With New Jersey’s unusual U.S. Senate primary election just 11 days away, it is clear that Gov. Chris Christie did runaway frontrunners Cory Booker and Steve Lonegan a huge favor by compressing the campaign into nine summer weeks when voters are thinking about beaches not ballots.
“After the long presidential campaign in 2012, a lot of people said, ‘Why don’t we do it the way they do it in England with a short six-week campaign season?’ Well, this summer, we got our wish, and the shortness of the campaign clearly benefited the front-runners,” said John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Booker and Lonegan were able to start out with national fundraising networks, political consulting teams, and cadres of volunteers already on tap, and a huge lead in name recognition “in a race that gives challengers less time than usual to catch up,” Weingart noted.
Booker, the Newark mayor who is a national political celebrity, and Lonegan, the most prominent New Jersey conservative activist over the past decade, consistently show polling leads that would be the envy even of Chris Christie, who has to settle for a 30-point lead in his own general election race.
Booker showed backing from 49 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in a Monmouth University Poll. Booker’s support dwarfed the 12 percent for Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and 8 percent for Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) -- two congressmen who not only share virtually identical liberal voting records, but have overlapping political bases in central New Jersey -- and 3 percent for Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), who is running without the support of her political and real-life boss, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
Lonegan, meanwhile, was trouncing Dr. Alieta Eck, a physician who has never run for office, by a 62 percent to 5 percent margin in a Quinnipiac University Poll released July 9 that showed Booker with a similar lead as in the Monmouth survey.
Even more ominously, Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Polling Institute reported, the relatively small group of about 30 percent undecided in each party are more likely to vote for Booker and Lonegan because they will probably be the only names they recognize. That, of course, is if they bother to vote: As of Monmouth’s mid-July poll, 43 percent -- or three out of every seven regular Democratic primary voters -- didn’t even know that there was a U.S. Senate primary election being held on August 13.
“The one thing we don’t know is what the turnout level is going to be and who is going to vote, so we could be surprised on Election Night, depending on who turns out,” said Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “Things could get close if very few people vote.”
Murray, however, said Booker’s current overwhelming lead in the polls, coupled with his across-the-board advantages in money, organizational support, volunteer base, and advertising, makes it “tough for Pallone or Holt to get 20 percent, and if either of them got 25 percent, it would be an incredible showing.” Booker was rated favorably by 64 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in the Monmouth Poll, while 65 percent to 76 percent of Democrats did not know enough about Pallone, Holt, or Oliver to even form an opinion about them.
Booker, who had $1.6 million in his campaign warchest when he announced in June, already has topped $8 million, which has enabled him to make major TV, radio, and web advertising buys. “Booker is on the air quite a bit, and he’s bought up practically every Google ad in New Jersey,” Murray pointed out. “All you see is ‘Booker, Booker, Booker.’ And in addition to his own money, he has independent expenditure groups coming in to get out the vote.”