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Corruption and the Governor’s Race

It’s been more than a week since New Jersey’s political world was once again rocked by a series of high profile corruption busts – differentiated from past arrests only in scope and luridness. Aside from the usual garment-rending observations about how the Garden State can sink so low are questions about how this event will play out in the governor’s race. There are definitely both short-term and long term effects – but you have to do a little work to connect the dots.

The simplest and most direct consequence of these arrests would be if New Jersey voters expressed anger over ongoing corruption in the state by tossing out those in power on November 3rd. That’s a highly unlikely scenario. It didn’t happen after the previous 130+ arrests and convictions and it’s not going to happen now. That means no direct repercussions for this having occurred under Jon Corzine’s watch and no “extra credit” to Chris Christie for prosecuting most of those cases in the past eight years.

In a Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll (Jan. 16, 2009) released the week before the arrests, we found only 5% of likely voters who named corruption as one of the top considerations in their choice for governor. In a poll we are releasing tomorrow, that number has increased only slightly. Property taxes and the economy are still the overriding issues in this race.

That does not mean that the corruption busts are not having any impact on the governor’s race. In the short-term, this event serves to heighten the sense of malaise New Jersey voters feel about living in the state. This is just one more sign of “what’s wrong with New Jersey” – and that hurts Jon Corzine. (Admittedly, many of these problems are national in scope – but voters think locally.)

Barring any more revelations, however, these arrests will probably be off most voters’ radar screens after Labor Day. What Corzine has to worry about then is the long term impact.

By now, most followers of the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll and this blog know that Governor Corzine has a “base problem.” His support among key Democratic voter groups – urban residents, black and Hispanic voters, teachers, unions, state workers, etc. – is lukewarm at best. President Obama’s visit two weeks ago was supposed to change that. For the most part, it hasn’t (at least not yet – we’ll see what happens when Corzine starts using clips of the appearance in his ads).

Moreover, the governor has never generated a great deal of enthusiasm among local Democratic party operatives. These are the people who get out the vote on election day. If they don’t work to turn out voters, it could be a big problem for Jon Corzine. The primary election this past June is instructive of what could happen to Corzine in November.

A number of observers have pointed to the fact that Corzine only attained three-quarters of the primary vote as a sign of his electoral weakness – but focusing on the vote percentage misses the real story. The bigger problem for Corzine on primary day was that he only got 150,000 votes out of 200,000 cast. If the party organizations were really working that day, he should have gotten 200,000 votes out of 250,000 cast.

It’s unclear whether these party machines will be operating at full tilt on November 3. If they are, it’ll more likely be to assist local Democratic candidates than to support the governor. Many operatives are disgruntled with Corzine – for how he’s handled the current situation, for not picking an African-American as his running mate, and so on – and they might be reluctant to play ball on election day. However, it’s already clear that Corzine will have less organizational support on November 3 simply because of the operatives who are either out of commission or hobbled by these recent corruption arrests.

The conventional wisdom up to this point had been that Corzine could pull out a win despite his consistent deficit in the polls. The thinking was that Corzine’s copious ad buys would drive up Christie’s negatives at a time when the spending-limited Republican couldn’t mount a media counter-offensive. And thus turn this into a real horse race by the end of September.

That all changed with the arrests on July 23rd. Last week, three Washington, DC-based publications shifted their assessment of the New Jersey governor’s race to Chris Christie’s advantage. You can add this observer to that list.