The tight New Jersey governor’s race, likely the most competitive of the three most closely-watched contests in the nation Tuesday, is a rare test of which electoral factor is more decisive—an incumbent’s unpopularity or the structural politics of a state.
Gov. Jon Corzine, the Democrat, is seeking a second term with approval ratings in the basement and at a time when the economy is deeply troubled. Yet he’s doing so in a state that has become solidly Democratic and while running against a conservative Republican, Chris Christie, who has his own challenges, not the least of which is an independent candidate whose presence makes it possible for the governor to win without capturing 50 percent of the vote.
Here’s POLITICO’s list of five things that will determine if it's disapproval of Corzine or New Jersey’s deep-blue demography that wins the day:
Can Corzine turn out the Democratic base?
There are about 730,000 more registered Democrats than there are Republicans in the Garden State. And last fall, thanks to President Obama, the number of new voters surged on Election Day. But polls indicate Corzine is having trouble rousing his own party this year.
“It’s a very different election than last year,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, a veteran New Jersey Democrat. “Last year, people came out. They didn’t have to be pushed. This year, they’re a little reluctant. Times are bad, the economy is not doing very well.”
Both campaigns and independent observers expect turnout statewide to be about 48-to-49 percent. That means at or just above 2.3 million votes.
If it’s less than that, Corzine could be in trouble as it will likely mean unhappy, or just plain uninterested, Democrats are staying home.
“If turnout dips below 47 percent, it’s minorities not showing up,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray.
To win, Corzine also needs to push the percentage of the electorate that is comprised of minority groups above 20 percent.
It almost surely won’t reach the 27 percent that Obama enjoyed last year, but if it’s even a few percentage points above 20 percent, Corzine has got a strong chance to win.
“I’m confident we’re going to get the base vote out tomorrow,” Corzine told POLITICO Monday after speaking to a few hundred seniors lunching on ziti in Paterson. “[W]e worked very hard to organize to make sure that happens. Almost consistently in every election I’ve seen in the last 10 years, people say we’re not going to get the base out and than there are 3 or 4 points that show up because the base comes out. We’re organized to do it. One of the reasons that President Obama came in, was to excite the base.”
To get the sense of how critical core Democrats are to Corzine, consider this scenario: he can still lose independents by a margin of up to or even just over 10 percent and still win the race.
The Big Democratic Three
It was no accident that when Obama returned to the state Sunday for a pair of get-out-the-vote rallies, he appeared in Camden and Essex counties, both of which have sizable African-American communities. Both campaigns will be eyeing how Corzine performs in these south and north Jersey Democratic pillars, respectively home to the cities of Camden and Newark. Add in Jersey City’s Hudson County, another county with a significant minority population, and you have the jurisdictions where Corzine must run up his margins.
He needs to come out of the three with over a 100,000 combined vote margin and having won better than 60 percent of the vote in each.
“When Jon Corzine won [statewide] in 2005 with a 240,000 vote margin, 180 of those votes came from Essex, Hudson and Camden,” said Murray.
The Big GOP Three
Christie’s fate could be determined by the size of his margins in his native Morris County, as well as in Ocean and Monmouth counties—all GOP strongholds that Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Forrester carried in 2005 despite losing statewide by 10 percent.
Christie needs to push to take close to 60 percent in each. And of the three, Monmouth is the one to watch most intently. It’s the largest of the three and, as one Christie adviser explained, sometimes Republicans win it by less than 10 percent while other times they carry it with much larger runaway margins. The higher his winning margin is into the teens in Monmouth, the stronger he’s likely to fare statewide.
The Daggett Factor
After surging to around 20 percent in some polls, independent candidate and former Republican Chris Daggett has fallen back to single-digits, the combined result of his having too little cash for advertising and a twin-barrel assault from Christie and the Republican Governors Association tying him to Corzine.
But even if he runs below 10 percent, he’ll still be a factor in a tight race where the incumbent’s vote share seems capped at 45 percent. The closer Daggett is to cracking double-digits, the more breathing room Corzine has to pull off a plurality win.
More specifically, Democrats are hoping Daggett eats into Christie’s margins in the state’s Republican counties. Actually, they’re more than hoping: the New Jersey Democratic Party admitted Monday that they are paying for robo-calls into heavily-Republican Somerset County that promote Daggett and lash Christie.
Bergen County is New Jersey’s largest county and perhaps the one most critical to Christie’s success. How critical? No statewide Republican candidate has ever won without carrying Bergen, according to Murray.
“It’s got a huge chunk of the population, and is always the bellwether county,” said state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the former governor’s son and an unsuccessful Senate candidate in 2006, after a Christie rally Monday night at the county GOP committee headquarters in Hackensack.
Even if Corzine’s 13-point margin from the county in 2005 is cut in half, he’s still likely to win statewide.
Down the Turnpike, Middlesex County is the sort of place that could offer clues as to the depth of voter dissatisfaction with Corzine.
In good years, Democrats carry the middle-class, white ethnic county by large margins. But even though it’s heavily Democratic by registration, tax-weary voters there aren’t hesitant about crossing party lines. This was a county, notes a Christie adviser, that turned on Democratic Gov. Jim Florio in 1993 and that offered Republican Christie Todd Whitman thousands of crossover voters in that year’s contest.