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Electorate was out to boot incumbent

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Courier-Post.

The conventional wisdom is that you just can’t beat a superior bankroll. That might have proven true for the Phillies, but it certainly wasn’t the case for Chris Christie.

A very disgruntled Garden State electorate came out to vote on Tuesday. In the last Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll taken before the election, only 36 percent of voters said they approved of the job Jon Corzine has done as governor. You just can’t win re-election with numbers that low, even if you outspend your opponent by $20 million.

Most pre-election polls showed the race to be tight right up to the final days. So why couldn’t Chris Christie seal the deal earlier against such an unpopular incumbent? Well, mainly because voters aren’t thrilled with any politicians right now.

The New Jersey exit poll showed that about half of those who voted on Tuesday had a negative opinion of both Corzine and Christie, including 39 percent who felt strongly unfavorable toward the Democrat and 30 percent who felt strongly unfavorable toward the Republican. Only about 1-in-5 felt strongly favorable toward either candidate, which means that many voters cast their ballots for a candidate they weren’t particularly thrilled with.

I held a focus group with undecided voters the week before the election that underlined this point. When these voters were asked which member of their family each candidate would be, Corzine was described as a rich uncle you rarely see and Christie was seen as an annoying brother-in-law. Tellingly, these voters said they really wouldn’t want either guy as part of their family.

The bottom line is that voters are fed up with partisan politics in general. Christie got the job for the next four years simply because he wasn’t the incumbent. His main campaign message was that New Jersey needed change. That made sense. According to the exit poll, the number one quality voters wanted in a governor was someone who could bring about change. But something was missing.

In last year’s presidential race, voters chose to go with “hope and change.” This year, New Jerseyans were simply desperate for change. The hope is gone. It has been replaced by frustration and insecurity.

I found it interesting that Chris Christie used the word “hope” very few times in his victory speech Tuesday night. Hopefulness was overwhelmed by an aggressive urgency, culminating in the victor’s promise to turn Trenton upside down. Perhaps the time for hope is past. Perhaps we need someone who’s willing to bang some heads together.

Corzine lost on Tuesday not just because of the job he has done over the past four years, although proposing a huge toll hike in order to reduce state debt didn’t particularly endear him to the state. In fact, it was the single most important factor behind his negative job ratings and one of the key reasons he did so poorly among voters in Central Jersey and the Delaware Valley.

Voters ultimately rejected Corzine because he failed to adequately address 15 years of declining trust in state government and an ever-growing tax burden. It may have been that his CEO approach was not up to the job. It may be that the task itself is impossible. Regardless, voters decided they would be better off with a corruption-busting prosecutor in charge of righting the ship.

New Jerseyans may have been short on hope when they went out to vote on Tuesday. But they were certainly ready for a change.