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Opinion: Buono Needs to Hit Christie Where He's Weakest -- Economy, Jobs, Taxes

Concentrating on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion rights is clearly not the way for Buono to 'move the numbers.'

carl golden

When a candidate’s campaign team -- manager, consultant, pollster, fundraiser, and communications director -- convene to plot strategy, fundamental to their decisions is the bit of advice most favored by consultants: “Whatever moves the numbers.”

The numbers, of course, are the polling data that the team pores over to identify top-level issues, develop effective responses, and reach advertising decisions, the last being particularly crucial because of the millions of dollars involved.

Presumably, the campaign team for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono has had several such sit-downs, but so far at least has had little success in moving the numbers.

The campaign’s internal polls undoubtedly reflect the public surveys that have consistently identified the economy and issues related to the economy -- job creation and taxes -- as the most important matter on the minds of voters.

Other issues, even those normally as important as education and the environment, are in single digits while social issues like same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and gun control barely register at all.

The way for Buono to move the numbers seems apparent: Mount a concerted, all-out, single-minded attack on Gov. Chris Christie for failing to deal effectively with restoring the state’s economic health, growing employment, and controlling property taxes. It requires focus and discipline: the ability to focus on the issue and the discipline to stay on it.

While the state’s unemployment rate, after nearly four years of flirting with 10 percent, has declined, it remains higher than the national average and that of surrounding states. Job growth has occurred, but the number of employed remains below the level prior to the 2007 recession.

Still, Buono has failed to gain ground, consistently trailing Christie by 30 points, even as polls identified economic issues as the governor’s only potential area of vulnerability. His overall job performance, for instance, remains above 60 percent, cutting across party, age, and gender. But his handling of property tax control is in the low 40 percent range.

It is clear that the governor’s force-of-nature persona, his adroit use of social media to advance his agenda, and the lingering admiration for his response and leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy more than nine months ago have been overwhelming positives, obscuring the discontent voters have expressed over his fiscal stewardship.

Buono, though, seems reluctant to turn her full attention to the property tax issue. Her passivity has relegated her to playing defense, settling for responding to the governor’s comments and initiatives, and winding up buried in new stories written by reporters who, in the interest of balance, include a line or two from her because they are obliged to do so.

On those occasions when news stories feature her, more often than not they concentrate on her feud with party leaders or the endorsements of Christie from leading Democrats and a cadre of local mayors and council members.

While the social issues and associated matters such as Christie’s veto of funding for women’s healthcare programs are compelling for the constituencies directly affected by them, there is little political traction to be gained by Buono focusing on them.

Those who agree with her views will stand by her, while those who do not will stand by the governor.

There is every reason to assume that a portion of those Democrats who have told pollsters they support Christie will come home to their party by November, leaving the vast swath of independent voters as the decisive force.

While Christie enjoys a comfortable lead among nonaligned voters at the moment, Buono has little choice but to direct her message to them if she is to have any chance of closing the gap. Appealing to them on the basis of social issues is unlikely to move the numbers. Luring a significant number of independents to her cause in support of same-sex marriage, for instance, is a waste of energy, not because it is an unimportant issue, but because those she might be able to win over will be offset by those who resist. Moreover, Christie has staked out what many feel is a reasonable and defensible position: A public referendum to allow voters to decide if legalization is desirable.

Independents, however, have demonstrated in polling data they are of like mind with party-affiliated voters on the seemingly intractable issue of the property tax burden.

Buono’s reluctance to concentrate on the issue and hone her message suggests she is perhaps wary that it implies criticism of her party’s support in the Legislature for Christie’s initiatives: the two percent cap on property tax rate increases and requiring public employees to contribute more to their pension and health benefits, in particular.

While she may not wish to engage in a public debate over intra-party divisions, the harsh reality is that the same reluctance did not extend to those party leaders who’ve abandoned her candidacy as well as those who’ve decided to sit out the election.

Indeed, separating herself from them -- particularly on an issue as critical as property tax relief -- could work in her favor by portraying her as more independent-minded than party-controlled and unafraid of charting her own course free of political bosses.

At this point, applying the whatever-moves-the-numbers theory is crucial for Buono. The “whatever” is clear. The rationale for her reluctance to employ it is not.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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