Independent gubernatorial candidate Christopher Daggett will not be content if his candidacy only manages to bring attention to issues that major party candidates might have otherwise ignored.
"I'm in this to win the election, not to steer the debate," he said in a phone interview today.
Daggett, who started his campaign with a certain amount of legitimacy from being a federal and state environmental official in the 1980's, has made progress towards becoming a competitive candidate. He raised the $340,000 that qualified him for matching funds from the state, giving him close to $1 million to start for the general election and a spot in two required debates. He won the endorsement of the Sierra Club yesterday, and several months ago hired media consultant Bill Hillsman, who has experience creating ads for underdog candidates like Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura.
But Daggett's name ID is anemic. In a Quinnipiac poll released August 11, 92% of voters did not know enough about him to form an opinion (it was 82% in a Monmouth University poll from a week earlier). He polled at 7% in a three-way match-up with Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine and Republican Chris Christie. The question most insiders have asked all along is not whether Daggett can win, but whether he hurts Jon Corzine or Chris Christie.
"I think this is something that could change very rapidly as people come back from vacation mode and start to focus on the fact that we have a gubernatorial election, and the fact that people have just had it with both parties. They're discouraged, disappointed and in some cases just disgusted by what they see," he said. "I think people will be looking for an alternative."
Accordingto two men with experience running independent or third party candidacies, Daggett has a short window to build name recognition.
"I'm not a political scientist or campaign consultant, but I do believe you have to build your name recognition sometime before 35 to 40 days of the election or it's too late. You have to build some kind of momentum," said former Maine Gov. Angus King, who won two statewide races as an independent.
King squeaked by in a race against major opponents Joseph Brennan, a former two-term Democratic governor, and Republican Susan Collins, now a United States senator, to win his first of two terms, in 1994. Green Independent candidate Jonathan Carter pulled down 6.4%, while another independent candidate took in 1.29% — significant margins in a race King won over Brennan by a little under 1.5%.
King had more name recognition than Daggett starting out, having served as long-time host of a weekly public television show, but he said that it only amounted to about 11% in his campaign's polling (he described himself as the "Jim Lehrer of Maine.") What made King a truly competitive candidate, he said, was his campaign's decision to buy television ads during the primary season, putting him on equal footing with the major party candidates who got the free air time that comes with primary campaigns. That, plus 18 months of retail campaigning and a public that was fed up with partisan bickering between its governor and legislature, helped him win.
"I didn't wait until the general to get known. I said ‘people are thinking of politics now, let's put ads on the air.' It worked," he said.
Of course Maine's air waves are much cheaper than New Jersey's. King said a 30-second broadcast TV spot that reached the entire state cost $400 to $500 at the time. He spent about $1.6 million in total on the campaign – some of it his own money –which brought him just about even with his two major party opponents.
Daggett, who said he sought King's advice twice, is running under entirely different circumstances. To air broadcast television ads statewide in New Jersey, which has about seven times the population of Maine, a candidate needs to buy time in New York and Philadelphia — the nation's first and fourth most expensive media markets. What's more, Gov. Corzine plans to spend at least $40 million, while Christie, who also accepts matching funds from the state, is not expected to have any trouble meeting his $10.9 million maximum.
"That's going to be an obstacle for the independent, I think. Because I don't think I could have won if I wasn't able to spend comparably," said King.
Conservative political consultant Rick Shaftan, who ran former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan's underdog fight for the Republican gubernatorial nomination this year and in 1997 worked as a consultant for Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Murray Sabrin – which received public financing – said that Daggett needs to start spending money now.
"He's got his million. You can run a credible campaign with that. And he's got no overhead," said Shaftan. "Now is the time for him to start spending his money. I'm not saying go on TV with it, but he can go on the radio with it. You go on 101.5 and some other stations, you're definitely going to get some attention."
Daggett will be able to take advantage of below market television advertising rates in about two weeks, when networks are required to offer them to candidates. The aim, Shaftan said, is to poll in the double digits – something Sabrin never did – in order to get taken seriously by the press and the public.
"But the problem is this: we're almost in September now and nobody knows who this guy is," said Shaftan, who added that Daggett will have to offer a unique angle in addition to mere name recognition.
Shaftan gave Daggett little chance of winning in November, and said a close election between Corzine and Christie will keep voters away due to the "don't waste your vote syndrome." Still, he said that Daggett's ideology – he's pro choice and supports gay marriage but is fiscally conservative – puts him in a good position.
"If he ties his cultural liberalism to a strong economic conservative message and runs to the right of both candidates with that, he's going to stake some turf," he said.
But Daggett said that he's already expanding beyond his environmental cachet, offering up a highly specific education plan – he has a PhD on the subject – that drew significant press. He plans to start airing campaign advertisements soon.
"I think what will happen is as the campaign continues and people start to focus, they'll see we have a viable set of plans and that I have the experience that neither candidate has," he said.