Politics & Policy

What’s Wrong With Christie?

How the New Jersey gubernatorial race went from shoe-in to toss-up.

Earlier this year, Republican Chris Christie looked like a really safe bet to beat New Jersey’s incumbent governor, Democrat Jon Corzine. The polls in July showed Christie with a lead ranging from 7 to 15 percentage points.

Of course, since then the former U.S. attorney has had millions of dollars worth of negative ads dumped on his head; one estimate calculates that Corzine is spending a million a week on television advertising. One result is unsurprising — Christie’s lead has dwindled to a mere 3 to 4 points in most polls — and another is somewhat surprising: Even with that barrage of the airwaves, it took Corzine until Tuesday of this week to garner more than 42 percent support in any poll. On that day, a Fairleigh Dickenson poll put Corzine up, 44 percent to 43 percent.

“We were getting outspent ten-to-one over the summer,” says Jay Webber, New Jersey Republican State Committee chairman. “We went up on TV around Labor Day, but we’re still getting outspent about three-to-one or four-to-one.”

One result of Corzine’s air war has been a significant number of voters’ drifting to independent Christopher Daggett, who is garnering 12 percent in the Quinnipiac poll, 8 percent in the Monmouth/Gannett poll, and 6 percent in Rasmussen.

Daggett has a rather unlikely rèsumè for a political insurgent; he’s a former regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Last year, Corzine appointed him chair of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection Permit Efficiency Task Force. Daggett correctly diagnosed that a badly slumping economy and exhaustion with taxes and corruption had created the best political environment for a third-party candidate in ages. New Jersey has a decent number of Democrats who think Corzine’s reign has been disastrous but who can’t bring themselves to vote for a Republican.

Daggett’s campaign has shown flashes of style and humor; his first television ad featured impersonators of Corzine and Christie trapped on an escalator. Corzine shrugs, concludes someone else will bail him out, and wonders what’s going on in Manhattan, while Christie bellows that if the escalator doesn’t get fixed, someone’s going to jail.

Having said that, there’s some New Jersey history to suggest that the bloom of third-party bids wither under the harsh light of a voting booth. In 2008, the final SurveyUSA poll had 7 percent going to “other” in the Senate race; in the end, the Libertarian, Socialist Workers, and three other independent candidates amounted to 2 percent. In 2005, when Corzine won election against Doug Forrester, the final Rasmussen poll had 5 percent going to “other” candidates, as did the final SurveyUSA and Strategic Vision polls. That year, the independent, Libertarian, and Green candidates took a little more than 3 percent.

Ballot position may have something to do with that. Under New Jersey law, the Democratic and Republican candidates will automatically receive either the first or second position on each county’s ballot, but Daggett will be randomly placed among the nine other gubernatorial candidates who are not with the major parties.

“The poll question is always phrased, ‘Are you voting for the Democrat Jon Corzine, Republican Chris Christie, or independent Chris Daggett?’” notes Webber. “And there are people who are dissatisfied with the governor, and who haven’t voted Republican for a while, and they hear, ‘Oh, independent, that sounds nice.’ . . . Daggett’s candidacy will find its level where most independents finish, right around 4 or 5 percent. He will have made his points, his contribution. Our polling shows he’s pulling a little from Republicans, a little from Democrats. His presence essentially means that the winner of this race won’t have to reach the usual 50 percent plus one.”

Whatever its importance to the final tally, Daggett’s campaign recorded a parody of a debate with Corzine and Christie impersonators that is useful in illustrating a potential flaw in the Christie campaign. Good parodies target the subjects’ widely perceived foibles; a satire wouldn’t work if it painted Al Gore as a philanderer or Bill Clinton as a bore. The Corzine jabs hit at the areas where the incumbent is most vulnerable; the faux Corzine insists that his willingness to spend a lot of money campaigning demonstrates his love for the state and later shrugs, “I don’t care about these stupid debates, because I have enough money to win, no matter what anybody says.” (In perhaps a not-too-veiled reference to Corzine’s messy relationship with Carla Katz, a union head, the faux-Corzine reads a copy of New York magazine with Eliot Spitzer on the cover.)

