Thursday, October 22, 2009

Christie’s Message of Change Lacks Hope

This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.

Chris Christie put out a new web video in response to President Barack Obama’s campaign stop for Governor Jon Corzine Thursday. Christie has been trying to use Obama’s “Change” mantra to unseat the incumbent, but has been having limited success in getting it to resonate with voters.

As I watched that video, the penny finally dropped on why this message wasn’t working for Christie. But first, a quick note about why Obama was here to begin with.

The inevitable question – or at least the question most reporters are asking – is whether Obama can really help Corzine’s reelection chances. The answer for that is found in two numbers: 87 and 64.

The former is President Obama’s job approval rating among New Jersey Democratic voters. The latter is Governor Corzine’s job rating among his fellow Democrats. Obama’s visit is not meant to sway undecided voters. It’s to get reluctant Democrats in Corzine’s column and out to the polls.

As part of our research strategy for this election, we have been tracking a panel of nearly 1,000 voters. Among the many shifts evident in this churning electorate, we’ve seen a small shift from undecided and other candidates to Corzine.

One Democratic voter who was leaning to Daggett in late September, but switched to Corzine in mid-October, said he was worried that the media would paint a Corzine loss as a referendum on Obama. As unhappy as he is with Corzine’s first term, this voter was reluctant to see the president suffer because of it. I assume he is not alone.

And that brings us back to Chris Christie. From the very beginning, the Republican’s camp has claimed that the electorate is in a “change” mood. Americans were unhappy with the way things were going in Washington and so they kicked out the Republicans in 2006 and 2008. Since New Jersey voters are similarly unhappy with the way things are going in Trenton, the Christie thinking goes, they’ll be just as willing to kick out the Democrats this year.

There are two problems with this line of thought. First, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in Hades that the Democrats will lose control of the Assembly. In fact, if they lose more than two seats, the GOP can claim some sort of moral, albeit meaningless, victory.

The bigger problem, though, is that Christie’s campaign communications folks apparently read only half of the Obama playbook. His message in 2008 was not “Change.’ It was “Hope” and “Change.” Or more accurately “HopeandChange” – sometimes even shortened derisively to “Chope” by his critics. But it was effective. [A recent Jimmy Margulies cartoon about Corzine played off the hope theme.]

And that’s where Christie’s campaign has fumbled the message. His new web video starts out by using Obama’s voice over images of homeless men in Camden, figuratively depicting New Jersey as being on a one-way street presumably to nowhere.

Frankly, I found it depressing. That’s when it hit me. Chris Christie is offering a message of change without hope. And not just in this web video, but throughout his entire campaign.

The punditry and the media have focused on his lack of specifics, charging that he has not given voters a clear policy proposal that they can hang onto. I have said before that despite their discontent with the incumbent, voters still need to be able to say, “Here is something concrete that Chris Christie is going to do,” before they will vote for change. But the problem with lacking a specific message is larger than just the policy details.

A specific campaign promise is, in itself, a message of hope. And Christie’s campaign strategy has been lacking that element of hope from the very beginning.

Yes, I know that the Republican nominee has used phrases like “hope is on the way” and “New Jerseyans hope real change will come.” But listen closely to Christie’s rhetoric when he talks about state government. The tone lacks a sense of hope.

That doesn’t mean you can’t attack your opponent’s record. In fact, it still amazes me that Christie has not used every opportunity offered him, especially in the debates, to point out specific Corzine weaknesses – i.e. the governor’s failed toll hike plan and the fizzled-out special session to reform property taxes. These are the reasons why Jon Corzine’s job approval rating is so low and are fair game in this race.

Instead, Christie has chosen to speak in generalities about how Corzine has raised taxes. And rather than leave the blame at Corzine’s feet, he follows that up by saying that the mess in Trenton is due to chronic mismanagement by both parties over the years. A common refrain from Chris Christie is that New Jersey is broken.

And therein lies the problem. Attacking the incumbent is one thing, especially if done well (which it hasn’t been in this case). But who wants to vote for a guy whose underlying campaign theme is that we are all headed down the toilet? Maybe his delivery is just a byproduct of the prosecutorial personality. But it doesn’t resonate with independent voters who need a positive reason to go out and vote.

New Jersey voters already believe the state is broken. That doesn’t mean they want to be constantly reminded of it. They want someone who is going to lead them out of the wilderness. Not someone who is going to point out every dried-up stream and dead tree.

It’s all about hope and change, Mr. Christie. Change and Hope.

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