Governor’s Race: Eight Key Quinnipiac Findings

There are eight key findings in the Quinnipiac Poll of the gubernatorial race released yesterday:

1. Chris Christie is running very strong in his base areas of the Northwest Quadrant (Morris, Sussex, Somerset, Warren, and Hunterdon) and the Shore (Ocean, Monmouth, and Atlantic).

2. Jon Corzine has lost South Jersey as a base area – he actually trails Christie in that region by eight points. His base is now limited to the urban counties of Essex and Hudson, and if he does not regain South Jersey as a base area, the ball game is over for him.

3. The area which the Quinnipiac Poll defines as “Suburban”, to wit, Mercer, Middlesex, Union, Passaic, and Bergen counties – is up for grabs. If Christie wins the Suburban region in November while maintaining his current margins in the Shore and the Northwest Quadrant, he and his wife, Mary Pat, will on Wednesday, November 4 begin to pack their belongings for a move from their home in Mendham to the Governor’s Drumthwacket Mansion.

4. Not surprisingly, taxes, particularly property taxes, and the economy emerge overwhelmingly as the key issues in this campaign, and Christie has massive margins over Corzine on these matters.

5. The negative attacks on Christie’s integrity, both by Steve Lonegan and the Democrats in the primary failed to make a dent on the former U.S. Attorney’s reputation for honesty and trustworthiness.

6. By contrast, a new issue has arisen with ominous implications for Corzine: he now has upside-down numbers on the issue of honesty and trustworthiness, 42-44. The Governor’s cave-in to the state employee unions during the recent negotiations adds to the growing view among the electorate that Corzine is unable or unwilling to stand fast against special interests. This perception has the potential to result in increasing negative numbers for the Governor on character issues in the future.

7. Corzine’s strongest positive message, to wit, his education funding successes, totally fails to register with the public – in fact, it is the most important issue for only 4% of likely voters.

8. President Barack Obama has rock-star approval numbers in the state, 68-25. Only Barack Obama can save Jon Corzine’s governorship.

These eight findings have major implications for each candidate’s campaign in the following areas: 1) Lieutenant Governor candidate selection; 2) Christie’s major organizational challenge; and 3) message strategy for each candidate.

The Lieutenant Governor Sweepstakes

For Jon Corzine, the best pick is obvious: Congressman Rob Andrews.

The Governor needs the Congressman as part of a strategy to recapture South Jersey as a Corzine base area. It would be a good career move for Andrews as well. A victory of a Corzine-Andrews ticket in November could give hope to a revival of the statewide office ambitions of the Congressman that appeared to have been dashed in his unsuccessful 2008 U.S. Senatorial primary campaign against Frank Lautenberg.

For Chris Christie, the decision is much more difficult. He needs a candidate who first and foremost will not alienate Republican conservative voters who constitute a central component of the Republican base in both the Northwest Quadrant and the Shore.

In this regard, a pick of Diane Allen or Kathy Donovan would run a substantial risk of keeping Republican conservative voters at home in November, particularly Steve Lonegan primary supporters. Moreover, both Allen and Donovan are involved in factional battles with their county chairs in Burlington and Bergen, respectively. This could negatively impact whatever gain either could give Christie in their home counties.

A selection of Frank LoBiondo would be a major political plus for Christie but a most significant loss to the New Jersey Republican delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives and a mixed blessing to the Congressman personally. Certainly, the Cumberland County Representative would be an excellent asset to Christie in maintaining his current eight point lead over Corzine in South Jersey. LoBiondo is an outstanding member of the House of Representatives, an individual respected personally and professionally by Representatives of both political parties.

The problem, however, is that Frank’s departure from Capitol Hill to Trenton would result in a significant Republican New Jersey Congressional delegation void. LoBiondo has played a most effective role in representing both the interests of South Jersey and the Garden State as a whole since his election in 1994. Moreover, with LoBiondo gone, it is very possible that the Democrats could win his vacated House seat in 2010.

Finally, LoBiondo would probably not get the major benefit of an election as Lieutenant Governor, to wit, that of being the heir apparent to a Governor Christie. Frank turned 63 in May, and he would be 71 in 2017, the year of the election to succeed a Governor Christie finishing a two term tenure. This would hardly be a propitious time of life for Frank LoBiondo to be seeking a first term as Governor. If Frank chooses to remain in the House of Representatives, he has a safe seat for as long as he wants it.

Considering the foregoing, the best selection by Chris Christie as his running mate would be Senator Joe Kyrillos.

Except for hard core paleoconservative Republican “rejectionists”, Kyrillos would be highly acceptable to all segments of the New Jersey GOP. As party chair from 2001 to 2004, the center-right Senator always maintained a friendly dialogue with all ideological factions of the party. He is the most popular political figure in Monmouth County, and his presence on the ticket would virtually guarantee the maintenance of Christie’s current margins at the Shore.

