It May Not be the Economy After All

More often than not, elections come down to economic matters – taxes, jobs and other pocketbook issues. Year after year, the famous James Carville mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid,” continues to ring true.

When New Jersey’s race for governor began taking shape in the spring, it did in fact look like the economy would be on the front burner. “It will be an early test of whether the Democratic response to the financial crisis was effective,” NBC’s David Gregory said in June.

For Republican challenger Chris Christie, this created an opportunity to capitalize on the national economic downturn and pin the blame on the incumbent Democrat, Jon Corzine. Meanwhile, Corzine had to adopt a more complex strategy: Convince voters that New Jersey is better positioned to weather the economic storm and emerge healthy because of the steps he has taken as governor. The problem with that strategy, however, as the late N.J. State Senator Jack Fay was fond of saying, is that it is an argument one can win at the Harvard Debate Society, but not at Joe’s Corner Bar — and the candidate who wins over patrons at the corner bar often is the one who wins in November.

With double digit leads in the polls, Christie would have been wise to stick with his message that the economy is in dire shape and the incumbent governor is at fault. But after more than 40 elected officials and community leaders were arrested in July, he renewed his focus on ethics and the need to crack down on corruption. On the surface, this was completely logical. As a U.S. Attorney, Christie built his name prosecuting corrupt public officials. But logic and New Jersey voting trends do not always go hand-in-hand. Despite our reputation as a state in which political corruption runs rampant, corruption rarely has played a major role in the outcome of our elections.

To make matters worse, by returning ethics to the forefront, Christie opened the door for attacks on his own record. Over the past two weeks, he has been dogged with questions about mixing politics with the official functions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a personal loan he made to a subordinate and failed to report, and tickets he received for speeding and driving an unregistered and uninsured vehicle. All of this has diverted attention away from the economy – and the result has been a benefit for Corzine since he has his work cut out for him trying to convince a skeptical citizenry that New Jersey is better off than the rest of nation.

So if it is not the economy, what will determine who wins the governorship in November?

At this point in time, I believe it will come down to which party does a better job in energizing its core. Ironically, both Christie and Corzine face a similar challenge. Neither rose up through the ranks of local politics, building their own strong bases of supporters over the years. Corzine went right from Wall Street to the U.S. Senate; Christie spent just one term as a county freeholder before President George W. Bush tapped him to be the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. Both candidates have hired talented people for key campaign positions, but there is something intangible about a dedicated and longtime base of supporters who have invested their time and energy in an individual in whom they believe.

In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 700,000 voters, a good showing from the party faithful could be the key to a Corzine victory in November. Toward that end, he needs Democratic office-holders – the ones with strong loyal followings – to convince their supporters that it is in their best interest to turn out on Election Day and pull the lever for the incumbent Governor. This is especially critical in non-competitive Assembly Districts (and most of them are) where core supporters of popular incumbents may see little reason to get excited about their local races since the outcomes are not really in question. The Corzine camp has taken a step forward in this regard by bringing Democratic veterans Jamie Fox, Bill Maer and Patti McGuire into its campaign team. Their contacts and institutional knowledge will go a long way toward ensuring a strong showing from core Democratic voters.

Christie should have an easier time energizing the GOP base. Republicans tend to be more disciplined than Democrats.  The greater challenge he faces will be tapping into the state’s unaffiliated and independent voters.  There are over 2.4 million of them – and that’s more than the 1.7 million registered Democrats or the 1 million registered Republicans.

Although Christie has been thrown off message this summer, he still is ahead in most polls. As a Mets fan whose team endured disheartening collapses in 2007 and 2008, he surely is aware that even a comfortable, seemingly insurmountable lead can dissipate quickly.  On the other hand, as Corzine works to narrow the advantage his opponent has built in the polls, he might be wise to seek inspiration from the Mets team that played 40 years ago and was 9 1/2 games out of first place in mid-August, but somehow managed to overcome the deficit and win the pennant and 1969 World Series.

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