Turning New Jersey Red

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP
    So at a time when New Jersey is blue, dark blue, why was Chris Christie able to win?

    It was somewhere off the New Jersey Turnpike, Exit 4 I think, sitting in a dark room looking through a one-way mirror, eating bad food and too many M&M’s; something was happening I hadn’t seen in awhile. The group of independent voters we selected for this focus group didn’t run screaming from the room when we mentioned President George W. Bush and Chris Christie in the same sentence and they didn’t swoon when President Barack Obama embraced Jon Corzine. It was then we knew we had a chance.

    Last Tuesday, Chris Christie was elected the 55th governor of New Jersey – the first Republican to be elected to statewide office since Christine Todd Whitman in 1997. And while Gov. Whitman and her predecessor Governor Tom Kean won their initial races in squeakers, Christie was elected by a margin of over 100,000 votes.

    So at a time when New Jersey is blue, dark blue, why was Chris Christie able to win?

    We learned behind the mirror that night, for the first time in five years, independents were open to a Republican message. After the 2004 election, independents stopped listening to Republicans. It reminded me of arguing with your kids who start screaming, “you're not listening to me!!" and they’re right, you’re not.

    This summer, when Christie led Corzine by 12-15 points, we knew the number was inflated. Many voters, some who had never supported a Republican, would ultimately support the Democrat. And while it was certainly stomach-churning to watch a double-digit lead shrink to almost nothing, Gov. Corzine’s support never grew. Roughly 40 percent of the electorate supported him in our first poll and only slightly more supported him in our final survey. However, throughout that rollercoaster ride we kept our eye on independent voters and where they were headed.

    Just as important as the political environment being “open” to electing a Republican was the candidate and his message.

    For seven years Chris Christie earned a stellar reputation as a U.S. attorney, convicting over 136 public officials on corruption charges. His work earned bipartisan praise, even from Gov. Corzine. We believed from day one that Christie’s record as an independent crime fighter gave voters the permission they needed to believe he could change Trenton, particularly with taxes and the economy. This summer, when an FBI raid brought down numerous public officials, it was less about corruption and more about New Jerseyans once again being disappointed by a state government out of control.

    In a time of economic uncertainty, voters, particularly independents, cared more about New Jersey’s status as the highest taxed state in the nation than Christie’s driving record or his weight (both of which were subjects of Corzine ads). By focusing on the economic message and not getting distracted by launching retaliatory personal attacks on Gov. Corzine, we kept talking to voters about issues they cared about.

    Only once was the campaign drawn off its economic message. Since we were being outspent more than 3.5 to 1, we couldn’t respond to every attack from Corzine. It was only when he started running an ad claiming Christie would take away mammograms for women that the campaign responded. We saw, both through polling and anecdotally, that this particular non-economic message was hurting us with independent women.

     

    And while there was an internal debate as to the form the response needed to take, it was quickly shut down by the candidate who strongly believed he needed to answer the charge himself. He was right. Chris’s mother was a breast cancer survivor and his outrage over the governor’s attack was genuine. After running Christie’s response, we started to see our numbers stabilize with women, independents and moderates.

    Chris Daggett, the third-party independent candidate eventually became the wild card, serving as a placeholder for disaffected voters while they chose between the two major party candidates. While some polls had Chris Daggett garnering 20 percent of the vote, we knew that wouldn’t last and it was just a question of how fast he would sink and where his voters would land. Under scrutiny, his tax plan was unsustainable, he had little funding, and finding him on the ballot was like playing “Where’s Waldo”.

    On Election Day, Daggett got under 6 percent of the votes and, according to exit polls; Christie won independents by 30 percent. He won in the suburbs, which have become so elusive for most Republicans this decade, and he won with voters who said the economy, property taxes and corruption were their most important issues. A year ago, many of these same voters supported Barack Obama and his message of change, but this year, they switched to Christie. Confusing, not really – they’re called independents for a reason – winning them over is that easy and that hard.

    Russ Schriefer was Chris Christie’s media consultant. His firm, The Stevens & Schriefer Group has helped elect Republican governors in blue and purple states like Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and now New Jersey.