly not as bizarre as New York's special election, the New Jersey gubernatorial race is anything but conventional.
Embattled Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, he of the catastrophic job-disapproval ratings, has clawed his way into a dead heat with former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, the GOP nominee.
The independent candidacy of Chris Daggett, an official in the administration of former GOP Gov. Tom Kean, could have a role in the final results given his consistent polling in the high-single and low-double digits.
At this point, this looks like it will be a photo finish. Either Corzine or Christie could win without raising an eyebrow. Each has factors working for and against him in an equation that is virtually impossible to work through without seeing the election results. A win of more than 3 points by either would be noteworthy but unlikely.
These three races, particularly New Jersey and New York, are so idiosyncratic they make projecting implications for next year problematic.
Certainly things to watch are whether Democratic voters can be motivated to vote in the absence of President Obama on the ballot or a Democratic wave, and whether conservative Republicans have the intensity that was missing in 2006 and 2008. Just beware of reading too much into tonight's results.