Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Now What?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
The “uncertainty” of New Jersey’s Democratic gubernatorial contest is over.  I use quotes because this is pretty much where most people thought we would end up after Cory Booker declined to run.  State Senator Barbara Buono is the presumptive nominee with the public support of every major Democratic player in New Jersey.  Now what?
My unsolicited advice to Sen. Buono is to run a losing campaign. 
Before I get to that, let’s review what’s at stake for Garden State Democrats.  Last year, we saw that a 20 point Democratic victory at the top of the ticket could take out Republican incumbents at the county and local level.   A 10, or even 15, point win probably would not have had that effect.
Remember that no state Republican has broken 50% since Gov. Tom Kean’s reelection landslide in 1985 (George H.W. Bush’s 56% presidential showing in 1988 notwithstanding).  Chris Christie’s 3.5 percentage point win in 2009 is the best a Republican has performed statewide since then.  Christie Whitman won by about 1 percentage point in both of her gubernatorial runs.
Now, imagine that Chris Christie can win re-election by a similar 20 point spread.  Democratic seats in the legislature and at the county and local levels would suddenly be in jeopardy.
Democratic office holders could probably survive a 5 or even 10 point Christie win without breaking a sweat. That outcome looked probable before Superstorm Sandy hit.  Now we have a whole new ball game.
Down ballot races rely on a minimal showing at the top of the ticket.  Garden State voting patterns have certainly become more Democratic.  It is unlikely that Christie can replicate Tom Kean’s 21 county wipeout.  But Buono will still have to run a flawless campaign to get the margin within single digits.
If it ends up a 20 point victory for Christie, then down ballot Democrats could fall like dominoes.  This is coming from a guy who said the legislative map locked in Democratic control of the legislature even before Alan Rosenthal cast the deciding vote.  But I – and every other observer of state politics – never really entertained the possibility that a Democratic gubernatorial candidate could be fighting just to reach 40% of the vote.
[By the way, if you want to know how New Jersey Democrats got to this point, Steve Kornacki wrote an insightful, if a little gushy about Dick Codey, history of the party’s last 15 years.]
Some Democratic leaders have been vocally supportive of Buono., while others have been tepid.  It’s the latter group that holds the power in Trenton.  There is an outside – but very real – possibility that the Democrats could lose control of one or both chambers of the legislature.  The real irony, though, is that the Democrats could retain control, but the South Jersey bloc could lose its power within the leadership if two or three of these legislators go down to defeat. 
In the event of a Christie landslide, most of the vulnerable seats will be in South Jersey.  Not only in districts 1 and 2, but even Senate President Steve Sweeney’s seat in district 3.  His winning margin in 2011 was not overwhelming and Christie performed especially well in Gloucester County in 2009.
This means that George Norcross will direct all his resources to his own backyard.  Rather than help his party’s gubernatorial nominee, he will run a 7-district localized campaign that treats the legislature as the top of the ticket.
This is why Barbara Buono has to run to lose.  Her political future depends on it.  So here is my completely unsolicited advice.
Candidates with a chance of winning have a tendency to pull their punches.  They are afraid of offending one group of voters or another – or of hurting future political opportunities if they do lose.
This penchant towards timidity can water down a candidate’s message and brand.   In a race where voters are predisposed to go with the incumbent, this trait gets translated as a lack of leadership.
If Sen. Buono tries too hard to be seen as a viable candidate – particular in order to set herself up for a future run in 2017, for instance – she is likely to fail.  It’s not as if she’s a favorite of the party bosses now.  A 10 to 15 point loss is unlikely to improve her standing on that front.
The best way for Sen. Buono to make something of this quixotic effort is to treat it that way – to tilt at the political windmills.   
So far the Buono for Governor campaign has not set the world on fire.   There have been some missteps with the press.  For example, there was a lack of press availability after Gov. Christie’s State of the State address and scheduling an official campaign kick-off on Saturday – the day before the Super Bowl no less.
That strategy may have worked in 1993, but this is a completely different media environment.  Weekday radio and TV coverage is more valuable as is the Internet news feed that most people will see at the office but not on the weekend.  The Saturday kickoff is an old-fashioned approach to the media, which also suggests a staid approach to the campaign in general.
So, Sen. Buono, let ‘er rip.  You’ve got nothing to lose – except the election of course.  But at least it will make the campaign more interesting for those of us who have to cover it.
[Disclaimer: All advice given with tongue firmly planted in cheek.]

