It’s Always the Economy, Stupid

A few years ago, when Tom Kean Jr. was running against Bob Menendez for U.S. Senate, the Fox News Channel asked me to comment on the race. Before the interview was taped, the reporter told me she was going to focus on whether the war in Iraq would be a greater issue for New Jersey voters than the economy. I told her I believed the war was important to New Jerseyans, but that pocketbook issues would be a larger factor when people went to the polls. She asked the same question several times and in several different ways while the camera was on and I continued to give the same response, although none of this part of the interview made it on the air. Instead, the segment included two carefully selected sound bites related to Kean’s chances of winning the election.

I recall this exchange not to lay fault with the Fox News Channel; Keith Olbermann already has the corner on that market. Instead, the experience reminds me that more often than not, elections are — as James Carville put it back in 1992 — about the economy. And that goes for New Jersey’s 2009 gubernatorial election too.

Forget about Chris Christie’s record on corruption, the controversy over the contract awarded to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, and the debate over Governor’s emails with Carla Katz. These and other items will continue to make good headlines and provide fodder for campaign ads. But with people out of work and families struggling to make ends meet, the economy is likely to overshadow all other issues this fall. In fact, in a recent Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll, respondents placed the economic downturn, jobs and property tax reform at the top of the issues that they would most like New Jersey’s gubernatorial candidates to address.

Ironically, the economy is an issue that may be beyond direct control of the gubernatorial candidates. The Republicans are out of power in New Jersey and have no ability to effect change. Although Democrats hold the Governor’s Office and both Houses of the State Legislature, there are limits to what can be done on the state level. It will take action in Washington to fully jumpstart the economy. Whether the stimulus bill working its way through Congress is the answer remains to be seen, but the success or failure of the Obama Administration’s economic policies could impact the outcome of the gubernatorial election.

In the most simple terms, those in power generally reap the benefits of good economic conditions and take the blame when the fiscal situation is poor, regardless of whether they had anything to do with the economic climate. If President Obama can set the national economy back on track quickly, it will bode well for Governor Corzine. But that’s a tall order. The Obama Administration’s handling of the economic stimulus bill has not gotten off to the best of starts. There is no guarantee it will work nor that it will produce results before New Jersey’s gubernatorial election in November.

The President can afford to be patient; he does not need to run again for four years, although it would be to his political benefit to have a robust economy for the mid-term elections in 2010. Back in New Jersey, Jon Corzine does not have the same luxury of time. He has to face the voters this year, and he first will have to plug a budget hole of $2.1 billion.

The Governor has until March to present his proposal for the state budget, but he already has taken steps to address the national economic crisis. He unveiled a multi-faceted economic recovery plan in October and he recently created a federal stimulus working group to lead the state’s efforts to maximize federal economic stimulus aid, as well as a second group that will focus on job creation. Still, 78 percent of those participating in a separate Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll feel state government is not doing enough to control costs during the current economic downturn.

Also in his favor is the fact he is running in a state that leans Democratic. In the 2008 elections, New Jerseyans voted in favor of Barack Obama by about 56 to 43 percent and re-elected Frank Lautenberg to the U.S. Senate by a similar margin. This year, the Governor also may benefit from a potentially divisive Republican primary that could drain resources, open wounds and give Democrats a playbook for running against whoever emerges as the victor.

But if the economy continues to falter, it could spell trouble, especially if Obama’s popularity starts to slip, giving the GOP an opportunity to gain support nationally, as well as within the Garden State. With the election still more than six months away, it is much too early to make predictions, but the 2009 race for the State House – aside from being an important election – also is shaping up as a fascinating event for spectators too.

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