10/10/2009 08:11 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

NJ: Daggett the Key Wild Card

We've had a flurry of new polls this week in New Jersey which are generally showing a much closer contest than in September or earlier in the summer, but there is a huge wild card in this race and it's all about independent Chris Daggett.

The best news for the campaign of Democrat Jon Corzine, however, is not the margin but the fact that the Governor's support is starting to rise slightly. You can see the upward tick in the blue line from roughly 39%, where it stood for much of the summer to 40.6% as of this afternoon.

If you're a skeptic of our trend lines, you can also see the improvement in apples-to-apples comparisons in individual polls. Five surveys released in the last week (by Monmouth/Gannett, DailyKos/Research2000, Rasmussen, Democracy Corps and Neighborhood) all showed increases for Corzine of 1 to 3 percentage points as compared to prior tracking polls done by the same organizations in September. In any one survey, these minor shifts would be too small to achieve statistical significance, but the consistency across the five surveys gives us greater confidence that the change is real.

That news is important, because Corzine will need to continue growing his support. The encouraging news for Republicans and not-so-great news for Democrats is that a roughly seven point drop in Republican Chris Christie's support since the summer has gone mostly to independent Chris Daggett. A very large percentage of the New Jersey likely voters (an average of 18% on the surveys released this past week) are either undecided or supporting Daggett or are undecided. Daggett's support is the most important wild card in the race.

Consider this finding buried within the extensive cross-tabs provided by the Democracy Corps poll released on Thursday, that includes the subgroup of 89 respondents currently supporting Daggett. Not surprisingly, supporters of the independent rate both Corzine and Christie negatively. Using a "thermometer" rating that allows respondents to rate the degree of warmth or coolness the feel for each candidate, Daggett voters give Christie a overwhelming negative rating (8% warm, 59% cool) but are even more negative about Corzine (10% warm, 76% cool rating; see p. 44).

What should be worrisome for Democrats, however, is how these two ratings compare. Far more of Daggett's supporters rate Christie more favorably than Corzine (50%) than rate Corzine more favorably than Christie (24%; see p. 59). We know that support for independent and third party candidates often falls as election day approaches. That may be because some voters are strategic -- feeling reluctant to "waste a vote" when the contest between the top two candidates is close. It may be because the nature of three-way polling question makes support for the independent a sort of holding place for undecided (a polite way to say "I'm not sure" while selecting one of the offered choices).

But either way, Corzine's prospects depend on Daggett retaining his current support. Election Day is a little over three weeks away and for now Daggett's trajectory is up, not down, based partly on his debate performance a a week ago, so Daggett's trend line may not follow the traditional pattern. Democrats should hope so, because a collapse in Daggett's support would be a scary scenario for Corzine.

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