After taking the oath of office, the first official act for presidents, governors and other elected officials is to give a speech.
Inauguration speeches, which mark the beginning of a term in office, tend to be positive, upbeat and optimistic.
Unlike the discourse that takes place during election campaigns, inauguration speeches often stress common values and the need to work together and look beyond differences for the greater good of the citizenry. Although we are likely to hear some of these themes on Tuesday when Chris Christie becomes New Jersey’s 55th Governor, Christie’s speech may serve another purpose. For many New Jerseyans, it will provide an opportunity to get to know the man who voters chose to lead the state for the next four years.
This may seem a bit puzzling at first. After all, Christie received more than one million votes in November. But a significant portion those votes were cast – not for him, but rather against incumbent Governor Jon Corzine.
According to a National Election Pool/Edison Research exit poll, 43 percent of those who voted for Christie said they did so as a vote against the other candidates – not in favor of him. “Christie got the job for the next four years simply because he wasn’t the incumbent,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, wrote in a post-election op-ed.
Last year’s gubernatorial campaign also took place at a time when the news industry — both nationwide and in New Jersey — was struggling to cope with unprecedented levels of cutbacks and layoffs. This made it difficult, if not impossible, for the media to give campaigns and candidates as much coverage as in the past, so there was less of an opportunity for voters to learn about Chris Christie than there might have been a few years ago when there were more news outlets and reporters covering the Garden State.
In addition, many of the topics that entered the discussion during the campaign did little to foretell what type of Governor Christie will be. We learned that he has a weight problem, that he is not the best driver in the state, and that he is not Jon Corzine. But substantive dialogue on the major public policy issues confronting the state was scarce — both in the media and on the campaign trail. During the campaign, I conducted a small informal survey and found there were more news stories on Christie’s driving infractions than there were on his positions on critical issues such as education, property taxes, the environment and pension reform.
One other reason citizens may not be as familiar with Chris Christie as they were with other new governors is the fact that 2009 marked his first campaign for statewide office in New Jersey. In a state without a major media market of its own, candidates generally have had to run at least one statewide campaign to build name recognition before succeeding in a gubernatorial contest.
For example, Jon Corzine ran a successful campaign for one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats before winning election as Governor in 2005. Although his predecessors did not fare as well in their initial forays into statewide politics, the experience and name recognition they generated helped them the second time around.
For instance, Jim McGreevey narrowed missed winning the 1997 gubernatorial election and emerged victorious four years later. Likewise, Christine Todd Whitman almost upset Bill Bradley in the 1990 campaign for U.S. Senate, setting the stage for her 1993 election and 1997 re-election as Governor. Jim Florio was elected Governor in 1989, eight years after he lost the gubernatorial election to Tom Kean by a mere 1,797 votes. Kean also waged a statewide campaign – the 1977 GOP gubernatorial primary – before defeating Florio in 1981.
One must go all the way back to Brendan Byrne’s 1973 election to find the last New Jersey Governor who was elected on his or her first try for statewide office.
Although Christie did hold a statewide office — U.S. Attorney for New Jersey — for seven years, it was an appointed post that did not require the rigors of a statewide election campaign. His efforts to combat political corruption did give him a higher profile than the state’s previous U.S. Attorneys. However, he was unable to fully convey this image to the public during the campaign — largely because the Corzine camp raised a series of questions abut Christie’s own ethics. This put Christie on the defensive and made it more difficult for him to use his record of fighting corruption as a campaign tool.
In the end, it didn’t really matter. Christie just hammered away at Corzine and his record and capitalized on the growing discontent and anger that has become prevalent not only among voters in New Jersey, but also in citizens and communities throughout the nation. As a result, New Jerseyans learned that Chris Christie was not Jon Corzine — and for many voters, that was all they needed to learn to make up their minds.
Starting Tuesday, they will learn a little more.
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