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Chris Christie = New Jersey

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

The anatomy of a reelection strategy that Democrats will have a hard time countering.

Gov. Christie’s speech on Tuesday was one of the most unique State of the State addresses on record.  In a year when he is up for reelection, he did not feel the need to offer one single proposal as a hook on which to campaign.  His record over the past three years and his indispensability to the Sandy recovery effort are more than enough to earn him a second term.  And the opinion polls support that view.
First, let’s look at his record.  A number of observers – mainly Democrats – argue that Chris Christie needed Sandy to win reelection.  The polls don’t bear that out.  Certainly, Sandy has made his case for a second term much easier, but he was in a strong position before the storm hit.
This is no more evident than in public reaction to the biggest policy failure of his first term – the Legislature’s refusal to give him the income tax cut he campaigned on in 2009. 
The governor started 2012 with a 53% job approval rating.  In January, he proposed what was supposed to be his crowning achievement – and the main plank in his reelection campaign – a 10% income tax cut.  His subsequent job rating clocked in at 55%, even though 69% of state residents said that property taxes should be the higher priority.  Just 19% wanted the focus on income taxes. 
It was not to be.  By May, Christie was forced to endorse Senate Pres. Steve Sweeney’s property tax credit after polls showed that state taxpayers preferred a property tax credit to an income tax cut by a 2 to 1 margin.  And still, the governor’s job rating sailed north of 50%.
By June, the property tax deal fell apart when Dems used state revenue shortfalls to put the kibosh on it.  Christie even called a special legislative session in July to enact the plan, but the Democrats said they wouldn’t act on it until the state had the money to pay for it – a sentiment which 54% of Garden State residents endorsed.  And still the governor’s approval rating stood at a solid 53%.
Add to this the unprecedented defeat of not just one, but two, of his Supreme Court nominees and you would think that Gov. Christie should have been hobbled.  Instead, he wasn’t even dented.  Not even a scratch.
Let’s look at it another way.  The top two issues in the state remain jobs and property taxes, even after Hurricane Sandy.   Neither issue has had much of an impact on Gov. Christie’s public standing.
The jobs situation is fairly easy to explain.  As much as the Democrats attack Christie for the lack of a jobs stimulus package, most governors would be able to escape bearing the brunt of the blame.  Voters tend to view the state’s jobs outlook as a symptom of the national economy and mainly Washington’s responsibility.
The state’s property tax issue is another matter.  If anything lands on the governor’s doorstep, it should be this problem.  The state’s property tax is one of the main factors driving people out of the state – or at least considering whether to leave New Jersey.  When Christie took office, 71% of his constituents said they would be very upset if their property taxes didn’t go down during his term.
While the governor touts his 2% cap on property tax growth, the public is still upset that their taxes have not gone down.  When asked to grade the governor on his handling of the issue, only 30% give him an A or a B.  Another 31% say he only deserves a C and 32% saddle him with a D or an F.  And in that very same poll, he still earned a 69% overall job approval rating from New Jersey voters! 
As I stated elsewhere, by all rights this issue should be the governor’s Achille’s Heel.  But it isn’t.  When asked who is most responsible for the lack of property tax relief, 32% blame the legislature, 33% blame either their local government or school board, and just 17% blame the governor.  This also explains why it is difficult for the legislature – which has spent nearly all of the past three years with a negative job rating – to get anything to stick to Christie.
So knocking him out this November was going to be a tough proposition to begin with.  Then along came Sandy.
Gov. Christie did not need Sandy to seal his reelection prospects.  But it certainly has made it a heckuva lot easier.  For one, it is the main reason why Christie didn’t need to even consider throwing in a minor policy proposal in his State of the State address.
On Saturday Night Live, the governor quipped that the ubiquitous fleece jacket he wore during the storm’s aftermath was permanently attached to his skin.  That was no joke.  Metaphorically at least, that fleece is now his permanent campaign raiment.  There is no questioning that Gov. Christie sincerely feels the impact of Sandy on his state.  But he is also aware of its political value.
Before Sandy, Gov. Christie embodied the spirit and personality of New Jersey (whether or not we were willing to admit it).  After Sandy, he became New Jersey personified. 
The governor ended his speech Tuesday by challenging the state’s political class to “put aside destructive politics in an election year.”  Take out the word “destructive” and you have a pretty good idea of just how bold Christie’s speech was.  He is daring his opponents bring politics into this election!
The message is: defeating Chris Christie is the equivalent of defeating New Jersey.  Brilliant!