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What to Look for in the New Jersey Election

The race for New Jersey governor has been one of the most volatile I have witnessed. Where some observers see momentum, I see unpredictability. Here’s my breakdown of the key factors in the race.

Undecided Voters
In an incumbent election, the undecided vote will break for the challenger, or so the theory goes. The question in this race is which challenger. A focus group I conducted with undecided voters last week indicates that their willingness to vote for Chris Daggett rests upon his viability.

One participant even said that he would look at the polls on Monday and if Daggett was polling in the 20s, he would vote for him. Well, if he saw the latest Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll (Nov. 2, 2009) today, he probably will decide to go with Christie.

There are certainly enough voters still undecided in the final days – between 6 and 8 percent – to determine the outcome.

Who’s Got the Big Mo?
Here are the comparisons for each candidate’s share of the vote among seven polling organizations who issued at least three polls between the beginning of October and today:
Christie – 43, 39, 43, 41 (variance=4); Corzine – 40, 39, 42, 43 (variance=4); Daggett – 8, 14, 8, 8 (variance=6)
Christie – 43, 41, 38, 42 (variance=5); Corzine – 39, 40, 43, 40 (variance=4); Daggett – 12, 14, 13, 12 (variance=2)
FDU/Public Mind:
Christie – 43, 43, 41 (variance=2); Corzine – 44, 44, 43 (variance=1); Daggett – 4, 6, 8 (variance=4)
Survey USA:
Christie – 40, 41, 43, 45 (variance=5); Corzine – 39, 39, 43, 42 (variance=4); Daggett – 18, 19, 11, 10 (variance=9)
Christie – 47, 45, 41, 46, 46 (variance=6); Corzine – 44, 41, 39, 43, 43 (variance=5); Daggett – 6, 9, 11, 7, 8 (variance=5)
Democracy Corps:
Christie – 38, 39, 38, 36 (variance=3); Corzine – 41, 42, 43, 41 (variance=2); Daggett – 14, 13, 12, 14 (variance=2)
Christie – 40, 42, 47 (variance=7); Corzine – 39, 38, 41 (variance=3); Daggett – 13, 13, 11 (variance=2)

For those who claim any candidate has momentum, these apples-to-apples results indicate there is no clear trend. If you look at the differences between each of these organization’s initial October results and their final numbers you find that Christie’s vote share actually went down among 5 pollsters and up for 2; Corzine’s vote share went up for 4, down for 2, and stayed the same for one; and Daggett’s vote share went up for 2, down for 3, and stayed the same for 4.

There seems to be more churning in this electorate than momentum (as I discussed here). That is, some voters seem to be moving from one position to another almost daily, but never in the same direction. It’s kind of like a game of three dimensional chess.

Vote by Mail
Another wild card in this race is the state’s new vote by mail option. It didn’t matter much in last year’s presidential race when Obama won the state by 15 points. It could matter in a tight race like this one.

According to our last poll, about 6% of New Jersey voters have already cast their ballot by mail, similar to the percentage of mail ballots received in last year’s presidential race. Among these early voters, Jon Corzine looks to have the decided advantage. A majority of 53% of mail voters say they voted for the incumbent, compared to just 31% for Christie, 11% for Daggett and 5% for other candidates.

Assuming turnout will be about 48% of all registered voters, we should count on about 150,000 mail ballots in the final total. Assuming the vote share we found in our poll holds up (these results had a +/-8% margin of error), that could mean a 30,000 vote plurality for Corzine on the mail ballots alone.

It’s All About County Level Turnout
By now, we all know that President Obama’s repeated trips to New Jersey have not been to sway undecided voters. They have been made to buck up a Democratic base that is not too keen on the incumbent governor. Given his admitted admiration for Ronald Reagan’s political skills, I’m almost surprised that Obama did not refer to himself as the Gipper in his Garden State stump speeches. His message to core Democrats is that regardless of what you think of the governor, it’s going to hurt the president’s agenda if Corzine loses. So go to the polls, close your eyes and pretend the ballot says Barack Obama rather than Jon Corzine.

And here’s why that is important. In 2005, Jon Corzine beat Doug Forrester with a 239,000 vote plurality, and just three counties – Essex, Hudson, and Camden – accounted for 75% (or 179,000 votes) of the Democrat’s winning margin. When Jim Florio narrowly lost his re-election bid to Christie Whitman in 1993, he only mustered a 105,000 vote plurality from those three counties. [That’s just in case you were wondering why Obama’s two stops yesterday were in Camden and Newark].

Bergen County is considered critical for Chris Christie. No Republican has won statewide without taking New Jersey’s most populous county. Whitman averaged a 23,000 vote plurality here in her two runs for governor. But the Democratic nominee has taken it by about 50,000 votes in the last two gubernatorial races. Corzine was taking no chances when he chose Bergen’s Loretta Weinberg as his running mate.

Even if Christie can edge Corzine in Bergen, he still needs to perform well in his base – and that means northwest Jersey (Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, Warren) and the northern shore (Monmouth, Ocean). Whitman averaged a 103,000 plurality in the northwest in her two runs, but that GOP advantage dropped to an average 53,000 votes in the last two gubernatorial elections.

The northern shore has been even less predictable. These voters gave Whitman a 34,000 plurality in her 1993 run and increased it to 58,000 for her re-election. In 2001, they actually went for Democrat Jim McGreevey by 9,000 votes, before returning to form in 2005 with a 38,000 vote plurality for Doug Forrester. The pick of Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno for lieutenant governor was made in part to shore up (pun intended) Christie’s support in this region.

Another area worth watching is the Route 1 corridor counties (Mercer, Middlesex, Union), especially Middlesex. Corzine won Middlesex by 32,000 votes in 2005. Florio only won it by 1,300 votes in 1993. Voters in this region tend to be independent minded but vote Democratic in most elections. Polling indicates that Corzine is performing nowhere near as well in this region as he did four years ago. [In the past month, both Joe Biden and Bill Clinton have held rallies in Middlesex County.] While all regions of the state have their part to play in this race, this is the one I’m keeping my eye on to tell which way the wind is blowing.

The Open Space Bond
The key unknown for this public question is whether voters pick up on the word ‘debt” buried in the ballot’s question text. (It’s in there somewhere.) Our poll found that only one-third of voters know that “bond” means “borrowing.” And when they find that out – we told them in the poll – support plummets from a bare majority of 51% down to 30%. How closely voters read the ballot may determine the outcome of this question. If defeated, it will be the first time an open space bond has gone down in New Jersey. Garden State voters have approved 12 such bond measures since 1961.

Home-Grown Exit Poll Analysis
I’ll be spending Election Day at NJN studios in Trenton. The Monmouth University Polling Institute has joined together with NJN News and the Gannett New Jersey newspaper group to provide our own analysis of the official National Election Pool exit poll conducted by Edison Research.

This year, you’ll be able to find out who voted, how they voted, and why they voted from a distinctly New Jersey point of view. I will be posting exit poll updates on this blog, so check back frequently during the night.

NJN’s live television coverage begins at 8 p.m. (I’ll also do an exit poll preview on the evening newscast). Stories about the exit poll results will also appear on Gannett New Jersey Web sites Tuesday evening and in print Wednesday (Asbury Park Press, Courier-Post, Courier News, Daily Journal, Daily Record, and Home News Tribune).