Will Corruption Count This Time?

Despite our reputation as a state where political corruption runs rampant, corruption rarely plays a role in the outcome of our elections. With a few notable exceptions, candidates who make a priority of leveling ethical charges against their opponents usually end up on the losing end of our electoral contests.

The tactic did not work for Tom Kean Jr. when he ran against Bob Menendez for U.S. Senate in 2006. Likewise, Doug Forrester’s attempt to paint a picture of Jon Corzine as the creation of party bosses fell flat during the 2005 gubernatorial campaign. And the strategy of tying legislative candidates to a Governor surrounded with ethical questions failed to yield dividends in 2003. Not only did the Democratic Party weather the attacks, it actually picked up seats – a rare occurrence for a party in power in a mid-term election.

There are many theories as to why corruption has not worked well as a campaign issue. For example, there is a fairly widespread — and false — perception among the public that all politicians are corrupt, so it does not matter for whom one votes. In addition, for voters, there often are issues that are more important than corruption, such as the economy and pocketbook items that impact their lives directly.

However, in this year’s campaign for Governor, there is a new dynamic. In Chris Christie, there is a candidate who made his name fighting corruption as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. Regardless of how one feels about Christie, the facts are he took on some of the biggest names in New Jersey politics and prosecuted them successfully. Unlike other candidates who promise to clean up government, he can say he has already done so and point to his perfect record of convictions and guilty pleas from more than 130 public officials. All told, it is a message likely to resonate well on the campaign trail should he win the Republican primary and become the GOP candidate in the general election.

On the other hand, there are several factors that suggest corruption may not work for Christie during the campaign:

  1. Despite all of the arrests, convictions and guilty pleas that occurred under Christie’s leadership at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, corruption still is a problem in New Jersey. In fact, New Jerseyans feel the problem has gotten even worse. A 2007 Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll found public perception of corruption in the state had worsened in the past four years.
  2. The impact of political corruption has been dulled by a series of scandals, each one more outlandish than the last. With a sitting Governor caught on tape allegedly offering to sell the U.S. Senate seat that once belonged to the President of the United States, it may be hard to get New Jerseyans riled up about corruption in the Garden State.
  3. Candidates do not seem to be impacted by corruption charges, as evidenced by recent election results in New Jersey, as well as a 2007 Quinnipiac University Poll. In the poll, New Jerseyans associated corruption more with the Democratic Party than the GOP, but said they were going to vote for Democrats anyway. National surveys show similar results. Seventy-five percent of the members of Congress charged with corruption have won re-election, according to a study published in The Journal of Politics.

So in the end, will corruption be an issue that will make a difference at the polls in November? My guess is no, but Election Day still is more than six months away – and that’s several lifetimes in the world of politics.

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