Who won the week?

Most polls showed the gubernatorial race as a dead heat, but Quinnipiac (the big one) showed Gov. Jon Corzine leading Chris Christie by 5%. According to the New York Times, Corzine stood by the dead asset monetization plan he proposed two years ago, giving Republicans perfect political ammunition (Corzine argued that the paper got it wrong). Corzine brought in Bill Clinton again. Eleven day pre-election reports show Corzine outspending Christie three to one. Independent Chris Daggett had to deal with the conspiracy theory that he is in the race to intentionally spoil it for Christie. A focus group found that voters like Daggett, but don’t want to vote for someone they think will lose. And the Phillies beat the Yankees in the first game of the World Series.

So who won the final full week before the election? Four out of our five panelists said there was no clear victor.

Brigid Harrison, political science professor at Montclair State University
Winner: Corzine

Jon Corzine won the week. For a brief period this week, it looked like Chris Christie was resurging, but later polls show the statistical dead heat that has characterized this race for weeks now. Conventional wisdom in the state of New Jersey says that a Republican needs to be ahead by a solid 5 percent in the polls on a Friday before an election to win because of the stronger Democratic GOTV organizations. We’re not seeing that. Instead, with an even contest, bullhorns blare the Obama/Corzine link in Newark, campaign workers walk with Corzine/Weinberg sandwich board ads in Jersey City, teenagers are being paid to put up lawn signs in Camden, Trenton is plastered with Obama/Corzine billboards, and World Series watchers (read: everyone in the state, except those Mets fans) will see only Corzine campaign ads, cost having relegated Christie and Daggett to the pre- and post-game shows. And with Christie only able to spend $2.1 in the nine days prior to the election, he is being squeezed below the fold (or to page three) as media outlets focus many of their free-media inches on the World Series. To attract some free media, Chris Christie is riding around on his bus tour — not in and of itself a bad thing, but by all accounts, many of the crowds are less-than-robust. One reporter characterized the bus tour as having “a McCain-like feel to it.” The reason: those on the bus are aware of the uphill ride they face in the 100+ hours to come. They understand what money can buy in state politics They know that President Obama will come back to the state a third time just hours before the election to rally the Democratic troops, providing the party faithful with the motivation to get out the vote. And they recognize they are constrained in their ability to combat either reality.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute
Result: toss-up

“You’ve got to be kidding!

The final stretch. The week saw a lot of noise, but little clarity. Is Christie up by 4? Has Corzine pulled ahead by 5? Or is it all knotted up? Has Daggett peaked? Can he still swing wavering undecided voters who want to send a message to the two major parties about the atrocious campaign they ran? Or are they more worried about wasting their vote?

This has been one of the strangest campaigns I’ve ever witnessed. Rarely has there been an election with so much at stake, with voters clamoring for debate on a few core burning issues, that has been so devoid of substance. If “None of the Above” was on the ballot, it would win in a landslide. Who won the week? Who knows?

Joseph Marbach, dean of Seton Hall University’s College of Arts and Sciences
Result: toss-up

There were five polls released this week. Christie was ahead in three and Corzine led in one. Results from the FDU poll were mixed depending upon how the question was asked, so I rate it as a draw. In each of the polls the lead is within the margin of error, so you can’t say with certainty that any clear trend has emerged.

Daggett was the clear loser, his support peaked last week and has begun to wane as voters become more focused on the race.

Peter Woolley, director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll and professor of political science
Result: toss-up

Jon Corzine won because he’s the guy who has closed the race and managed to get the marquee Democratic Party celebrities to bless him, not least of all POTUS, who will be here for a, no doubt, rousing finale–coincidentally on the Feast of All Saints.

Wait, no. Chris Christie won because in the waning days of the season, he’s still very much in the hunt, with an optimistic organization behind him. He finally got funny about the fat thing. That’s the only way to handle it, and makes him regular people. To be polite, he should write a thank-you note to the governor for bringing up the turnpike thing–that is, after all, the plan that made the governor’s numbers dive long before the financial crisis set in.

Wait, no. The other Chris won because he continues to get free and very positive press as the Garden State’s version of Mr. Smith, and his name recognition topped four of five likely voters.

No, no. Actually, the real winner is Matt Friedman, a.k.a. Tom Sawyer. He’s the one who got a free column each week since Labor Day by asking some inveterate political kibitzers to “write a couple of sentences.”

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University
Winner: People who love watching politics (toss-up)

With the race continuing to be neck-and-neck, the fundamental dynamics haven’t changed this week. It’s going to come down to the wire. Those of us who love to watch this stuff are the real winners this week. For us, it’s like being in a candy store. It’s really been a fascinating race.

One question about “framing” and one question about “assumptions” will help people understand this election in these last few days.

The framing question is this: Will voters view the election as a referendum or a choice? The Christie campaign wants it to be a referendum – thumbs up or down – on the Corzine administration. Are you better off than you were four years ago? No? Then vote for the other guy. It is, as Christie has himself described it, as if Corzine wants to be re-hired for the position.

The Corzine campaign wants the election to be a choice. Before you decide to fire the incumbent, you need to consider with whom you will be replacing him. By putting himself in a side-by-side comparison with Christie, Corzine has been able to bring up negative things about Christie and taken the halo off that the former U.S. Attorney had when he began his campaign. He has also been able to play to the natural advantages that a Democrat has when running against a Republican statewide in New Jersey.

Referendum or choice? The frame that voters use in their minds when thinking about the race will make a huge difference in the final outcome.

The assumption question is this: Is it better to have a larger pool of supporters and lower enthusiasm (the Corzine campaign), or a smaller group of supporters and higher enthusiasm (the Christie campaign)? Observers of politics will often have different opinions about how they answer this question, but the answer will be one of the keys to understanding what is happening in these last few days.

The well-regarded Democratic statewide GOTV effort may not meet expectations when only 40% of the general public approves of their candidate (and only 75% of Democrats themselves). But given the resources that the Democrats have, they may well be able to overcome this challenge. Republicans are very excited about this race, in part, because it is their best chance to win a statewide race in a long time. But (as with Democrats who were all so eager to elect Obama in 2008), just because you push the button harder in the voting booth doesn’t mean that your vote counts any more than any other. Nonethless, in a close race, having your people energized and excited is an invaluable intangible.

Finally, let me add this: On November 3rd, people should watch the returns closely from Bergen, Union and Middlesex. If these counties give Corzine solid victories, it will be very hard for Christie to make up the votes elsewhere. If they underperform, or if Christie wins them, it may well be a long night for the incumbent.

Who won the week?