Polls Show Volatile Race in New Jersey

Heading into the final weekend before Election Day, the major polls disagree wildly on the final outcome of the governor’s race in New Jersey, possibly presaging a late Election Night for both campaigns. Rasmussen Reports gives Republican challenger Christopher Christie a lead of three points, 46-43 percent, while Public Policy Polling says Christie’s advantage is four, 42-38.  Incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine holds a five-point advantage in a Quinnipiac University poll, 43-38 percent.

One reason cited for the disparity in the polling results is the campaign of independent Christopher Daggett, a former Republican.  Daggett has seen his support reach 20 percent in some surveys, but his share of the vote has been steadily declining, as is usually the case for independent candidates in New Jersey as Election Day approaches.  

Republican strategists are quietly optimistic that Daggett peaked two soon, and expect a majority of his supporters to end up pulling the lever for Christie on Tuesday.

In a letter to volunteers and supporters, Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien pointed to Christie’s lead among independents as a key metric that the campaign is using to assess its position heading into the final days of the campaign.

“This race is shaping up to be the close race we always expected,” Stepien wrote.  “Beyond the positive nature of being ahead in 2 of the 3 polls in the last 24 hours, the numbers show positive movement.  While [Christie] has been outspent by Corzine’s money machine…it hasn’t made a difference in the numbers.  Plus, [Christie’s] growth and sizeable lead among independent voters shows that those late deciders are breaking our way as we head down the stretch.”

Independents make up the largest share of New Jersey’s electorate, and the Quinnipiac poll found Christie leading Corzine among the all-important group by fifteen points, 45-30 percent.  

The Corzine campaign has not released an official statement on the polls, but instead has been focusing on rallying Democrats to turn out and vote for the governor.  The Corzine campaign has brought in President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton to stump for Corzine in the past week, with Obama slated to return for a final campaign push on Sunday, November 1.  Vice President Joseph Biden has also made a last minute appearance on Corzine’s behalf, as have several out-of-state House members and Obama Administration cabinet officials.

One reason for the parade of Democratic stars may be Corzine’s job approval ratings.  The one thing the polls seem to agree on is that New Jersey voters are not happy with Corzine’s performance.  Majorities in the Rasmussen and Quinnipiac surveys said they disapprove of the job Corzine has done.  Public Policy did not ask the question, but three in five respondents in that poll said that they have a negative view of Corzine personally.

Christie’s negative ratings have gone up as well, a result of the Corzine campaign’s relentless and negative advertising blitz that has been airing since August.  More respondents in two of the three polls say they have an unfavorable view of him now, and they are split evenly in the third survey.

Still, Christie’s negatives are not as high as Corzine’s, which could work to his advantage in wooing Daggett voters who may decide late to vote for one of the major party candidates.  Both campaigns can take solace in poll results among this small subset of the electorate.  When pressed, Daggett voters told Quinnipiac that Christie was their second choice by a margin of 43-27 percent.  But Daggett voters in the Public Policy poll said that Corzine was their second choice by a similar 44-32 margin.

Corzine’s position in the polls has improved dramatically from the double-digit deficits he experienced over the summer.  But that has been due mostly to Daggett’s rise, and not to a significant shift toward Corzine.  As the polls have grown closer, Corzine’s level of support has remained remarkably consistent, hovering in the low 40 percent range.  In seventeen polls taken during the month of October, Corzine received 40 percent or lower in ten of them, reaching 44 percent in only one.

With the polls so divergent, the election is likely to come down to turn out in key locations.  Corzine needs to roll up large margins in four Democratic strongholds to win:  Bergen, Hudson, Essex counties in the North, and Camden County in the south.  Christie’s vote centers are in the central and coastal counties of Middlesex, Monmouth, and Ocean.  Because there are fewer registered Republicans than Democrats in New Jersey, Christie also needs to hold his lead among independents and realize a significant victory margin among late-deciders.  

After nearly a year of campaigning, the only thing certain in the New Jersey governor’s race, is that no one really knows what to expect on election night.