Monday, October 05, 2009

New Jersey Governor: Don’t Believe the Corzine Surge Just Yet

By Stuart Rothenberg

The gubernatorial race in New Jersey has not changed fundamentally recently, no matter what you may read in poorly produced Associated Press stories distributed by the Democratic Governors Association, the Democratic National Committee or Gov. Jon Corzine’s (D) campaign.

I’ve become accustomed to crazy rumors and assertions at the end of campaigns, and most of them are baseless.

A couple of days before Election Day 2006, CBS executives planning the network’s coverage were in a frenzy about a possible Republican surge that challenged all of their assumptions about the election and disrupted their plans for election night. After checking around with reliable pollsters, I told them the sky wasn’t falling on Democrats.

In other years, when Republicans were headed for gains, I’ve heard late rumors about Democratic surges that were equally untrue.

A Wednesday AP story reporting that Corzine “is closing the gap in the New Jersey governor’s race” and has “pulled to within 4 percentage points of Republican Chris Christie” is technically true but gives such a distorted view of the contest that it can only mislead readers.

The same impression was left by reports on, an independent news site, on and in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Describing Corzine as closing the gap or pulling closer conveys the impression that Corzine is gathering support and increasing his standing in the contest. He is not. He hasn’t moved in the Quinnipiac University poll (or in other polls, for that matter) since the beginning of the year.

Corzine’s chances of winning re-election now are no better than they were a month ago. The governor continues to be stuck between 38 percent and 42 percent in the ballot test, where he has been for many months, and the fundamentals of the race continue to favor the Republican challenger.

Corzine was at 39 percent among likely voters in the newest Quinnipiac survey, not much different from his 37 percent showing at the end of August, his 40 percent showing in early August or his 38 percent showing in mid-July.

The most recent Quinnipiac poll showed Christie leading Corzine by 4 points because the Republican’s vote has slipped from 46 percent or 47 percent in other Quinnipiac surveys to 43 percent. In turn, Independent candidate Chris Daggett’s number in the ballot test has risen to 12 percent in the most recent Quinnipiac poll, up from the 7 percent to 9 percent he had been drawing in other recent Quinnipiac surveys.

There is no statistically significant movement from late August to late September among likely independent voters.

Corzine’s attacks on Christie have driven the challenger’s negatives up, as the DGA points out, so that Christie’s personal ratings are only 38 percent favorable/38 percent unfavorable. Of course, what the DGA forgot to mention is that Corzine’s ratings are 34 percent favorable/56 percent unfavorable — much worse than Christie’s.

No, Corzine’s unfavorable ratings haven’t moved, but that’s because his name identification is high and voters already viewed him unfavorably before the race began. The governor’s job approval mirrors his name ID ratings at 36 percent approve/58 percent disapprove. (A month ago, Corzine’s job rating was little different at 34 percent approve/60 percent disapprove.)

Quinnipiac’s latest poll found that the top campaign issue by far for likely voters is taxes (41 percent, compared with the second most important issue, the economy/unemployment/jobs, which drew 17 percent). And which candidate has the advantage on that issue? Christie “is the big winner” on that issue, Quinnipiac University Polling Institute Director Maurice Carroll says.

Quinnipiac found that 61 percent of likely voters (and 71 percent of likely independent voters) said that property taxes — the single most salient issue in polling — would likely go up if Corzine is re-elected, while only 34 percent of likely voters (and 38 percent of likely independent voters) thought property taxes would go up if Christie wins next month.

What evidence should you look for if the fundamental dynamics of the race are changing?

Corzine’s numbers in the ballot test need to show some life. Ballot tests a year out don’t mean a great deal, especially if the candidates haven’t spent money or engaged, but this race has been active for months and state voters have seemed more focused on politics earlier than in the past.

Alternatively, a full-scale shift of Christie voters to Independent Daggett would suggest that Democrats had made Christie an unacceptable alternative to the governor, giving Corzine a chance to squeeze out a win with just 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

But that has not happened yet, and the bigger concern for Corzine is that Daggett voters will move away from him and toward Christie as the election nears and Daggett voters decide that they want to be with a winner, or that voting for an Independent is a “wasted” vote.

Corzine still has a month to change the contest’s dynamics, and nobody can predict what surprises or mistakes are yet to come. But the new Quinnipiac poll doesn’t show that much has changed, no matter what hype you read in a lot of the news coverage.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 1, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.