1961: Kennedy-Hughes; 2009: Obama-Corzine?

Almost exactly 48 years ago, November 2, 1961, five days before the 1961 New Jersey gubernatorial election, President John F. Kennedy spoke at a rally for Democrat gubernatorial candidate, former Superior Court Judge Richard J. Hughes at the Trenton War Memorial. Hughes had been an underdog against Republican candidate James P. Mitchell, the highly regarded former Eisenhower administration Labor Secretary.


The Kennedy visit had a galvanizing effect on the Hughes campaign and New Jersey Democrats in general. Five days later, Hughes scored an upset victory and went on to become an outstanding Governor and later a most distinguished Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.


Today, President Barack Obama will be campaigning for incumbent Governor Jon Corzine at rallies in Camden and Newark. Both history and present circumstances suggest that Obama will be hard pressed to duplicate the Kennedy 1961 Trenton tour de force.


To begin with, in 1961, Dick Hughes was a nearly universally well-liked candidate with virtually no negative baggage. By contrast, Jon Corzine is a Governor with stratospheric negative job approval and personal approval ratings, as shown by today’s Monmouth University-Gannett poll.


Furthermore, while Obama is popular in New Jersey, he bears the burden of highly controversial health care and energy proposals, even here in the Garden State. JFK was not so burdened in 1961. In fact, the major focus at the time was on JFK’s foreign policies, which enjoyed overwhelming support from the electorate.


Finally, Obama has much more at stake in the New Jersey election in 2009 than Kennedy had in 1961. Had Dick Hughes lost that election, it would not at all have hindered JFK in his pursuit of foreign policy and domestic objectives.


In this year’s Virginia gubernatorial race, victory is virtually assured for Republican candidate Bob McDonnell. If Republican Chris Christie defeats Democrat Jon Corzine on Tuesday, the New Jersey and Virginia results will be trumpeted by the national media as a major repudiation of Obama and his agenda. His health care proposals may well have reached a dead end, especially after a defeat in a New Jersey race in which the President became so heavily invested.


The visit comes at the end of Chris Christie’s best week in the campaign. Christie’s free fall in the polls has stopped, and now Lonegan conservatives and Republican Daggett supporters have come home to the former U.S. Attorney’s candidacy. Meanwhile, in an interview published Thursday in the New York Times, Corzine committed a near catastrophic gaffe by his inartful phrasing of his future intentions regarding his failed New Jersey Turnpike asset monetization proposal.


At this point in the campaign, Corzine’s expenditure of millions of dollars has totally failed to boost his positive ratings even an iota. While the incumbent governor's commercials increased Christie’s negative ratings, today’s published Monmouth-Gannett poll results show that Christie’s positives are on an upswing and have passed his negatives. The Christie campaign commercials which ran on network television last week showing the candidate with his family may have a lot to do with the Republican candidate’s personal rating resurgence.


There is one major advantage the Corzine campaign still has: a superior Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) campaign apparatus. Corzine can only win if his GOTV effort results in an overwhelming margin for him in New Jersey’s cities and Democratic counties.


That is what the Obama visit is all about: to energize Corzine’s Democrat base and GOTV workers, with the hoped for ultimate result of a major Democrat turnout advantage on Election Day. Otherwise, Corzine may well be headed for a defeat. We may well be reading on Wednesday about Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, constituting a major rebuke to the President and his policies.


Will the Obama visit accomplish its goals? We will know on Tuesday evening.


One thing is certain, however. Jon Corzine is no Dick Hughes. And Barack Obama’s failure to recognize that fact may well have resulted in his making in New Jersey the worst investment of political capital in his career.


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. 1961:  Kennedy-Hughes; 2009: Obama-Corzine?