Ben Dworkin Analyzes the Recent Gubernatorial Race

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Election Day on November 3 saw the conclusion of one of the fiercest, most unpredictable and expensive gubernatorial races in New Jersey history. In the end, Republican Chris Christie, a former U.S. Attorney, defeated his Democratic opponent, incumbent Gov. Jon S. Corzine, by a margin of 49 percent to 45 percent. Independent Chris Daggett, who just weeks before the election was polling at approximately 20 percent, ultimately figured little in the result, drawing just 6 percent of votes cast, but nevertheless added an interesting dimension to the campaign.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, shares his analysis of Election Day and its consequences for all New Jersey voters in an informative Q&A. Dworkin, whose insights appeared almost daily in local, regional and national newspapers in the weeks leading up to the election, brought all three major candidates to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus over the course of one week in September, proving that the road to Trenton ran through Rider University.

Dworkin, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Rutgers University, earned a Master of Arts in Political Science from Rutgers and its Eagleton Institute of Politics and a Bachelor of Arts in Politics from Princeton University. He was installed as the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics in July 2008.

Q: Other than the obvious – who would become our next governor – what did we learn about New Jersey on Election Day?

A: We learned a few things with this election. First, money isn’t everything. It helps a whole lot – Corzine would not have come back from 15 points down in three months without spending what he did on Philadelphia and New York network television – but simply spending more does not guarantee success.

Second, despite his own high favorability in the state, President Barack Obama is unable to make an unpopular candidate popular. No matter how many times he put his arm around Corzine, the governor remained at about 40 percent approval. 

Third, we learned there is an organic undercurrent among the voting public that desires change with fiscal restraint. We saw these people at the town hall meetings hosted by members of Congress over the summer. Many of them came out to vote on Election Day, especially in the “Jersey Shore” areas. 

Q: By Election Day, some pundits had Corzine, buoyed by a strong Get Out the Vote effort, winning by anywhere from a very slim margin to 5 or 6 percent. Why didn’t anyone see this coming?

A: Actually, Corzine only led in a handful of public polls, and rarely outside of the 3 to 4 percent margin of error. What was surprising was the size of Christie’s victory. No one expected 100,000 votes to separate the two major candidates. Most observers – including myself – predicted a much closer race.

Whenever you take a poll, you assume a certain number of Democrats, Republicans, independents and unaffiliated voters will come out. I think most pollsters assumed that the turnout levels of Democrats would be higher than they actually were, and the turnout levels of Republicans and unaffiliated voters would be lower than they actually were. That is probably why so many of the polls were so far off. 

Q: Besides Governor-elect Chris Christie, who else won On November 3?

A: The Republican Party won as well. In New Jersey, for Republicans, this is only the third statewide victory out of 19 statewide contests (president, U.S. Senate, governor) in 20 years. In fact it is the first statewide GOP win in the last 12 years. Having the governor’s seat will be a huge help in statewide fundraising, organizing, etc.

Nationally, the Republican Party will use the gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey to recruit better candidates for Congress and to raise more money. It doesn’t matter that the race here in New Jersey was not about national issues and was instead driven by an unpopular incumbent and a fiscal situation that has made “affordability” a primary concern among voters. Christie’s win will have national implications, but not by design, just by interpretation.

Q: Who else lost?

A: State worker unions and the New Jersey Education Association worked tirelessly for Corzine, largely because Christie seemed so antagonistic towards their concerns. Now that Christie has won, we can expect some very tough battles on layoffs, pensions, health care and school vouchers.

The New Jersey Democratic Party will no longer be able to rely on Corzine’s help in funding campaigns, and has lost its titular leader. There will be several regional “chiefs” seeking a chance to lead, and the whole scene may get pretty confusing for a while.

Q: Is there a place for Chris Daggett in a Christie administration? If not, does he have a political future?

A: I seriously doubt that Daggett will get any job in a Christie administration. From their perspective, he was a spoiler who nearly destroyed their campaign. Daggett has shown no inclination to lead a statewide organizing effort on behalf of an independent third party. I expect him to go back to the private sector.

Q: Chris Christie was very non-specific about what he planned to do if elected governor. How long will it be before his plan starts to crystallize? Will he be able to effect any real change with a Democratic state legislature?

A: In the first two months of 2010, Christie will have to start presenting the details of his budget proposal. He has said that “everything is on the table” and his transition team has, rather predictably, noted publicly that things are “worse than we expected,” but every new governor says that.

Christie has indicated that he will operate as if he is a one-term governor, and therefore will be able to make the tough decisions without regard to re-election. He has also said he would use the “bully pulpit” to rally the public against intransigent legislators. It will be fascinating to see if he really does this, despite all of the political drawbacks. If he does, he has a chance to alter the equation in Trenton, and thereby find a way to enact significant changes. The first two years will be critical to his overall success.

Q: What will you remember most about this campaign?

A: The counties of Monmouth and Ocean make up the bulk of what is frequently called “the Jersey Shore.” Typically, these areas each give the Republican candidate about 25,000-vote pluralities each. This year, many people expected them to generate 35,000-vote pluralities. In the end, Monmouth produced a 65,000-vote plurality and Ocean produced a 70,000-vote plurality. These are astronomical numbers that were completely unexpected. These results will force campaign strategists to throw out all of the old models. That was really the most fascinating part of this election. 

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Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics