New Jersey Insurgent Fades

“The big question in New Jersey is whether [independent gubernatorial candidate Chris] Daggett will go all the way, as [Reform Party candidate] Jesse Ventura did [when he was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998], or whether he evaporates suddenly, the way other third party candidates do.  I tend to believe the latter.”

That’s what Michael Barone, father of the Almanac of American Politics and preeminent political analyst, told a pre-election forum at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this week.  None of the other two panelists — Norman Ornstein and David Frum of the AEI — disagreed.  By all accounts, the pivotal player in the twilight days of the New Jersey’s heated gubernatorial campaign is the 59-year-old Daggett, liberal Republican and onetime environmental protection commissioner under former liberal GOP Gov. (1981-89) Thomas Kean.  

Preaching a message of cultural liberalism, tax cuts (direct property tax credits of up to $2500 per homeowner), and a decidedly “green” stand on the environment, Daggett has been surging into double digits in the race between leftist Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and moderate-to-conservative Republican Chris Christie.

How Daggett performs next Tuesday will inarguably have an impact on national politics.  A victory by the insurgent candidate would be an upset in the order of Ventura’s body-slam a decade ago.  Coupled with a victory by Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in New York’s 23rd U.S. House race that day, the election an independent governor in the Garden State would make a strong case that voters are fed up with both major parties — and fuel talk of a national third party.

But should Daggett take enough votes from fellow Republican Christie to ensure the re-election of Corzine (who is in the political fight of his life after raising taxes and enhancing the hand of state government over the past four years), he would give Barack Obama and national Democrats an argument that the likely win of Republican Bob McDonnell in Virginia’s gubernatorial race is not a national trend.

Because polls show he is drawing support from voters in both parties, Daggett could also drain enough votes from Corzine to elect Christie — who, as Barone said and other analysts agreed last week, “has run a lousy campaign.”  The former U.S. Attorney has, according to the New York Times, “squandered a huge advantage in the polls by refusing to say how he would fix the state’s vexing problems, apparently miscalculating that his take-no-prisoners record as a corruption prosecutor would be enough against such a damaged incumbent.”  
So far, Christie has spent $5.4 million to $16.8 million for Corzine, most of it from the former Goldman-Sachs CEO’s own pocket.  Daggett, who accepts the matching funds provided by state tax dollars, has spent only about $1 million.

With five days to go before the balloting, it appears that Barone’s view of Daggett is coming true.  The resulting gain appears to Christie’s, the “lousy” campaign notwithstanding.

According to a just-completed Public Policy Polling survey, Christie has 42% of likely voters, Corzine 38%, and Daggett 13% (down from the 20% he was drawing in a number of polls following the first televised debate between the candidates two weeks ago.)  The same survey had given Christie a razor-thin lead of one percentage point only two weeks ago.

What appears to be happening to Daggett is what happened to George Wallace in 1968, Ross Perot in ’92, and other third party candidates: as the balloting gets closer, voters feel they will be wasting their votes on them and they head home to the traditional candidates.  Most significantly, PPP founded that the remaining supporters of the independent hopeful say by a 44% to 32% margin that their second choice would be Corzine.  Of those who still plan to vote for Daggett, the survey showed, 43% are Democrats and only 9% are Republicans.

Christie, by most accounts, may not have been the most dynamic candidate nor run the most inventive of campaigns.  Not by a long shot.  But it appears that the scenario of four more years of Corzine and the worry that such a scenario might be caused by Chris Daggett is leading reliable GOP voters back to their standard-bearer in the campaign’s final days.