Does Corzine Have a Viable Comeback Strategy?

Two weeks ago, on Corruption Thursday, I wrote a PolitickerNJ.com column entitled “Corzine is Not Corrupt – But The Corruption Scandal Dooms His Campaign.” I based my conclusion upon my belief that Governor Jon Corzine had lost the only strategy that could reelect him – an onslaught of television commercials attacking the ethics of his Republican opponent and former U.S.Attorney Chris Christie. I stated in the article that “the Corzine negative strategy has been rendered totally ineffectual. The public is aware that Chris Christie shepherded this investigation during his tenure, and this gives him a shield of invulnerability on ethics issues.”

After reading the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll released on Tuesday, I fear that I may have been mistaken. True, Christie has widened his lead among likely voters from 8% to 14%, although among registered voters his lead has narrowed from six to four points. At this point in the campaign, however, it is more important to look at the “internal” trends rather than the “horse race”. There are three such internal trends that concern me as a Republican supporter of Christie – two positive trends for Corzine and one negative trend for Christie.

The major reason Corzine has trailed since the primary has been his relatively poor poll numbers with his base – Democrats and minorities. In this regard, the Monmouth/Gannett Poll shows two distinct trends of improvement for the Governor: 1) his Democrat vote share against Christie has improved from 67%-17% in July to 73%-14%; and 2) his combined vote share against Christie among African-Americans and Hispanics has increased from 50%-24% in July to 65%-19%. While President Obama is of no help to Corzine with Independent and Republican voters, it is clear that his visit to New Jersey and subsequent assistance to the Corzine campaign have helped the Governor partially regain his Democrat and minority base.

Of greater concern to me, however, is the significant increase in the negative component of Chris Christie’s favorable/unfavorable numbers. The Monmouth/Gannett Poll reports that Christie’s unfavorable number has increased since July by six points among registered voters and seven points among likely voters. The margin of Christie’s favorable percentage over his unfavorable has decreased among registered voters from 19% to 12% and among likely voters from 24% to 16%.

This increase in the Republican candidate’s negative numbers is entirely due to the scurrilous negative Corzine campaign commercials that attack Chris Christie’s ethics as U.S. Attorney. Chris Christie is a man of superb ethics and integrity, and he has earned his place in New Jersey history as the person who, more than anybody else brought to justice corrupt officials of both political parties. The Corzine negative commercials are nothing more than base distortions.

Unfortunately, these commercials have been most effective in driving up Chris Christie’s negatives. Given the soft nature of Christie’s support even among “likely” voters (14% of likely voters remain undecided, while 38% of Christie’s “likely” voters fall into the categories of “weak” or “lean”), I fear that these negative commercials may do Christie further damage.

Thus, from the Monmouth/Gannett poll and Corzine’s recent campaign media activity, one can discern two components of his campaign comeback strategy:

1) Continue to inundate television with negative commercials attacking Chris Christie’s ethics; and

2) Increase Corzine’s share of Democrat and minority voters, particularly by effective assistance from Barack Obama, such as the recent television commercial in which the President lauds the Governor.

There is a third component of Corzine’s strategy, and that is with regard to the issue of property tax. This is also the issue which should be a game-changer for Chris Christie, but instead has become one where his campaign has been sorely lacking.

In the Monmouth /Gannett poll, property tax is by far the leading issue of concern among the electorate, 43% among registered voters and 47% among likely voters. In fact, among both likely and registered voters, property tax outpolls all other issues as a matter of concern by a margin of more than two to one.

This ought to be a huge positive for the Christie campaign. He is viewed as being likely to do a better job than Corzine on this issue by a margin of 45%-27% among registered voters and 50%-28% among likely voters.

If Christie were to propose a platform of principles to control property tax increases in New Jersey, it would accomplish two objectives for his campaign. First, it would enable him to “change the subject” from attacks on his ethics to property taxes. Second, it would enable him to solidify his advantage over Corzine on this issue.

This platform should consist of two principles: 1) Control property tax increases by limiting the growth of local municipal and school district budgets; and 2) Limit the extent of the power of the courts to divert school aid from suburban to urban school districts.

Note that I advocate Christie espousing a “platform of principles” rather than a “comprehensive plan”. Specific measures could include 1) moving the school district budget elections to November; 2) adding the annual state teachers pension contribution to state school district aid while shifting the responsibility for teachers pension funding to the school districts themselves, a measure previously advocated by both former Democrat Governor Jim Florio and Kean administration Education Commissioner Saul Cooperman; 3) mandating regional bargaining with the teachers union locals; 4) instituting tighter standards on school district budget cap waivers; and 5) passing a state constitutional amendment limiting the extent to which the courts can divert state school district aid from suburban to urban school districts, such as the measure proposed by Christie campaign chair and State Senator Joe Kyrillos in 1992.

All these specific measures are highly politically charged, however, and I do not think it is necessary for Chris Christie to advocate any one of them during the campaign. It is essential, however, that he advocates the two principles I mention above if he is to offer the voters a credible alternative to Corzine administration policies on the property tax issue.

Thus far, I have heard Christie say very little on property tax, except for advocating keeping the rebate in place. Unless he comes out with a platform of principles on the issue by Labor Day, he runs the risk of allowing Corzine to steal the property tax issue from him. The Governor would do so by touting what has been the most popular Corzine administration measure, the Senior Freeze program, which reimburses eligible senior citizens and disabled persons for property tax increases

Senior Freeze is purely a band-aid measure on property taxes. It is not a structural reform to deal with this issue on a permanent basis.
Nevertheless, the program is a highly effective program for Corzine in a political sense. Seniors vote. They are appreciative. And sometimes, their children are grateful. Therefore, I expect that during the last two weeks of the campaign, you will see Corzine commercials lauding his record on Senior Freeze.

The question is: Will this three component Corzine comeback strategy – 1) regaining his base with Obama’s assistance, 2) running negative commercials attacking Christie’s ethics, and 3) reminding voters about Senior Freeze – enable Corzine to achieve a comeback victory?

My answer is no, as long as Christie within the next few weeks offers a credible property tax platform and makes it the centrepiece of his campaign. If Christie fails to do so, however, I fear that the Corzine comeback strategy may succeed.

Chris Christie is a New York Mets fan. So let me put it like this: If Chris Christie does not offer a credible property tax platform, he will be making the worst mistake since the New York Mets drafted Steve Chilcott in 1966 instead of Reggie Jackson, one of the greatest clutch hitters in baseball history.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.

Does Corzine Have a Viable Comeback Strategy?