Why Corzine Will Probably Win in New Jersey


Because it's Friday--and because I'm feeling a little mischievous, this being Halloween Eve and all--I'm going to make a wildly reckless prediction about the outcome of next Tuesday's gubernatorial election in my ancestral homeland of New Jersey: incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine will beat GOP challenger Chris Christie by a hair.

Even if it's not his own.

Of course, my hunch could be wrong. The latest poll from the local pros at Farleigh Dickinson University puts Christie ahead of Corzine 41 to 39, a four-point gain for the Republican since the last FDU survey earlier this month, while the other three most recent polls--SurveyUSA, Research 2000, and Rasmussen--either show a tie or a 1-3 point advantage for Christie. Plus, there's precedent. In 1993, an unpopular Democratic incumbent (Jim Florio) lost in the midst of a recession to a moderate Republican upstart (Christine Todd Whitman) despite holding a 10-point lead heading into the final week of the campaign. Corzine doesn't have 10 points to shed, and with a disastrous 37 percent approval rating, he's even less popular than Florio was back in the day.

But there are a few reasons why I think Corzine may avoid his predecessor's fate. The first one is money. The wealthy Whitman had a financial advantage in 1993, but Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs CEO, has outspent Christie $23.6 million to $8.8 million so far. Cash is critical in the Garden State, which is dominated by the astronomically expensive New York and Philadelphia media markets--especially in the final days of a campaign. (Whitman started October 1993 with $1.3 million more than Florio, and her win was largely attributed to a last-minute push that showed her in a warmer light.)

Number three: regardless of what happened in 1993, New Jerseyans tend to flirt with independence before breaking Democratic at the last minute.

The most important reason, however, is the surveys themselves. As Nate Silver notes, "there's a rather strange split in the polls in New Jersey's gubernatorial race: those conducted by live interviewers have Jon Corzine leading by an average of 4.2 points, but those conducted via IVR (automated scripts or "robopolls") have Chris Christie leading by an average of 3.0 points"--a statistically significant difference. This could mean any number of things, but one of the likeliest explanations is that automated polls, which "can't do as much a human to coax someone into an interview," "tend to be associated with lower response rate... and therefore sometimes tend to reach a more enthusiastic set of respondents." In other words, disgruntled anti-Obama Republicans are less likely than Democrats to hang up on a robo-pollster, which could be skewing the robopoll results rightward. Normally, I'd say this means that the Republicans are more likely to vote as well, but with a candidate as unpopular and underfunded as Christie, that's starting to seem unlikely. Also worth noting is that while there are few undecideds left, those that remain tend to come from voter groups that should favor Corzine: African-Americans (still 13 percent undecided), Hispanics (7 percent), "other" ethnic communities (9 percent), and 18-29 year-olds (6 percent). Three of the four new polls showing Christie with a slight edge also show Corzine gaining ground as the undecideds dwindle.

So in the end, I'm giving the bald man a slim, 55 percent chance of victory on Tuesday night. The sad thing about this is that the only candidate anyone in the Garden State is genuinely excited about--Independent Chris Daggett--hasn't been able to climb above 15 percent in the polls and seems destined merely to siphon off a few anti-Corzine votes from Christie. But such is life in our two-party system: a pair of big-ticket candidates snipe and swipe and drive up each other's negatives while voters resist an attractive alternative for fear of "throwing their votes away."

Bummer, right? Or, as Bruce Springsteen so eloquently put it back in 1973, "my machine she's a dud, I'm stuck in the mud... somewhere in the swamps of Jersey."