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Candidate Buono’s Legacy

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Sometimes you can win by losing.  The 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial election is not one of those times.

By all accounts, Barbara Buono will suffer a significant defeat on Tuesday.  The writing was on the cards from the very beginning.  For a whole host of reasons – the post-Sandy inevitability of Chris Christie’s re-election, Buono’s standing as an outsider in the state party, etc. – the Democratic establishment was never going to throw resources into this race.

With this in mind, Buono should have realized that her best shot was to run an “agenda” campaign.  This is not to be confused with what Buono actually did – try to tackle every issue under the sun.

Her approach to an agenda was encapsulated by her debate performances.  She spoke in shorthand and tried to cram multiple issues into each of her responses.  This left viewers – and voters – confused about what she would do as governor.

Her responses also gave Chris Christie a range of options on how to “rebut” her.  He invariably chose the fattest pitch offered up by Buono and slammed it out of the park.

In its endorsement of Christie’s reelection, the Star-Ledger editorial board summed up their decision by saying, “Buono simply did not make the case.”

Buono spent the past years highlighting at issues which independent swing voters – consider second or third tier priorities.  Or issues which are really non-issues (e.g. same-sex marriage has been decided by the courts and the minimum wage will be decided by the voters).

Knowing that she would lose, Buono could have done more in terms of leaving a legacy by putting an item that has been ignored onto the state’s political agenda.

Political leaders rarely, if ever, change the public’s mind on an issue.  But they can incite the public to demand action from their elected officials on important issues that have been percolating below the surface.

Other losing candidates have done this with varying degrees of success.  Jim McGreevey’s bid to unseat Christie Whitman in 1997 is one such example.  Regardless of the question he was asked by a reporter or voter during that campaign, McGreevey turned every answer into an unwavering call for auto insurance reform.  Suddenly, auto insurance was the top issue on voters’ minds.

Property tax reform is another issue put on the state agenda by a candidate in a losing effort.  Contrary to popular belief, “property taxes” has not always been at the top of voters’ minds as the state’s most pressing problem (as the chart here illustrates).

That didn’t happen until 2005.  During that year’s gubernatorial race, Republican Doug Forrester made “40 in 4” the centerpiece of his campaign.  In other words, he promised to cut property taxes by 40 percent in four years.  Democrat Jon Corzine was forced to respond with his own “30 in 3” plan.

Property taxes then jumped to the top of the list of issues that New Jerseyans said concerned them most.  And it stayed there.  Forrester put an important issue on the public agenda.

Once elected, Gov. Corzine called a special session of the legislature specifically to come up with bold ideas to bring down property taxes.  Unfortunately, he pulled the rug out from under the legislature and decided to put all his eggs into a toll road monetization basket instead.  And the rest, as MF Global investors know all too well, is history.

In 2009, independent candidate Chris Daggett tried to take the “win while losing” approach.  The unveiling of his bold property tax plan led to a momentary spike in the polls for Daggett.  However, his message got lost in the anti-Corzine sentiment that brought a new governor into office.  This allowed candidate Christie to avoid addressing the issue in his campaign, and the most we got in policy reform from Gov. Christie is a cap on annual growth.

Concerns about property taxes have not gone away though.  Even in the depths of the recent economic recession, it remained in the top spot or tied for number one among issues the public wanted to see addressed.  Even Superstorm Sandy couldn’t knock property taxes as the issue that most concerns New Jersey.

Polls have shown that Gov. Christie has been able to escape most of the blame for the ongoing property tax problem, but that it remains a potential Achilles’ heel for him.  The governor realizes this as well, as his ferocious reaction to a recent NJ League of Municipalities proposal demonstrates.

The right message and the right messenger could have put this issue – or indeed any other single priority issue – on the campaign’s front-burner.  This “agenda setting” approach could have changed the entire dynamic of this race and indeed the governing priorities of the next few years.

Unfortunately for New Jersey, 2013 lacked both the message and the messenger.

Unfortunately for Barbara Buono, who has served admirably as a public servant, this will be her campaign’s legacy.