Just over a week ago, I was ready to write a column criticizing Chris Daggett for not using the opportunity provided by his presence in the gubernatorial debates to address important issues and shape the tone of the campaign. That's what independent candidates are supposed to do, after all.
Then on September 29, Daggett laid down the gauntlet. He unveiled a fairly detailed plan to reduce property taxes — exactly the type of pledge voters say they are looking for. His proposal became the focal point of the televised debate two days later: which candidate has actually articulated a plan?
Now, the question remains. What impact will Daggett and his plan have on both the race governor and for New Jersey over the next four years?
Our polling suggests that even before the property tax plan, Daggett had started to siphon votes away from Chris Christie. Throughout the summer, Daggett consistently polled at 4 or 5 percent in the Monmouth/Gannett poll, but he drew his support nearly equally from would-be Corzine and Christie voters. However, in our latest poll — conducted largely before the independent's property tax plan was announced — Daggett's support stood at 8 percent. When those voters were asked who they would support between the two major party nominees only, Christie's slim 3 point margin in that poll increased to 6 points without Daggett.
It's unclear what subsequent impact Daggett's plan and solid debate performance will have on the race. Voters say want to hear a property tax plan and Daggett gave them one. But he also proposes to shift much of that burden onto an expanded sales tax base — as Chris Christie repeatedly pointed out in the debate. Voters tell us that they want to see real spending cuts rather than tax shifts — although they tend to balk when specific cuts are proposed.
My guess is that Daggett will get some credit — and votes — for at least acknowledging that New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation property tax burden is the number one issue on voters' minds. That's something the two major party candidates have been avoiding like the plague.
If the dynamic we saw in last week's Monmouth/Gannett poll holds up, we could hypothesize that every percentage point Daggett registers above 5 percent in the final tally will be, more or less, a point taken away from Christie.
The challenge for Christie is how he keeps Daggett from drawing off his support. The Republican is really backed into a corner here — a corner of his own making, to be sure. If he criticizes Daggett's plan, he runs the risk of elevating Daggett's profile and legitimizing him with some fence-sitting voters who might ask why the Republican doesn't have a plan if the independent can come up with one. On the other hand, if Christie unveils his own plan at this late stage of the campaign, he runs the risk of being seen as making a cynical ploy to salvage his campaign. Christie's least damaging option at this point is to ignore it and hope the Daggett plan gets shot down from other quarters.
The Republican is certainly not going to get any help from Jon Corzine in that regard. In Thursday's debate, the incumbent welcomed Daggett's presence in the race, noting that one candidate (Daggett) has a plan, one candidate (himself) has a record and a plan, and the other candidate (Christie) has neither.
The Corzine team understands that Chris Daggett's gain is Chris Christie's loss. But it's unlikely that Daggett can win this thing outright. To have a realistic shot, an independent needs to enter a statewide race here with both star-power and a formidable war chest. Daggett has neither.
Then the question becomes whether Daggett will be a "spoiler" in this race. The answer to that is a little more complex. Yes, it appears that Daggett is pulling his support more from one candidate than another. If that movement becomes a trend and Daggett makes it into double-digits on election day, Corzine may squeak by Christie with just 40 percent of the vote.
Make no mistake, though. A double digit showing by an independent in New Jersey would be unprecedented. The most likely scenario is that — due to last minute concerns about wasting a vote and difficulty finding his name on the ballot — Daggett will do no better or perhaps even a point or two lower than his final pre-election poll showing, leaving Corzine and Christie to pick up the remaining undecided voters.
What then of the Daggett plan? Will the winning candidate invite Daggett to advise him on how to reduce property taxes? Will he feel compelled to come up with his own plan once in (or returned to) office?
The sad fact is, that despite the momentary excitement generated by Daggett's plan, it probably won't have much of an impact on the next four years. Regardless of who wins the election, you can probably write the following epitaph: "The Promise of Property Tax Relief: Born 9/29/09. Died 11/03/09."
Patrick Murray, Camden County native, is the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.