Is the Devil in the Details?

As the race for Governor enters its final few weeks, Chris Christie must make a strategic decision that could determine the outcome of the election:

Should the GOP candidate put forth a detailed economic plan that addresses property taxes and other fiscal issues? Or should he continue to speak only in broad generalities and quick sound bites? Had Christie maintained his double-digit lead in the polls, the decision would have been a no-brainer. Why risk getting into details when you’re riding high and it looks like you have a clear road to the State House?

But that scenario has changed over the past 10 days. Three polls now place Democrat Jon Corzine, the incumbent governor, within striking distance – about four points behind; and a fourth has the race in a statistical dead heat. Not only is Corzine gaining momentum; he is poised to outspend his opponent by a substantial margin; he knows that New Jersey’s Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than 700,000, and he can expect a last-minute boost from the Democratic Party’s always-strong “Get Out the Vote” efforts.

Perhaps Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, put it best when he said: “Christopher Christie is still ahead in the Garden State, but when he looks in the rear-view mirror, he sees the bearded visage of Gov. Jon Corzine getting closer.”

New Jersey Democrats are hoping to replicate the results of the 1977 gubernatorial election, which began with little optimism because the incumbent Governor, Democrat Brendan Byrne, was suffering from the fallout of creating the state income tax. But as the campaign evolved, Byrne’s opponent, former State Senator Raymond Bateman, failed to offer an alternative until the waning days of the race, and Byrne was re-elected.

To date, Christie has addressed the state’s fiscal problems with promises to make government more effective and efficient, lower taxes and control spending. But with race tightening, he found himself pressed for details at the first gubernatorial debate last week.

“So everyone asked Christie for his plan,” the Star-Ledger’s Tom Moran wrote. “Corzine and Daggett asked him. The panelists asked him. Even the regular voters that NJN hooked up remotely to ask questions wanted an answer. Christie offered bread crumbs.”

So let’s examine the options.

Christie can stick with his strategy and refrain from details and specifics while he continues to criticize Corzine and his policies, hoping that voters will vent their anger at the polls and cast their ballots against the incumbent. However, he runs the risk of suffering damage similar to what Bateman experienced in 1977.

In addition, any option of shifting the focus of the campaign to another issue has disappeared at this point in the race. The economy has been – and will continue to be – the number one issue on the minds of New Jersey voters. It dwarfs cracking down on corruption, the issue on which Christie built his reputation as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.

Christie’s other option is to roll the dice and offer an 11th hour fiscal proposal. Although it did not work for Bateman in 1977, the strategy did prove successful in 1993 for Christine Todd Whitman, the last Republican to win a gubernatorial election in New Jersey.

There are many parallels between that 1993 election and 2009’s. The incumbent Democrat, Jim Florio, also was behind in the polls when the campaign began, a result of $2.8 billion in tax increases that were enacted in the first six months of his administration. But just as Corzine has narrowed the gap in 2009, Florio pulled even with his GOP challenger, Christine Todd Whitman, and actually led in the polls until Whitman promised to reduce middle-class income tax rates by 30 percent. She won the election by a narrow margin and the pledge to cut taxes played a big role in the victory.

Whether a similar strategy can work in 2009 in is uncertain. Although Whitman made good on her campaign pledge, critics contend that the tax cuts were a short-term solution whose benefits have been more than offset by increases in state debt. With the benefit of hindsight, today’s voters may be a bit more skeptical about fiscal proposals that emerge suddenly in the final weeks of gubernatorial campaigns.

With any plan or proposal, the devil often is in the details – and this could indeed be the case in New Jersey this year. But with an angry electorate ready to vent its frustration, avoiding the details also could prove to be a successful strategy on the road to the State House.

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