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Runaway Governor’s Race Confounds Pollsters and Pundits

sweeney-kean

Four years ago, the last five polls in the governor’s race varied by just five percentage points -- with GOP challenger Chris Christie leading by no more than 3 percent and Gov. Jon Corzine by no more than 2 percent. Even with the complication of independent Chris Daggett in the race, the polls were basically right on the money: Christie ended up winning by 4.5 percent, within the margin of error for three of the polls.

Tonight, somebody’s poll is going to be very wrong -- and that’s in a race in which the pollsters have no argument over the winner.

The Monmouth University poll has Christie leading Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) by 20 percent; the Quinnipiac poll has Christie winning by 28 percent; and the Rutgers-Eagleton poll shows a whopping 36 percent Christie landslide. For a polling profession that usually quotes margins of error of plus or minus 1.5 to 3.5 percent, those Monmouth and Rutgers-Eagleton polls are an Evel Knievel chasm apart.

For Christie, that 16-point spread is the difference between a Monmouth margin worth bragging about on the Sunday morning talk shows and a Rutgers-Eagleton margin worth plastering on billboards in Iowa and New Hampshire tomorrow morning. “The 2016 presidential race starts at 8:01 p.m.,” Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray quipped.

But whether Christie wins by 20 points or 36 points also could be the difference between survival and retirement for Democratic legislators in several districts.

“It’s certainly conceivable that the Democratic turnout could be sufficiently low and the Republican turnout sufficiently high that there could be one or two Senate seats that change from Democrat to Republican,” said John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.

“If Republicans have a net win of one or more seats, Christie will claim it as a huge victory, and rightly so,” Weingart said. “Because there are already several Democrats in the Legislature whose view's tend to lean toward his on critical issues, a small shift could have a big impact on Christie’s ability to push through his agenda in his second term.”

If Christie and the Republicans do pick up Senate seats, it will truly be a remarkable feat because the governor will have accomplished it with both hands tied behind his back -- one by a Legislative Redistricting Commission that approved what is considered a landslide-proof map for the Democrats, and the other by the decision of Christie himself to not even try to win the marginally competitive seats in South Jersey.

“It certainly seems like the governor drew a firewall across South Jersey,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “He just wasn’t going to participate in any battle down there, and he even gave a wink and a nod to (Senate President Stephen) Sweeney (D-Gloucester) in his battle to be reelected by making so many joint appearances with him down there. Instead, he focused his energies elsewhere in the state -- where George Norcross doesn’t care.”

While Sweeney and Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic power broker, didn’t endorse Christie for reelection -- unlike 50 other Democratic elected officials, including Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) -- the two were arguably Christie’s most important allies in passing the 2 percent spending cap, pension and health benefits, interest arbitration, and tenure legislation that were the governor’s major first-term accomplishments.

With the Sweeney-Norcross bastion of South Jersey out of play, Christie has concentrated his efforts -- and his money -- on trying to win seats in Bergen County’s traditionally close 38th District, the public employee-dominated 14th District stretching across suburban Mercer and Middlesex counties, and Middlesex’s 18th District, where Buono’s decision to run for governor created a domino effect in the Democratic delegation and a potential opportunity for the GOP.

Of course, it all depends on who votes and why, and that’s why the polls disagree so sharply this time, said Murray.

“We’re seeing polling numbers all over the place, and that’s not only because of questions about the size of the turnout, but the partisan split of the turnout,” acknowledged Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, who came within a whisker of predicting Democrat Cory Booker’s victory margin in the October 16 special election for U.S. Senate, despite a record-low 24 percent turnout.

Potential landslides are harder to predict, said Murray, who expects about 44 percent of registered voters to turn out, a few points lower than in most gubernatorial years. “Is the losing candidate’s party going to stay home because they feel there’s no point in voting?” he asked. “Or are the winning candidate’s supporters going to be so complacent about winning that they just don’t bother? The answer could have an impact on the outcome of some legislative races.”

Democratic legislators need to count on huge numbers of voters to split their tickets because Christie is projected to carry most legislative districts in the state. That’s why many Democrats have been running both TV and web ads and sending out mailers touting their willingness to work with the popular Republican governor.

Christie actually has been winning a third of the Democratic vote in most polls, and is wiping out the traditional gender gap, despite Buono’s best efforts to hammer away at Christie on women’s issues like abortion and Planned Parenthood funding.

“The 38th is the most vulnerable Democratic district,” Murray declared. “Senator Bob Gordon only won by six points two years ago, and that was without Christie at the top of the Republican ticket. He also doesn’t have a magic bullet like he did last time when he defeated (Bergen County Republican Freeholder-Director) John Driscoll on the Xanadu issue” – the ugly multiplex development at the Meadowlands Sports Complex that has stood unfinished for years.

The Republican decision to put the 18th District in Democratic Middlesex County on its potential win list may seem like a bit of a surprise, but Republicans represented much of that territory in the early 1990s, until an unknown young lawyer named Barbara Buono won it back and held it for 18 years. Buono’s Assembly district mate, Peter Barnes, stepped up to take her place, but David Stahl, the Democrat-turned-Republican mayor of East Brunswick, is mounting a formidable challenge in a district Christie carried in 2009 and is expected to do so again.

Former Republican Sen. Peter Inverso is trying to make a comeback against Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) in the 14th, which became a tougher district for Greenstein when the Democratic bastion of South Brunswick was shifted out during redistricting. But Greenstein won by 10 points in 2011, her third consecutive win in as many years after an Assembly victory in 2009 and a Senate win in a special election in 2010.

Furthermore, Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo and Dan Benson, her Democratic running mates from Hamilton Township, the giant Mercer County suburb that dominates the district, are strong assets. “They’re strong candidates in their own right who bring a lot to the ticket,” Murray noted. “She doesn’t have to carry in her running mates like Jeff Van Drew does.”

Sen. Van Drew, the popular Dennis Township dentist who was the first Cape May Democrat elected in memory, has some heavy lifting this year because incumbent Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-Cumberland) is considered the most vulnerable Assembly incumbent in New Jersey because of his efforts to pull rank with a state trooper during a traffic stop. Albano apologized publicly for his behavior recently, but polls in his race have been close.

Murray isn’t expecting much change in the Legislature, though. “It’s going to be close, but in the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Democrats hang onto almost every one of those seats.”

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