GOP Candidate Campaigns on Obama's Slogan

In a recent Politico interview, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine called President Barack Obama, “a considerable plus,” and, “a significant asset” to his campaign.  On both scores, his Republican challenger, former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Christopher Christie, would likely agree.

Christie has been employing an unusual strategy in the governor’s race that has the potential to pay big dividends for his campaign. Rather than run from the popular president of the opposition party, Christie has embraced Obama, and has claimed his successful campaign theme of  “Change” as his own.

In July, Obama paid his only visit to New Jersey thus far to campaign and raise money for Corzine. Vice-president Joseph Biden has made at least two such trips.  The Christie campaign did not lay low during the president’s visit, however.  It met the president head on, releasing a web video the day before he arrived featuring Christie welcoming Obama to New Jersey, and identifying himself with the president as an agent of change.

“Now last year when you ran for president,” Christie says to Obama in the video,  “your campaign gave people great hope that change could come to America.  And people voted for that change.  But you know, your election didn’t end people’s hunger for change here in New Jersey.  They know that to get the change we need here in New Jersey, we have to start by changing governors.”

In case it isn’t immediately clear, there are five uses of the word or theme of “change” in those four sentences.  And there are indications that as the campaign gets closer to Election Day, Christie will be using the theme more and more.

Christie kicked off the post-Labor Day campaign last Wednesday with a major policy address, the first of his candidacy.  The speech was titled, “Countdown to Change.”  

The campaign preceded that speech on Tuesday with the opening of its new campaign headquarters, located in a very symbolic place.  The campaign announced the opening in a Twitter update, making note of the no-doubt deliberate irony.  “[E]n route to Newark to open Victory 2009 HQ with [running mate] Sheriff Kim [Guadagno],” the update read.  “It’s the old Barack Obama HQ near the NJPAC."

And in all of its recent press releases, the campaign has included the number of days to Election Day under the heading “Countdown to Change.”

The strategy appears to be paying off.  Recent polls show Christie maintaining a high single-digits lead over Corzine.  The last three independent polls in the governor’s race have shown Christie holding leads of ten, eight, and eight points respectively.  Although those numbers are down from Christie’s high of fifteen points in mid-July — ironically reached in polls immediately following Obama’s visit — they indicate that the race has settled down after a tumultuous summer, and Christie’s lead has solidified.

Christie’s unusual strategy works in New Jersey for a number of reasons, chief among these being the Garden State’s sluggish economy. New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation, is ranked as the worst state in the nation for business, and has the highest unemployment rate in the Northeast. Christie has been hammering Corzine on these dubious honors, saying that they demonstrate Corzine’s failures as governor and highlight the need for change.   

Furthermore, the message is particularly tuned to appeal to New Jersey’s famously independent electorate.  More than half of New Jersey voters are not affiliated with either political party. Independents made up one quarter of the electorate in 2008, according to CNN’s exit poll, and Obama won these voters 51-47 percent.  

Independents will likely make up a larger share of voters in 2009 without Obama at the top of the ticket to help drive Democratic turnout. They represent a treasure trove of potential votes for Christie, who holds a 20-point advantage over Corzine in the critical demographic in the latest poll. Christie’s adoption of Obama’s campaign rhetoric is a direct appeal to these voters.
Republicans are looking to gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia to kick off what the party hopes will be significant gains nationally in 2010. Not all Republicans running next year will be able to exactly duplicate Christie’s strategy of using Obama’s theme against their Democratic opponents, due to the particular demographics of their individual states and districts.  

But if the economy continues to be sluggish — despite the Obama administration’s insistence that it is improving — and if the administration continues its push to enact far-left liberal and unpopular policies like health care reform and cap and trade, other Republican candidates may look to New Jersey for a handy, if unconventional, way to turn their opponents’ highest-profile supporter into a significant asset of their own.