It’s understandable that the Republican Party is pointing to New Jersey and Virginia and concluding that it means the tide is turning and that there will major changes in Congress in 2010. But, at least today, they are at best wrong and at worst arrogant.
There is, of course, the Democratic victory in upstate New York, however, that is not the reason why significant movement in 2010 is not a lock for the GOP. If people were voting against something on November 3rd, they may a year later, want also to be voting for something. Republicans have time to create an action agenda. Unless conditions worsen, they will have to do that.
The biggest misread of November 3rd has to do with the election of Republican Chris Christie. Anytime an incumbent loses, in this case, Jon Corzine, much of the reason has to do with the incumbent’s performance or perceptions of the incumbent. Christie won in part because of how hard he ran and how smartly he ran. His image was more moderate than conservative. For those outside New Jersey you need to know he did not wear social conservatism on his sleeve. Social issues were a not a factor in the New Jersey Governor’s race. His focus was on fiscal conservatism, jobs and Jon Corzine. This was not, except for some motivated Republicans, a referendum on Barack Obama. Exit polling shows most voters approve of President Obama’s handling of the economy.
The main reason Corzine lost is Jon Corzine. In 4 years as governor, he failed to emotionally connect with voters and he failed to tell them of the good things he has done, or, at least the actions that they would approve of. This failure is primarily a function of his personality and management style. He is a businessman who I believe failed to realize the public component of being an elected official. I base this in part on his public work schedule and his campaign schedule. It was light to moderate at best. I believe Corzine was working, but you’d have to try really hard sometimes to see it in a state that New York and Philadelphia media don’t cover. He also rejected some overtures by free media for interviews during the campaign. Retail politics still matter in New Jersey, especially when the going gets tough.
In the absence of knowing what Corzine stands for and what he has done, Christie was successful in getting enough voters to believe the greatest economic national downturn in 80 years and the state’s high taxes were Corzine’s fault. The Goldman Sachs resume probably didn’t help Corzine. And, this brings in the 2nd main reason Jon Corzine lost: the voters.
In the greatest recession since the depression, with unemployment near 10-percent, with a controversial President and two controversial wars, preliminary figures show only about 45-percent of New Jerseyans voted in the November 3rd election. Republicans and Republican-leaning voters appear to have turned out a little more and despite the Democratic edge, Democrats did not. (In New Jersey, the largest block of registered voters is “unaffiliated.”) The Obama turnout never materialized. And this is the lesson both parties have to learn. Why did solid Democrats not turn out in higher numbers? Why did the unaffiliated lean right? The GOP will say because the Democrats are being rejected, but the numbers are not so overwhelming as to suggest that as a big wave. Turnout in vote total was only slightly higher overall than 4 years ago (less than 1-percent) and that year an earnest but bland candidate, Doug Forrester, was trying to defeat Corzine. This year, Corzine lost by only around 100,000 votes, or less than 2 –percent of the total number of registered voters in the state.
Jon Corzine failed to define who he was because it appears he thought it was obvious. He also got some bad advice. The tv ad attacking Chris Christie’s weight backfired. Corzine failed to define Christie, except for momentarily when it appeared Christie might lose women voters over the issue of a mammogram mandate in health care insurance. Corzine failed to connect the terrible economy with Republican policies. Christie successfully tied the terrible economy to Corzine.
And then there was Independent Chris Daggett. Daggett probably changed the outcome of the election, despite what most pundits will tell you. He did so in 2 ways. One, by getting a few percentage points. He took most of those from one of the two candidates. (Some would have not voted or would have voted for another third party.) Much of Daggett’s core support came from the Sierra Club and other environmentalists. They usually vote Democratic. Put that together with what I consider flawed polling or reporting of polling and Daggett had an effect. Pollsters weeks before the election began reporting that Daggett had climbed to 15 to 20-percent of the likely vote. Though they reported a dwindling of that in recent days, they had done a disservice. They and the media should have known that 10 to 15 of those points were soft and reported it as such. Chris Daggett was a good candidate and would have been an interesting, maybe even good governor, but if you know New Jersey, you know that 20-percent was a myth and in a low to moderate turnout election the revolution needed for that to happen cannot happen. But with that number reported and repeated, the campaign dynamic changed. It is reasonable to conclude that Christie still might have won had the polling or the reporting been different, but it would have been closer.
In the end, the blame goes not primarily on Daggett, or on President Obama, or even the economy (that’s true but too simplistic.) And, the credit goes only partly to Chris Christie. Democrats are divided, have lost some motivation and Republicans are finding footing, though not the firmness yet that they claim. The big factor, the blame rests with Jon Corzine. I asked him once a few years ago why he wanted to leave the U.S. Senate and be governor. He candidly said because his “skill set” better fit the executive roll. I think he was telling the truth, but what Corzine and many Democrats don’t get is that if you are perceived as aloof or arrogant, you will more likely than not fail. The public wants to like its leaders, especially in hard times. It wants to know that their leaders get it. Jon Corzine probably believes he does get it and that he did the best someone could do in these times, with the cards handed him and looking long term. If so, it must be tough dealing with a result that concluded that either he doesn’t get it or that so many people are ill-informed. Tough, that is, unless you are arrogant or aloof.