Key Decision Makers Look Back at N.J.'s 2009 Gubernatorial Race

Friday, February 19, 2010

Political pundits from coast to coast had their eyes fixed on the results of New Jersey’s gubernatorial race in 2009, eager to analyze the results and find the proper perspective. Three months later, the smoke has cleared. Republican Chris Christie has assumed control of the state’s top office, and six of the election’s most influential advisers gathered at Rider University’s Lawrenceville campus on February 11 and 12 to discuss the behind-the-scenes tactics employed by each party to deliver victory for their candidate.

The second annual Campaign Managers Conference: Key Decision Makers Look Back at the 2009 New Jersey Gubernatorial Race, presented by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics of Rider University, featured pollsters, media and campaign strategists who explained their plans to court Garden State voters.

“In early 2009, we knew there were many challenges for a Republican candidate, but we also knew there were some opportunities,” said Adam Geller, the lead pollster for the campaign of Gov. Chris Christie, voicing what would be a prescient point of view nearly a year before Election Day. New Jersey had become a friendly environment for Democrats in statewide elections, Geller explained, but certain economic factors, as well as the winds of hope and change, were working against incumbents.

In spite of what once seemed long odds, Geller said the Christie campaign had positioned its candidate as the only clearly positive alternative to then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine, when another wide card emerged. “Just when we thought we had it all figured out, along came Chris Daggett,” he explained, referring to the independent candidate, who rode a quick if brief swell of support to become a factor late in the race.

The emergence of Daggett was just one of the compelling twists in the campaign, the inner workings of which were outlined and detailed by Geller, Republican strategist Mike DuHaime, who advised Christie, Democrat Maggie Moran, who orchestrated the Corzine’s run, Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien, Corzine field director Kevin Drennan and top Corzine media consultant Brad Lawrence.

Internal polling done by Democrats in January 2009 revealed that Corzine’s primary appeal lay in his experience and his financial expertise, according to Moran. But with the nationally economy falling deep into recession – a factor that only exacerbated the already dire fiscal landscape in New Jersey – Corzine’s campaign felt that those strengths were diminished and decided to paint Christie, the Republican challenger, as an archconservative out of step with the electorate on many issues.

“We had a case where President Obama was very popular, and we believed that would translate well to the incumbent,” Moran said. “Instead, we found that Obama’s popularity was very specific to him, but not necessarily transferrable. People identified with the president, but that had no impact in New Jersey, especially with independent voters.”

On the Christie side, the campaign team knew the facts: “Republicans almost never get 50 percent of the vote in this state, and Obama pummeled John McCain here in 2008,” explained DuHaime, who was also a top adviser to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in his 2008 presidential primary bid. “We knew that Corzine had an almost limitless amount of money to spend and that we would be badly outspent. Still, we said, ‘we can do this.’”

As it turned out, the Corzine campaign had set a $30 million budget for the race, according to Moran. “And this was after he had spent $60 million and $100 million on his two previous campaign for governor and the Senate,” she revealed. “I don’t know if spending more would have made a difference.”

Drennan said that while Christie had raced out to an early lead in the polls, the Corzine staff had managed to draw their candidate much closer by July. “Then July 23 happened,” he said, referencing the day that saw the arrests of 44 individuals, including a number of mayors and state legislators, in a sweeping corruption probe. “The wind came out of our sails after that.” Drennan said the campaign tried hard to reengage voters following the arrests, a majority of which involved Democrats, but the whole incident only served to underscore the importance of the tough-on-corruption and crime-fighting image Christie built as a U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

At the same time, Christie was also courting voting blocs not normally know for producing strong Republican support, in the state’s cities and on college campuses. “Newark was important to him,” said Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager, of the challenger, who was born in the state’s largest city. We spent a lot of time in places like Hudson County and Newark, real Democratic strongholds, convincing them this wasn’t the same old Republican Party.”

Heading into the homestretch, two more unforeseen factors emerged: the rising popularity of Daggett and an Internet video, produced by the Corzine campaign, that skewered Christie for his position on health care. It showed Christie, in a speech at Rider, being questioned by a woman whose young adult daughter faced insurance issues in her bout with breast cancer.

“Corzine had done a lot of good for people, but folks weren’t prepared to hear good news about the Corzine campaign because of the economy,” said Lawrence, the governor’s top media consultant. “So we needed to make the race a choice on key issues rather than a referendum on the incumbent. We tried to make the challenger an unacceptable alternative to voters.”

The video, which breathed life into the issue of mammogram coverage, took Corzine from being down 9 points in polls to a lead of 5. In response, DuHaime said that the Republican campaign staff debated vigorously whether to respond to the mammogram issue in an effort to halt Christie’s backward momentum.

“We felt, because of our polling research, that Corzine was a flawed messenger, but that people believed in Christie,” he said. “Many said not to respond, that we didn’t want to get dragged into a health care debate.”

DuHaime described the scene in the Christie family kitchen in Mendham, where he and other staffers sat with the candidate, who was taping a number of prospective ads and deliberating ways to respond. Suddenly inspired, DuHaime asked the camera man to roll tape and he asked Christie, “what do you really think about the mammogram ad?” The result became the Republican’s answer to the attack ads, and stemmed the bleeding in the polls. “It saved our campaign,” DuHaime conceded.

Later, when Daggett surged to more than 21 percent in one poll, buoyed, no doubt, by the endorsement of The Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, the Christie campaign once again had to respond to a challenge. “On about October 15, we saw that poll and said, ‘well, that’s too high. Let’s fix this,” DuHaime recalled of the Daggett threat. “We showed him for what he really was, rather than who voters hoped he was. For us, the problem was fixed with seven days, and we thought we might have even struck too fast.”

In the end, the desire for change among New Jersey voters swung in Christie’s favor as they abandoned the possibilities offered by Daggett and rejected the continuing policies of Corzine. Bolstered by record margins in Ocean and Monmouth counties, Christie defied very tight Election Day polling and easily trumped the incumbent. Rider’s Campaign Managers Conference gave many observers their first look behind the moved that made it happen.

The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University is dedicated to public service and scholarly analysis of government, public policy, campaigns and elections in New Jersey. The Campaign Managers Conference is co-sponsored by Campaigns & Elections’ Politics magazine. Generous support for The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Institute comes from the Hennessy Fund.

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