Most importantly, in a year where economic issues are paramount, Kyrillos brings a huge additional asset to Christie – he has been the most outstanding member of either house of the legislature during the past three decades on economic development and job creation legislation. He was the legislative author of the Business Employment Incentive Program (BEIP), passed in 1996, which has been arguably America’s most successful state business incentive program. A Christie-Kyrillos ticket would have incontestable credibility on economic issues – a key to winning statewide.

Christie’s Organizational Challenge

Most pundits opine that Christie’s major problem will be overcoming Corzine’s “unlimited” checkbook – the Governor’s ability to spend tens of millions of dollars to purchase television commercial time to run negative ads.

Indeed, Corzine’s financial advantage would be critical in virtually any other election, but not this one. The likelihood is that massive election campaign spending by the Governor will backfire on him. The Quinnipiac Poll found that by a huge 52-29 margin, the electorate believes that Corzine is “cold and businesslike” rather than “warm and friendly”, and by a 49-43 margin, the voters feel that the Governor does not care “about the needs of people like you.” Corzine’s out-of-control spending on television commercials may well reinforce the image of the Governor as an out-of-touch plutocrat.

The Republican nominee does not have to match Corzine dollar for dollar in campaign spending. He only has to raise and spend enough money to effectively get out his message. This will not be a problem – as the perception grows that Christie is the definite favorite in this contest, his campaign coffers will be filled with contributions not only from New Jersey donors but from political contributors outside the state as well.

Christie does face a significant organizational challenge, however. The Democrats have a well-oiled machine in virtually every county in the state outside of those in Republican base areas. By contrast, throughout the past decade, most Republican county organizations outside the GOP base areas of the Shore and the Northwest Quadrant have atrophied badly, most notably the Bergen County Republican Organization, formerly an NJGOP stronghold which in 2009 is now an arena of political devastation, due to internecine conflict and ineffective leadership.

The county organizations are critical to a successful Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) effort, not only in base organization areas but in battleground areas such as the “Suburban” region and South Jersey. The New Jersey Republican State Committee chair and staff must lead and coordinate the GOTV efforts of the county organizations. Lest anybody minimize the significance of GOTV, keep in mind that it was the Republican GOTV effort in 1997, led by the then Republican State Committee Chairman Chuck Haytaian and Executive Director Rocco Iossa that enabled Christie Whitman to narrowly edge Jim McGreevey in her reelection bid.

By the time of the Monday, June 15 New Jersey Republican State Committee organizational meeting, Chris Christie will have announced his choice as the State Committee Chair. The primary role of the Chair will be to lead and coordinate the NJGOP GOTV effort, working with county organizations in both base and non-base areas. It will be a challenge to the Chair to work with moribund county organizations, but a gubernatorial election year of intense interest like this one often provides an auspicious time for the revival of a party even in weak areas.

Message Strategy

For Chris Christie, the message is clear: Economy and taxes.

For Jon Corzine, the lack of a viable message is the most difficult obstacle to his reelection. I wrote a PolitickerNJ.com column in April describing the Governor as having a possibly successful two component positive message strategy of 1) Standing firm against the demands of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) state employee union locals; and 2) Maintaining sufficient public school education funding statewide and instituting a beneficial reform regarding the Abbott district aid.

The Quinnipiac Poll showed basically that the public doesn't care about his education funding successes. As for standing up to the CWA, the Governor followed his pattern of caving in to special interests. To apply a boxing analogy, the Governor was about as effective against the CWA as Floyd Patterson was against Sonny Liston.

Although I differed strongly with former Governor Jim Florio on his veto of the assault weapons ban repeal in 1993, I fully understood his political sagacity in using this issue in his reelection campaign as an example of his fighting a “special interest”, in that case the National Rifle Association (NRA). This tactic almost won him reelection in his contest against Christie Whitman.

Corzine has no such “profile in courage” issue, and thus far as shown by Quinnipiac, the Democrat negative attacks on Christie’s character have failed completely. For reasons I explained in my previous article, the abortion issue will get Corzine nowhere in this campaign. In short, he has no effective positive and negative issue messages.

There is one possible message for Corzine, however, that represents his only hope for reeelection. It is for President Barack Obama to come into New Jersey on at least four occasions and put his arm around Corzine, promising that his partnership with the Governor will result in the Garden State receiving all the federal stimulus money it needs for whatever economic development projects the Governor deems worthy. As a follow-up, the Governor in turn will tell the electorate in so many words that if Chris Christie is elected, the state will never be able to receive this level of federal assistance from the Obama administration.

I expect the Corzine campaign to work with the White House to employ exactly this strategy up through Election Day. The ultimate story of this campaign will be whether Barack Obama and his “Stimulus checkbook” will enable the Governor to achieve reelection, despite all the Corzine negatives and Christie positives.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.

"This meeting is entirely off the record. Until somebody leaks it."
—Michael Kempner, addressing a roomful of Democratic powerbrokers organizng for Hillary Clinton