Polls are quintessential good news-bad news documents.
The good news for Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie in this week's Quinnipiac University survey is that he's nine points up on Gov. Jon Corzine in the horse race element; he remains above 50 percent support, and the number who view him in a favorable light remains very high.
The bad news is that independent candidate Chris Daggett is siphoning votes away from Christie, leaving him with a six-point lead when Daggett is in the mix. Additionally, the poll shows that Democrats — despite their grousing and grumbling about Corzine — are coming home and the governor's party support is now at 83 percent only a few points below where it should be and probably by November will be.
The good news for Corzine — in addition to his surge in party support — is that in the three-way race, he trails by single digits, and that voters don't blame him for the political corruption scandals of recent weeks. The bad news is that he's still kicking around in the low forties; he's closed the gap only because of Daggett's presence in the race, and his job approval ratings remains badly out of balance in the negative.It's clear, even at this relatively early stage that the fiercest battle will be over the hearts, minds and support of the state's 2.5 million unaffiliated voters.
The Daggett factor is worrisome for Christie. The poll reveals that the independent's support is coming from Republicans and some independents, rather than from any significant number of disaffected Democrats. If Christie loses even minimal party support to Daggett, it will produce an urgent need for him to win over an even larger share of the unaffiliateds.
Whether Daggett possesses any staying power is problematic. He received seven percent in the Quinnipiac survey, even though nine in 10 respondents conceded they knew practically nothing about him. If Daggett reaches double digit territory in subsequent polls, concern will deepen in the Christie campaign.
It's likely that the Christie campaign will undertake a quiet, but intense, effort to convince voters that a vote for Daggett is a wasted gesture which will ultimately benefit Corzine.
Now that Corzine has apparently succeeded in halting the free fall in his party support and shored up his numbers, he will be free to mount an aggressive effort to secure as big a chunk of the unaffiliated voters as he can.
His recent emphasis on imposing more stringent controls on firearms purchases, banning some weapons altogether, and enhancing law enforcement's ability to trace guns used in crimes is a highly visible step toward drawing a larger segment of the unaffiliated voting bloc which tends toward moderation and, in the case of gun control, tilts to the left.
It's a low risk-high reward strategy. His stance will not send firearms advocates fleeing to Christie — for the most part, they're already there — and it will play well with moderate voters.
A similar tactic was employed in 1993 by then-Gov. Jim Florio who, in the final weeks of the campaign, saturated television screens with graphic images of automatic weapons spitting hundreds of rounds of slugs into everything from watermelons to cinder blocks, exploding them in jarring violence while ominously warning that he took such weapons off the streets but that Republican Christie Whitman would relax or overturn the ban.
Fear-mongering or not, it had the desired effect. He narrowed the gap to one point, but the $2.8 billion tax increase he signed into law in 1990 was too much for him to overcome.
Corzine, of course, has his own difficulties with fiscal issues and it remains his most basic task to convince voters that he can grapple with and resolve them more effectively than Christie can.
While fear of getting caught in the crossfire of gang warfare with the combatants armed with military style weaponry is very real, personal economics (read, uncontrolled property taxes), remains in the forefront of issues of greatest concern to voters.
Christie has pledged to ease the tax burden, bring greater restraint to government spending, promote job creation and spur heightened economic growth, but has provided scant details about how he'd pull all of it together.
Corzine can point to a record of multi-billion dollar budget cuts, reductions in the public employee workforce, and imposition of a cap on increases in local property taxes. He'll be forced to defend that record against criticisms that it's all fiscal sleight-of-hand, that the savings to the taxpayer exist only in some government accountant's computer, and that he's shown he's not up to the challenge of commanding a tight financial ship.
As all campaigns do, the race will tighten with time, suggesting that Christie's August lead of nine points or six points will suffer some shrinkage. Daggett's continued presence in the race, along with his participation in the officially sanctioned debates, will have an impact likely at Christie's expense while Corzine will be forced to continue to pay close attention to his party's base to guard against any erosion there.
It looks to be a few percentage point margin of victory with the winner quite possibly taking office with less than 50 percent of the vote. It's precisely the kind of campaign that continues to fascinate us all.
Carl Golden served as press secretary for Govs. Kean and Whitman.