Sunday, September 6, 2009

Contest Looks Bound for Ugliness

The following appeared as an Op-ed in the Sunday, Sept. 6 Courier-Post.

Is Chris Christie the next Michael Dukakis? After wrapping up the Democratic nomination for president in July 1988 and enjoying a lead in most polls, Dukakis returned to Massachusetts for the summer to resume his gubernatorial duties. Republican nominee George Bush spent August hammering away at his opponent with negative ads. By the time Dukakis returned to the campaign trail after Labor Day, he was toast.

Republican challenger Chris Christie has held a steady lead over incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine in every public poll released since February. Voters are unhappy with the job Corzine has done and are looking for an alternative. However, based on this summer's events, Christie could still be the next Mike Dukakis.

Christie is participating in the state's public financing system. While that means he receives $2 in public funding for every $1 in private contributions, the total amount he can spend is capped at $15.9 million.

Sound like a lot of money? Not in New Jersey, which is stuck between two of the most expensive media markets in the country. Christie will have to set aside at least half his kitty just for television and radio advertising in the final weeks of the campaign if he wants to make any impression on late-deciding voters.

Corzine, on the other hand, has opted out of the public system and will dig into his own deep pockets. Expect him to match the more than $40 million he pumped into his 2005 campaign. In fact, Corzine has already spent more than $5 million on television advertising according to some reports -- mostly on negative attacks against Christie.

The Corzine team understands that there's probably little they can do to change voters' minds about the incumbent before election day. However, the Democrat's camp realizes that their opponent is largely unknown to the independent swing voters who will determine this election. Christie has tried to position himself as a principled outsider who has taken on the state's culture of corruption. The purpose of these summer ads has been to undermine that image.

Why does this matter? For one, Corzine's attacks have gone unanswered, not because Christie is ignoring them but because he is unable to spend money to fight them on the airwaves.

More importantly, though, Christie has staked his claim to the governorship on his personal qualities -- specifically, that he's better than a typical politician. And therein lies the potential problem for Christie.

Recent polling has shown that while Christie continues to lead Corzine on the "vote choice" question, negative views of the Republican have been steadily building. If Christie's signature advantage disappears, he will need to convince voters that he would be better than the incumbent on the issues which concern them. And this year the one issue that tops every poll is property taxes -- an issue on which Christie has been vague.

To be fair, Christie said he will retain the current property tax rebate system. However, this is hardly the bold solution that New Jersey voters are looking for.

Right now, a disengaged Garden State electorate believes Christie will do a better job than Corzine on property taxes. It's not clear that they will feel the same way on Nov. 3 after they start paying attention to the race. If voters don't believe the challenger offers anything new on the issue which most concerns them, Christie will need to find another advantage if he is to unseat the incumbent.

Christie hopes that voters will see him as a political outsider who is above petty partisanship and political deal-making. Corzine will be saturating the airwaves with negative ads to make sure they don't. And that's why this race is going to get ugly.

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