Monday, October 19, 2009

Is the New Jersey Gubernatorial Race a Tossup?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Anyone in his right mind would now have to rate next month’s gubernatorial election in New Jersey as a tossup. After all, virtually every poll shows the race within the margin of error, and some recent surveys show Gov. Jon Corzine (D) leading GOP challenger Chris Christie.

Moreover, climbing out on a limb to give one of the candidates an advantage in a virtual dead heat isn’t the best way to guarantee that your percentage of “correct calls” remains high so that you can send out a press release after the elections to brag about how astute you are.

But this column is about analysis, scenarios and best guesses, and since I still believe that Christie has the single best chance of winning the Garden State governorship, I see no reason to crawl completely off the limb I’m on. But, I must admit, I’m not oozing with confidence.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago in a column, Corzine’s numbers are going nowhere fast — in other words, he is not “gaining” on Christie. He remains stuck pretty much where he has been for many months — in the 39 percent to 42 percent range, even in a just-released Quinnipiac University survey.

The public’s view of the governor remains heavily negative in three recent polls that show a dead heat. A Public Policy Polling (D) survey found Corzine’s name ID at 55 percent unfavorable, while Fairleigh Dickinson University had his unfavorable rating at 54 percent and Quinnipiac showed it at 53 percent.

Christie’s unfavorable numbers weren’t good — 44 percent in PPP’s survey, 42 percent in the FDU poll and 40 percent in Quinnipiac’s — but they weren’t nearly as bad as Corzine’s.

In the FDU survey, a stunning 69 percent said Corzine’s performance as governor was only fair or poor. In Quinnipiac’s, 56 percent of likely voters disapproved of how he has handled his job. These numbers suggest that Corzine won’t get many voters who are still undecided.

One Republican strategist I talked with recently equated Corzine’s political positioning to that of a “beached whale,” adding, “We can’t move his numbers, and he can’t move his numbers.”

But if Corzine’s numbers haven’t moved, Christie’s have — down. The erosion in Christie’s standing has made the race tight.

While the GOP challenger was around 50 percent on the ballot test in July and August, he has slid into the low to mid-40s in most recent surveys, all but erasing his lead over Corzine. His personal negatives have risen correspondingly.

Independent Chris Daggett seems to be drawing enough votes away from Christie to make it possible for the governor to sneak into a second term with less than 45 percent.

While about half of those polled say they don’t yet have an opinion of Daggett (the number is a stunning 73 percent in Quinnipiac’s poll), Daggett has qualified for public financing, participated in a televised debate and been endorsed by both the Sierra Club and the Newark Star-Ledger.

But nobody is entirely certain how Daggett will do on Election Day.

The recent PPP survey showed Daggett drawing 13 percent, while an early October SurveyUSA poll put him at 14 percent, the same as the new Quinnipiac poll. Surveys that don’t include a three-way ballot test (requiring respondents to volunteer their preference for him) put Daggett in the mid-to-upper single digits. FDU showed him at 17 percent in a three-way ballot test but only 4 percent when respondents had to volunteer his name.

Unlike Corzine and Christie, who are guaranteed one of the top two positions on the ballot in each county, Daggett’s ballot position in each county was decided by random drawing.

Daggett lucked out in two counties, Gloucester and Bergen, the state’s most populous county, drawing the third spot behind the two major-party nominees. But elsewhere, he is buried among the nine other Independent and third-party hopefuls.

“If Daggett is going to get 17 percent of the vote, it will be because people are actively searching for him on the ballot, not because voters simply are dissatisfied with Corzine and Christie and looking for someone else to vote for,” says Matt Friedman of, an astute observer of New Jersey politics and of the gubernatorial contest.

But ballot placement is only one of Daggett’s problems.

Independent candidates often lose support toward the final weeks of a campaign, either because they come under attack or, more often, because their supporters start to worry about “throwing away” votes on a candidate who can’t win. (Veteran Democratic and Republican operatives argue that, for a number of reasons, Daggett has no chance to win the election.)

In the 2006 Texas gubernatorial race, for example, two Independent candidates, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn (who was elected as a Republican) and entertainer Kinky Friedman, drew a combined 38 percent in a mid-September SurveyUSA poll. A month later, the two candidates combined for 35 percent in another SurveyUSA poll, and a week before Election Day they drew 38 percent. When the votes were counted, however, Keeton Strayhorn and Friedman combined to draw 30 percent, significantly below what surveys had shown.

Christie has started to criticize Daggett’s tax plan, and he is almost certain to argue in the coming weeks that since the Independent candidate can’t win, a vote for Daggett is, in fact, a vote for four more years of Corzine. Whether Christie is successful with that message will determine who wins, Corzine or Christie.

Daggett is the single best thing to happen to Corzine politically. In a two-man contest against Christie, the governor would have little chance to win. But a three-way race presents a very different dynamic.

If Daggett’s number on the ballot test slides to the low double digits (10 percent to 12 percent) or below, Corzine almost certainly will lose. On the other hand, if Daggett gets at least 17 percent, the governor should win. If Daggett’s showing falls into the 13 percent to 16 percent range, either major-party candidate could emerge victorious.

This column
first appeared in Roll Call on October 15, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.