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Obama to the rescue…maybe

Governor Corzine has been down in the polls all year, so he’s decided to call in the big gun. President Obama visits the Garden State tomorrow to stump for the country’s one and only Democratic state officeholder up for re-election this year.

So what exactly is Obama’s visit supposed to accomplish for our guv?

Well, looking beyond the fund-raising event (that’s a private affair), the public rally was originally hoped to provide a bit of a two-fer: shore up the Democratic base and swing some undecided independent voters.

Let’s take the second part first – swinging the independent vote. Obama came into office with extremely high ratings among independent voters, both in New Jersey and across the country. As recently as a month ago, he was probably the only political figure in the country who could bestow some of his support on other office holders. However, independents have gotten antsy about the pace – or lack – of economic recovery, and the president’s ratings have declined among this group.

Obama is still in net positive territory with independents, just not strong enough to give his fellow Democrats a boost on the campaign trail. In fact, there is some polling evidence he could even have the opposite effect. [FYI – A new Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll will be released tomorrow.]

Which leaves us with the real reason why the president is in town. Governor Corzine has a base problem. Democrats are not all that enthused about their man in the State House. The surprise of the June primary was not that three unknown candidates garnered 45,000 votes – that protest vote was always going to be there. No, the bigger issue for Corzine was that the party apparatus could only turn out 154,000 supporters for the incumbent. That’s an embarrassing showing even for a non-competitive primary.

The poll we are releasing tomorrow shows Corzine with relatively weak support among core Democratic voter groups – e.g. black and Hispanic voters, urban voters, state government employees, and especially teachers (I suppose yesterday’s NJEA endorsement came in the nick of time). Corzine and Christie are basically tied among non-public union voters. Not only is Corzine’s support soft among these groups, but our likely voter models indicate that a somewhat higher-than-normal proportion of Democratically-inclined voters may be thinking of sitting this race out.

Obama’s job tomorrow is to link Corzine’s fortunes to his own. In other words, Obama’s message to the Democratic base will be “If you don’t vote for Corzine, you’re dissing me.”

This could be a dangerous gambit for the president. Our poll indicates that the vast majority of Garden State voters do not see their vote for governor as any kind of referendum on the administration in Washington. Despite this empirical evidence, every media pundit and GOP operative will cast it as such if Corzine loses, even if the president never lifted a finger to aid the incumbent. The Obama folks realize that and have decided to put on a full-court press and make this race about the president.

It’s unclear, though, that this gambit will work with the typical suburban voter who has a high opinion of the president but a low one of the governor. A caller to Jim Gearhart’s radio show on New Jersey 101.5 Monday typifies the dynamic we’re seeing in the poll. The quote is not exact, but “Maggie” basically said, “I’m a lifelong Democrat and I love what President Obama has done. But I’m absolutely not going to vote for Corzine.”

Now, what Maggie said next is really telling: “I was going to vote for Christie. It would have left a bad taste in my mouth, but I was going to do it. But now with that independent candidate in the race, I’ll take a look at him.” Our polling indicates that Maggie is not alone – there are a number of Democratically-inclined voters who have absolutely ruled out a Corzine vote, but are not entirely comfortable voting Republican. If there were no other options on the menu, they would probably hold their nose and vote for Christie. But with independent Chris Daggett making some noise, these voters have another way to express their displeasure with the incumbent. If this race comes down to the wire, these voters will really matter.

Can Barack Obama win over voters like Maggie to Corzine’s side? Maybe, maybe not. To have a shot, tomorrow’s rally has to be a humdinger. There’s an expectation that the Governor will up the ante by introducing his lieutenant governor running mate tomorrow; and there is heavy speculation that it will be Randal Pinkett of “The Apprentice” fame.

That’ll certainly make news – perhaps too much news! Or a story that the Corzine folks can’t control. Will Obama be seen as bestowing his blessings on Corzine or on Pinkett? And given how the Corzine camp has handled the preparations for this rally, it’s easy to doubt that they really have a grip on this.

When the event was first announced, the Corzine folks allowed people to sign up online. More than 52,000 people received an email confirming their ticket. The problem was that the original venue – the lawn at Rutgers University – could only hold about 5,000. The campaign then moved the venue to the PNC Bank Arts Center, which holds about 17,000. That still means they had to rescind the invitations of at least 35,000 people!

My guess is that many, if not most, of those 35,000 disappointed people were voters just like Maggie. They like Obama, but are not so keen on Corzine. Now, after being cheated of their chance to see the president, they must really dislike Corzine! And considering that New Jersey has had a few gubernatorial contests in recent decades decided by fewer than 30,000 votes, I’m pretty sure that’s not the reaction the Corzine folks were going for.