Gov. Christie's approval numbers are strong -- especially for a Northeast Republican in a Democrat-dominated state which has struggled through several years of high unemployment, a lagging economy, and strained public resources. And pre-election measurements strongly favor Gov. Christie's re-election despite that party ID favors his opponent in a state which has trended Democratic for 30 years, and which Christie won with less than 50 percent of the vote in 2009.
In fact, since defeating incumbent Jon Corzine in 2009, Christie's approvals have only twice dipped below 50 percent, and never significantly trailed his disapprovals. Both dips below 50 percent coincided with local referenda on school budgets and all the suburban and teacher-angst that school budgets provoke. Both times he recovered smartly within weeks.
Moreover, Super-storm Sandy, though unkind to the Garden State, provided the opportunity for the governor to shine, pushing his approval rating after the storm, to an impressive "three-in-four voters." Perhaps if the governor's popularity had not soared at the end of 2012, a number of Democratic challengers would have emerged, vying to take advantage of their party's significant registration advantage in New Jersey. Yet, one by one, each took a pass.
Cory Booker, the energetic mayor of Newark who has made common cause with Chris Christie on school reform, decided his path of least resistance would be the U.S. Senate seat of octogenarian Frank Lautenberg. Former governor Richard Codey, with wide name recognition, excellent "favorable ratings," and an appealing sense of humor, sized it up but found his spouse was not up to the challenge. Likewise, leading members of the state senate and assembly begged off, knowing that if they lost, they'd also be out of a legislative job since that entire body stands for election on the same ballot as the governor.
Left standing alone was Barbara Buono, state senator and former chair of the budget and appropriations committee, with nothing to lose at 59 years young articulate, and telegenic. Trial heats matching Buono against Christie showed her trailing badly, but so did early trial heats of any other Democrat against Christie.
So is Christie a sure thing?
Buono's poor showing to date reflects two fundamentals. First, she is relatively unknown. When she emerged as the Democratic cheese standing alone, her state-wide name recognition was just 28 percent. As the campaign wears on, those numbers are increasing steeply, albeit late in the game. Second, the governor's high approval ratings, which surged after Superstorm Sandy, remain strong despite withering criticism from the Democratic campaign.
Still, New Jersey remains a very Blue State, from the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson, through the dilapidated industrial cities that lie in the turnpike corridor, to Walt Whitman Bridge over the Delaware. Put the other way around, any Republican running state-wide in New Jersey has a fundamental deficit to overcome.
How did Christie overcome that deficit to be elected in the first-place? The answer is that he challenged an unpopular, if not incompetent, incumbent Jon Corzine, and was aided not only by the incumbent's shortcomings, but by the national financial meltdown and its accompanying foreclosures and high unemployment. Christie was also helped by a third-party challenger, Christopher Daggett, who siphoned off both votes and attention from the incumbent. Rather than riding a rising Republican tide to victory in 2009, Christie paddled through the Democrats doldrums in which voters who had turned out strongly for Corzine in 2005, simply stayed home four years later.
That is not to say Christie is not a strong candidate. He is. Nor is it to say that he doesn't have clear policy planks that appeal to voters of both parties. He does. And he follows up on them. That is only to say again voter registration matters, party identification matters, partisanship is the most powerful force shaping any election, and that in New Jersey this fundamentally favors the Democrat all other things being equal.
Knowing this, the governor made certain that the bye-election for the U.S. Senate seat of the deceased Frank Lautenberg would be held on October 16, not on the regular election day of November 5. That Senate election, featuring the Democratic mayor of the state's largest city, would have significantly increased Democratic voter participation if held on the same day as the governor's election.
A Buono Comeback?
Despite that Buono's numbers are weak; she has several things going for her. She was not damaged in what might otherwise have been a bruising primary. Her competition for the nomination evaporated, leaving her alone and without the need to spend money, or to make new enemies. She gets to be the chief voice of opposition, with every political writer and producer obligingly seeking her counter points to any success or failure, or utterance the governor might offer. More important, Buono gets to have the fundraising field to herself. She is the only anti-Christie game in town, and any donor who wants to take Christie off the throne knows exactly where to send the check. Likewise, unions don't have to hold back money or their own independent efforts.
Moreover, Buono's donors are not limited to New Jersey. The Garden State's gubernatorial contest is only one of two in the nation this fall. National Democrats have the time, focus, money, and motivation to stick it to Christie if they can. At the very least, Buono can count on a receptive audience as she dials for dollars nationwide. To be sure, Christie will raise way more money than Buono. But, Buono doesn't need to match Christie dollar for dollar. She only needs enough to get her name and message out to voters.
Still, she is quietly being compared to Peter Shapiro, the hapless Democrat who served as the party's patsy in 1985 as Tom Kean, Sr. cruised to re-election and set the benchmark for gubernatorial landslides 71 percent to 24 percent. But Shapiro was an Essex County freeholder, no name recognition, no money, and no angry teachers union in a state that twice voted for Ronald Reagan. New Jersey is no longer that state, and Buono is not that candidate.
She may be relatively obscure and definitely trailing, but she is well-versed in the budget battles, and the only Democratic game in town. Moreover, as a slim, attractive woman she presents a stronger sensory contrast to Christie than any other New Jersey Democrat could have. He cannot take her lightly. Things change. Campaigns and candidates make mistakes. Expectations can be disappointed. New issues come on suddenly. Who would, after all, take just one poll over time?
Christie has at least three potential vulnerabilities. First, the flip side of his engaging, direct, and often humorous demeanor is a hard edge that cuts too deeply from time to time. He is famous for declaring that his citizens should "get the hell off the beach" in the path of Hurricane Irene, but has also grabbed headlines for personal insults. Calling a legislator a "numb-nuts" didn't hurt him, but calling a rowdy and disrespectful citizen, who turned out to be a former Navy SEAL, an "idiot" still lingers in the media chatter. The name-calling penchant may be, on the one hand, endearing as a sign of the man's unvarnished public persona, but to others it may be held up as a sign of indiscipline, if not arrogance.
Christie also faces a danger in his peculiar gender gap. Whether that gap favors him or not is a matter of perspective: His support among women voters clearly lags behind his support among male voters or his support among men dramatically outpaces his support among women. As if to emphasize this, Christie's female opponent selected a female running mate for Lt. Governor, and her press releases focus whenever possible on Christie's "insensitivity."
The votes of suburban men can conceivably carry his candidacy, but just as certainly a desertion en masse by suburban women could sink his candidacy. And the blunt and verbally energetic governor has more than enough opportunity to stick his big foot in his colorful mouth. He is asked over and again to respond directly to criticism from his female opponent, and he still faces one more debate -- which few voters may watch -- but nonetheless can be distilled to "the worst moment" for mass consumption.
There is, finally, the worst mistake -- always within grasp -- that a heavily favored candidate can make: to assume the outcome is a foregone conclusion. His people will have to work to get the turnout combination they need. Moreover, they need to focus on this election, not the one in 2016. For a few more weeks they need to avoid ensnaring Christie in national partisan spitball fights. His success in New Jersey has been a function of his ability to focus unwaveringly on the state's finances. Gun control, abortion, same-sex marriage, creationism, Obama care, and climate change are not his strong suit in the Garden State.
In short, Christie is the odds-on favorite for good reasons, but there is still some terrain to cover before Election Day. Be sure to check back with reputable polls from time to time.
Follow Peter J. Woolley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/FDUpublicmind