By Art Gallagher and Tommy De Seno
What do they call it in New Jersey when 44 politicians are arrested for corruption at the same time? "Thursday." -- Jersey politics are so dirty it can make a Chicagoan wince.
With public affairs in such sorry shape, the Garden State grows some nasty tasting political campaigns. Jerseyâ€™s gutter politics used to be defined by Republican Pete Dawkins calling Senator Frank Lautenberg a â€œswamp dogâ€� back in 1988. This year Democrat Governor Jon Corzine broke open the sewer pipes of political advertising, actually making juvenile â€œfat jokesâ€� about his Republican opponent, who struggles with obesity.
Letâ€™s recap how the Tea Party movement coupled with the anti-incumbent movement in America may backfire and give the Jersey Democrat his second term.
Governor Jon Corzine and Republican challenger Chris Christie are in a race that's simply too close to call. The Real Clear Politics average of several respected polls gives Christie a statistically insignificant 1% edge. The fly in Christieâ€™s campaign victory ointment is that independent Chris Daggett is polling over 11 percent.
The only conclusion the polls give is that most New Jersey voters want a new governor. But even though Corzineâ€™s approval ratings have been stuck in the high thirties for most of the year -- thanks to his $30 million personal bankroll coupled with the surprisingly strong showing by Daggett -- Corzine could still win.
Christie was leading this race by as much as 14% over the summer. His campaign mantra was you've been living through bad times under Corzine. And he pointed to the highest taxes in the country, the highest unemployment in the region and even 450,000 New Jerseyans voting with their feet and moving out of the state. Christie offered an 88 point plan to turn New Jersey around that was short on specifics but generally promised lower taxes, lower government spending and an improved business climate.
It was working. Then came September.
Corzine charged that Christiesâ€™ plan to make health care more affordable by allowing competition from out-of-state insurers and reducing mandated coverage was â€œanti-woman.â€� Corzine alleged that Christie would take away a womanâ€™s access to mammograms and that new mothers would be kicked out of the hospital hours after delivering babies.
Suddenly the campaign was not about taxes, spending, unemployment and the economy, but mammograms. Christie surrendered his double-digit lead among independent women to Corzine. Corzineâ€™s numbers stayed in the high 30â€™s to low 40â€™s, but Christie came down to the low to mid 40â€™s and stayed there.
On September 30 -- the day before the first televised debate among the candidates -- independent Daggett unveiled a plan to reduce property taxes twenty-five percent by expanding the stateâ€™s seven percent sales tax to goods and services currently not taxed, and increasing tolls on New Jerseyâ€™s highways. After a credible debate performance, Daggettâ€™s numbers shot from the mid-single digits to as high as 20% in some polls. And most of his newfound support came from those who had previously supported Christie.
For the first time all year, the fight was on.
Christie, who received state matching funds and is therefore limited to spending just under $11 million against Corzineâ€™s personal fortune, spent precious resources fighting off Daggettâ€™s surge.
He characterized Daggettâ€™s plan as â€œCorzine-lite.â€� Daggettâ€™s numbers started to fall back down to earth and 60% of his potential voters told pollsters that they were likely to change their minds before Election Dayâ€¦.most in favor of Christie.
Corzine counter-punched with more negative attacks on Christie and also by relying on the star power of President Obama and former President Clinton to rally New Jerseyâ€™s large (but sometimes too lazy to vote) group of radical left wing voters.
But one of those Corzine ads backfired. Coupled with an unflattering picture, Corzine accused the obese Christie of â€œthrowing his weight around.â€� The state Democratic chairman Assemblyman Joseph Cryan mused at a rally, "What would it feel like if the next governor weighs 350 pounds?"
Voters and the media pushed back on the personal attack, and Christie, who has been sensitive about his weight, used the attacks to put on a more human face for voters. The effort culminated in a very funny and self-effacing appearance on Don Imus' radio show. Fox Newsâ€™ Neil Cavuto declared the interview a game changer and predicted Christie would win because of how well he performed on Imus's show.
With apologies to Cavuto and Imus, the final game changer could be Jon Corzine's interview with The New York Times where he called his terribly unpopular scheme to sell New Jersey's highways and increase tolls by 800% "an idea that worked." In that moment of candor, Corzine may have wasted his $30 million campaign.
Why raise this unpopular and dead issue again? Perhaps sensing victory was at hand, Corzine was imagining that after an election win he could declare, "Even during the last days of the campaign I spoke in favor of an asset monetization plan. The voters gave me a mandate to do it."
But the negative reaction was swift and fierce. Union workers and Democratic political appointees at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority were throwing pro-Corzine flyers in the trash. Down-the-line Democratic candidates who recently were warming to Corzine were again running for cover. Republicans have now spent the final days of the campaign talking up what voters least liked about Corzine -- his â€œsell the Turnpikeâ€� plan.
The momentum appears to be with Christie, but the impact of President Obamaâ€™s eleventh hour appearance for Corzine has not been reflected in the polls yet.
As Daggett-leaning voters are reconsidering their choice, Republicans are pointing fingers. They're pointing them at the New Jersey State Democratic Committee and accusing them of making automated calls into Republican areas urging voters to vote for Daggett. That is fueling lingering suspicions among Republicans that Daggettâ€™s campaign has been nothing but a stalking horse for Corzine all along, designed to siphon Tea Party voters and New Jerseyâ€™s perennial â€œThrow the Bums Outâ€� votes away from Christie.
The latest Quinnipiac University poll finds that Christie is up by 2 points in their latest poll. Tomorrow night we'll get what even pollsters call, "the only poll that counts," -- actual votes in an election. Then we'll find out if Christie was able to hold his lead to the end or if the four horsemen of his political apocalypse will be mammograms, weight jokes, an Obama bounce and Chris Daggett.