By Tommy DeSeno and Art Gallagher
What do they call it in New Jersey when 44 politicians are arrested for corruption at the same time? Thursday. Jersey politics are so dirty it can make a Chicagoan wince.
With public affairs in such sorry shape, the Garden State grows some nasty tasting political campaigns. Jersey’s gutter politics used to be defined by Republican Pete Dawkins calling Senator Frank Lautenberg a “swamp dog” back in 1988. This year Democrat Governor Jon Corzine broke open the sewer pipes of political advertising, actually making juvenile “fat jokes” about his Republican opponent, who struggles with obesity.
Let’s recap how the Tea Party movement coupled with the anti-incumbent movement may backfire and give the Jersey Democrat his second term.
Governor Jon Corzine and Republican challenger Chris Christie are in a race too close to call. The Real Clear Politics composite of several respected polls gives Christie a statistically insignificant 1% edge. The fly in Christie’s campaign victory ointment is that Independent Chris Daggett is polling over 11%.
The only conclusion the polls give is that most New Jersey voters want a new governor. But even though Corzine’s approval ratings have been stuck in the high 30’s for most of the year, thanks to his $30 million personal bankroll coupled with the surprisingly strong showing by Daggett, Corzine could still win.
Christie was leading this race by as much as 14% over the summer. His campaign mantra was bad times under Corzine—highest taxes in the country, highest unemployment in the region, 450,000 New Jerseyans voting with their feet and moving out of the state. Christie offered an 88 point plan to turn New Jersey around that was short on specifics but generally promised lower taxes, lower government spending and an improved business climate.
It was working. Then came September.
Corzine charged that Christies’ plan to make healthcare more affordable by allowing competition from out of state insurers and reducing mandated coverage was “anti-woman.” Corzine alleged that Christie would take away women’s access to mammograms and that new mothers would be kicked out of the hospital hours after delivering babies.
Suddenly the campaign was not about taxes, spending, unemployment and the economy, but mammograms. Christie surrendered his double-digit lead among independent women to Corzine. Corzine’s numbers stayed in the high 30’s to low 40’s, but Christie came down to the low to mid 40’s and stayed there.
On September 30, the day before the first televised debate, Independent Daggett unveiled a plan to reduce property taxes 25% by expanding the state’s 7% sales tax to goods and services currently not taxed, and increasing tolls on New Jersey’s highways. After a credible debate performance, Daggett’s numbers shot from the mid single digits to as high as 20% in some polls, most of his support taken from Christie.
For the first time all year, the fight was on.
Christie, who receives state matching funds and is therefore limited to spending just under $11 million against Corzine’s personal fortune, spent precious resources fighting off Daggett’s surge. He characterized Daggett’s plan as “Corzine-lite.” Daggett’s numbers started to come back to earth and 60% of his voters told pollsters that they were likely to change their minds before Election Day….most in favor of Christie.
Corzine counter-punched with more negative attacks on Christie and also by relying on the star power of President Obama and former President Clinton to rally New Jersey’s large but sometimes too lazy to vote radical left wing.
But one of those Corzine ads backfired. Coupled with an unflattering picture, Corzine accused the obese Christie of “throwing his weight around.” The state Democratic chairman Assemblyman Joseph Cryan mused at a rally, "What would it feel like if the next governor weighs 350 pounds?"
Voters and the media pushed back on the personal attack, and Christie, who has been sensitive about his weight, used the attacks to humanize himself, culminating in a very funny and self-effacing appearance on Imus. Fox News’ Neil Cavuto declared it a game changer and predicted Christie would win because of how well he performed on Imus.
With apologies to Cavuto and Imus, the final game changer could be Jon Corzine's interview with the NY Times wherein he called his terribly unpopular scheme to sell NJ's highways and increase tolls by 800% "an idea that worked." In that moment of candor, Corzine may have wasted his $30 million campaign.
Why raise this unpopular and dead issue again? Perhaps sensing victory was at hand, Corzine was imagining that after an election win he could declare, "Even during the last days of the campaign I spoke in favor of an asset monetization plan. The voters gave me a mandate to do it."
But the negative reaction was swift and fierce. Union workers and Democratic political appointees at the NJ Turnpike Authority were throwing pro-Corzine flyers in the trash. Down line Democrat candidates who recently were warming to Corzine were again running for cover. Republicans have spent the final days of the campaign talking up what voters least liked about Corzine – his “sell the Turnpike” plan.
The momentum appears to be with Christie, but the impact of President Obama’s 11th hour appearance for Corzine has not been reflected in the polls yet.
As Daggett leaning voters are reconsidering their choice, Republicans are accusing The NJ State Democratic Committee of making automated calls into Republican areas urging voters to vote for Daggett. That is fueling lingering suspicions among Republicans that Daggett’s campaign has been nothing but a stalking horse for Corzine all along, designed to siphon the Tea Party votes and New Jersey’s perennial “Throw the Bums Out” votes away from Christie.
The Quinnipiac University and Monmouth University polling teams have both been working through the weekend with reports expected to be published by noon on Monday. That will give us a better idea whether Christie will keep his lead, or if the four horsemen of his political apocalypse will be mammograms, weight jokes, an Obama bounce and Chris Daggett.
Contributing to this article was two Jersey Boys - Art Gallagher of More Monmouth Musings and Tommy De Seno of Justified Right.