Wednesday, November 04, 2009

In New Jersey, Not What You've Been Told

Given the adulation on MSNBC and progressive blogs, it appears mandatory to worship at the altar of Nate Silver.

The proprietor of fivethirtyeight.com does very good work analyzing elections, both before and after. Usually. Unfortunately, he writes this morning:

Obama approval was actually pretty strong in New Jersey, at 57 percent, but 27 percent of those who approved of Obama nevertheless voted for someone other than Corzine. This one really does appear to be mostly about Corzine being an unappealing candidate, as the Democrats look like they'll lose just one or two seats in the state legislature in Trenton. Corzine compounded his problems by staying negative until the bitter end of the campaign rather than rounding out his portfolio after having closed the margin with Christie.

On the plus side: Nate properly refers to "Obama approval" as "actually pretty strong in New Jersey," rather than the common portrayal of Obama's support in the state as very strong. But claiming "Corzine compounded his problems by staying negative until the bitter end of the campaign rather than rounding out his portfolio after having closed the margin with Christie," betrays a superficial understanding of this gubernatorial election.

In at least one part of the state, the southern portion, most of the incumbent's commercials in the closing weeks of the campaign were very positive. This was a hard sell, given that New Jerseyans already knew Mr. Corzine from his stint as U.S. Senator and Governor, and had concluded that he is not the warm and fuzzy fellow the ads tried to portray him as.

It's easy to understand Silver's impression of Corzine as having remained "negative until the bitter end of the campaign." Most of the national response to this campaign was formed over the ad run by the Corzine camp showing Chris Christie as is-rather rotund- and contending he "throws his weight around." This was undoubtedly a negative commercial, and of more interest to the national media than the theme of Chris Christie's late commercial blitz, falsely charging that his Democratic opponent had come out for tax increases. It is uncomfortable for so many of the journalistic elite to admit, but negative campaigning works, and it worked here for the challenger.

The media assured its audience during the latter half of the campaign that voters are shocked, shocked that an incumbent governor is accusing the challenger of undue influence. Less was made of the reason for the claim, Mr. Christie's penchant for driving poorly (surely a pardonable offense) and then making sure the police officer who stopped him was well aware of his position as U.S. Attorney (not so benign). Nor was it widely reported that Christie, during the election campaign, suddenly questioned the police report from one of the incidents. Nor that Christie flaunted the law by engaging in politics while serving as U.S. Attorney. Nor that he is the king of no-bid contracts and political cronyism (video of the unethical, negative, dishonest candidate/governor-elect below).

History is written by the victors, it is held. Reporting this morning on the Republican's victory, The Washington Post continued the pre-election theme, however misleading, of Corzine running a negative campaign while Christie was positive. The media, clearly, found in Chris Christie a Republican they could applaud- one who would never question powerful financial interests, but sophisticated enough, in its view, to downplay his opposition to gay and abortion rights.

The strategy proved successful, aided by a great and ever-more powerful American institution, professional sports. The New Jersey electorate already had formed an opinion, mostly negative, of its incumbent governor. It was Corzine's task to draw sufficient attention to the gubernatorial race for voters to form a more negative view of Chris Christie. This had been occuring, as Christie's negatives rose dramatically during the race.

But then entered postseason baseball, in which the New York Yankees, playing just beyond the northeastern border of the state, and the Philadelphia Phillies, playing just beyond the southwestern border of the state, featured prominently. This has been followed by the World Series, in which the two teams are featured more prominently. Most New Jerseyans (not only baseball fans) have had a rooting interest in the outcome. Not surprisingly, far more attention has been showered on their pennant drive, and now their matchup, than on any political contest in the state.

The impact would not have been as severe had there been one issue that could draw the attention of voters from baseball. But, alas, the main issue was property taxes, a perennial problem in New Jersey and issue in its politics, and the environment was custom-made for a challenger who offered few specifics about policy.

With the relatively quiet election season in N.J., and no cutting-edge difference between the two candidates capturing the attention of its voters , the major issue driving the votes of independents, which Christie won decisively, was the state of the state- and of the country. Voters may not know the details, and may not be ideologically driven, but they do know this: Democrats control Trenton and Washington, D.C.- and things are not good. For many people, in an election featuring the media's definition of a "good" Republican, that was enough.



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