Now that the dust has finally settled after the grueling campaign for governor, there are a number of lessons that we can draw from this election.
First and foremost, this was a "pocketbook" election. The No. 1 issue on the minds of voters was the state of the economy, followed closely by concern over skyrocketing property taxes. Indeed, nearly 90 percent of those polled indicated that they were concerned with the condition of the national economy.
Whether it was fair or not, Governor Corzine's fate was ultimately tied to the recession, which has placed a tremendous strain on state resources and has severely reduced state revenues. This combination has placed New Jersey in a critical fiscal condition.
Coupled with missteps that plagued him throughout his term, Corzine's approval rating hovered in the 30 percent range, even as he captured his party's nomination in June. This low approval rating fueled speculation that the Democrats might replace Corzine as the party's standard bearer.
Governor-elect Chris Christie banked on these factors and devised a strategy that made the election a referendum on the Corzine record. This strategy paid off by tapping into voter sentiments that were thirsty for change, as exit polls confirm.
‘Lesser of two evils' strategy
Corzine's low approval rating led to his campaign's decision to launch a succession of negative attacks against Christie in an effort to drive up the challenger's disapproval rating. This strategy would present the electorate with the choice of voting for the "lesser of two evils," hoping to capitalize on human nature's penchant to choose the known quantity, Corzine, over the relatively unknown, Christie.
The primary beneficiary of this strategy was independent candidate Chris Daggett. Little-known initially and unscathed by negative advertising, his popularity peaked 10 days before the election when one poll indicated that 20 percent of the electorate would vote for him. This triggered a series of attacks launched by Christie and the Republican Governors Association linking Daggett's tax plan to the unpopular incumbent.
In the end, these attacks and the quixotic nature of Daggett's candidacy resulted in the independent candidate garnering less than six percent of the final vote.
By running a negative campaign that focused on Christie's personal shortcomings, Corzine failed to give voters sufficient reason to reelect him. Indeed, the incessant negative television ads, particularly those that subtly and overtly referenced Christie's weight, may have backfired.
The money spent on the campaign, which will likely top $30 million and was nearly three times the amount Christie was permitted to spend due to public financing limits, also may have generated a degree of resentment from a public facing uncertain economic times.
A lackluster campaign
While Christie ran a lackluster campaign and was widely criticized for being vague and short on specifics, his strategy of focusing on Corzine's shortcomings paid off. Taking a page out of Christie Whitman's successful campaign for governor in 1993, the former U.S. Attorney turned a deaf ear to calls for producing more specific plans for reducing government spending and the state's dependence on property taxes.