The Daggett campaign chose to mock Christie as a guy with nothing to say beyond denouncing the incumbent and bellowing enthusiasm for throwing criminals in jail. The faux Christie repeatedly insists that he’s “not Jon Corzine” and pledges to get to specifics after the election. He falls asleep during Daggett’s answer, while Corzine plays hangman. He insists that “this election is really about one thing: JAIL! Imagine a New Jersey where there are lots and lots of lawbreakers — and lawmakers — in jail. That would create lots of low-paying jobs guarding those people in jail.” He concludes by pounding the table with his shoe and throwing it at the audience, a strange allusion to both Nikita Khurschev and the Iraqi shoe-hurler.

There’s something to be said about Christie’s lack of detail. His rival in the Republican primary, Steve Lonegan, hammered him on it, and many of Christie’s ads have indeed repeated the “cut taxes, cut spending” mantra with little detail. (Few Democrats run on higher taxes and spending in New Jersey, and they often promise some sort of targeted or middle-class tax cut. To apolitical voters, Christie’s pledges sound awfully familiar and not terribly plausible.) The editors of the Wall Street Journal finally couldn’t take it any more, declaring, “the Christie campaign has been largely content-free. His campaign’s idea of a brilliant campaign idea is to tell the press that he‘s attended 120 concerts of Mr. Springsteen, who may end up endorsing Mr. Corzine.”

“Content-free” goes a bit too far; Christie and Corzine have tangled on policy issues. Health insurance in New Jersey is expensive partly because the state government has enacted 45 mandates on insurers. A lot of mandates, such as the ban on “drive-through” baby delivery, are spurred by a legitimate desire to see patients receive quality care. But New Jersey’s state legislature has mandated every health insurance plan in the state cover costs of treating alcoholism, substance abuse, autism, blood lead-poisoning screening, contraceptives, diabetic supplies, home health care, in vitro fertilization, other infertility services, and chiropractors. Why shouldn’t patients have the option of a plan that covers fewer treatments but costs them less?

Perhaps if Jon Corzine hadn’t been trailing, he wouldn’t have felt the need to make opposition to mandates equivalent to opposition to mammograms, complete with the tagline, “Fewer mammograms, bigger profits. . . . Chris Christie, completely wrong when it matters most.”

Where Christie has been clear — on his desire to lower taxes, for example — there are signs some New Jerseyans think that even if Christie agrees with them, there’s little reason to believe he’ll enact any real reforms. Quinnipiac found that 41 percent of New Jersey likely voters list taxes as the most important campaign issue; 61 percent said they thought Corzine will raise taxes if he is reelected. But the poll put Christie barely ahead, 43 percent to 39 percent.

For all of their legendary cynicism, some New Jersey voters may be evaluating their incumbent with an optimism bordering on naiveté. The Monmouth University/Gannett poll found that 28 percent of New Jerseyans — including 23 percent of independents and 15 percent of Republicans — said that if Jon Corzine promised to cut property taxes, it would make them more likely to vote for him, even though Corzine promised increases in property-tax rebates four years ago and broke his promise.

But there’s another factor; for some reason, the electorate is strikingly receptive to Democratic efforts to dictate the dominant issues of the campaign. Conservatives often complain about media bias, but that lets the voters off the hook a bit for passively nodding when the press tells them something (and most of the New Jersey papers have been tough on Corzine).

For example, Corzine went on the attack against Christie on some bad judgments that don’t wear well on a candidate running as an anti-corruption reformer: failing to report a loan to a former subordinate and allegedly using his position to get out of traffic tickets. But keep in mind that the FBI raided the home of one of Corzine’s cabinet officials in a wide-ranging scandal that arrested officeholders and community leaders on charges ranging from bribery to kidney-smuggling. Corzine stood with his then–fellow senator, Bob Torricelli, to the bitter end; the governor’s denunciations of his state’s rampant corruption occurred only after the FBI slapped on the handcuffs. Who is Corzine to criticize anyone over unreported loans and traffic tickets?

Perhaps Election Night will prove all Corzine’s negative ads were for naught; analyst Stuart Rothenberg has been critical of coverage suggesting a Democratic comeback, declaring that “the gubernatorial race in New Jersey has not changed fundamentally recently.” But perhaps all those negative ads will achieve the improbable: persuading New Jersey voters they can get better government from the same folks who have disappointed them so thoroughly.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.

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