With new polls showing Gov. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) catching up with his Republican opponent Chris Christie, after having trailed Christie by solid margins all of the past general election season, it’s worth examining a New Jersey trend that has been talked about a lot this year: That Republicans can often run strong for most of the campaign, only to see a Democratic surge in the home stretch.
“A lot of people have had trouble believing that Christie was gonna win, even when he was up in the polls significantly,” said John Weingart, the associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, “just because of the presumed power of incumbents, the Democratic nature of New Jersey, and the amount of money Corzine was gonna put in the race. Really, nobody is confident of what the outcome will be at this point.”
New Jersey Republicans have frequently come up dry in Senate races. Despite high hopes in many cycles, the last time they actually won a Senate campaign was 1972. Things haven’t been nearly as bad on gubernatorial races, with the GOP winning four out of the last nine races — but three of those have only been by margins of about one point. So why is it that these patterns exist?Weingart showed me a collection of gubernatorial polls from over the years. In many cases, there would be a last-minute surge of support the Democrat. The most famous example was in 1977, when Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne — who had acquired the nickname “One-Term Byrne” during his unpopular first four years — surged into a lead over GOPer Raymond Bateman. Byrne won re-election by 57%-43%.
In 1997, Republican Gov. Christie Whitman had led Democratic challenger Jim McGreevey (who later became Governor, and eventually resigned in disgrace) by big margins. But on Election Night, she won a second term by only one point. In 2005, Corzine led his Republican opponent Doug Forrester by lackluster margins in the final polls, by only a 43%-37% margin — which was quite unimpressive for someone who was already elected statewide as a U.S. Senator. But he ended up winning by ten points.
There have been exceptions, though, where the last-minute swing went the other way. For example, Whitman had trailed Democratic Gov. Jim Florio by solid margins, only to beat him by one point. Three years earlier, Whitman was running against Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, and overcame big deficits in the polls to only lose by three points. There have been other counter-examples, as well, but for the most part the last-minute swings go to the Democrats.
Weingart said that voters in New Jersey are often disengaged from the election itself, until the last minute — at which point Democratic advantages in party organization come into play.
“But I think for the Democrats, they have a better organization, and in general a better get out the vote effort, so that they are able to find traditional Democrats who may not be wildly enthusiastic about the candidate this year, and might have told a poll taker in September or October that they were undecided or leaning to the Republican,” said Weingart. “But as Election Day approaches, as some national Democrats speak up on behalf of the candidate, and as the campaign organization reaches them, they come back to where they were in the Democratic Party and choose the Democratic candidate.”
Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project, also said that party organization is an important factor. “Their political party structure is in densely populated parts of the state,” said Reed. “The cities that continue to remain cohesive and have strong neighborhoods are really able to get out the vote. And that ability, together with the campaign funds that Democrats have had at their disposal in the last few elections, have made it possible to hire people even in the suburban areas.”
So is Corzine experiencing a surge that could win him this race? “I think it’s too early to say that,” said Reed. “And the current results are within the margin of error. So I think it means that we just have to keep watching this race in the next several weeks. I don’t think it’s time to make predictions.”
So what will happen this time? Will Christie be able to blunt Corzine’s movement, and win this thing in the end? Or will this be a Democratic win yet again, despite so many bad numbers to the contrary over the past year?