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Is Cory Booker in Danger of Getting His Bell Rung by Jeff Bell in November?

Surprisingly close poll shows danger of taking foe for granted – and widespread frustration with dysfunctional federal government

carl golden
Carl Golden

New Jersey’s political establishment was thrown into a mini-tizzy with the release last week of a poll which showed U.S. Sen. Cory Booker leading his largely unknown opponent, Jeff Bell, by only 10 points.

Some of the outsized attention the survey drew no doubt resulted from the slow news days common to mid-summer, but the reaction also demonstrated the perils of high expectations in political contests.

Booker has been considered a lock for winning a full term, the only question being how large a margin he would roll up against a Republican candidate who moved back to New Jersey just a few months ago after living in Virginia for nearly 30 years and who’s known chiefly for his upset victory over U. S. Sen. Clifford P. Case in the 1978 primary election.

With significant edges in both name recognition and campaign cash, it’s been widely anticipated that Booker, particularly in the early going, would enjoy a high double-digit lead, possibly even breaking the 20-point margin.

A 10-point advantage, while certainly no reason for panic, fell short of the prevailing conventional wisdom.

When expectations -- realistic or imagined -- are not met, a second look at the campaign strategy usually follows, along with an effort to tamp down chatter about taking a victory lap three months before the election.

Of some concern, however, should be the poll’s findings that Booker’s lead among independents was a comparatively narrow eight points -- 42 to 34. If his strategy is to be tweaked, it will involve broadening his appeal to the independent bloc of voters, a segment of the electorate which more often than not provides the margins of victory in statewide contests.

Booker’s unexpectedly slim lead is indicative of the depth of antipathy -- if not outright hostility -- to all things Washington, DC, and anyone who is a part of the federal government establishment.

Booker’s disappointing showing in the poll reflects anger and frustration over what people see as an increasingly dysfunctional government. Bubbling beneath the surface is a growing sense that only a massive change can restore some order to the process. It’s a manifestation of a “throw the bums out” groundswell and Bell may be reaping the benefit of a political environment in which an outsider’s prospects are enhanced, even against great odds.

Booker may merely be collateral damage inflicted by voters whose patience has been exhausted by a president seemingly unable to cope with international crises and a Congress so paralyzed by partisan and ideological pressures that problems are ignored and allowed to fester.

Angst about the economy remains widespread, passions continue to run high over immigration policy, and bloody upheavals in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have set nerves on edge.

Despite serving in the Senate less than a year, Booker is seen as a part of the Washington establishment whose stature in poll after poll has plunged to record-low levels.

The same poll that showed Booker’s 10-point lead, for instance, showed a 44-52 negative rating for President Obama in a state which has always been a reliable ally for him.

Bell, who at 70 is 25 years Booker’s senior and is as low- key as Booker is glitzy, is within 10 points of Booker even though more than seven in 10 poll respondents admitted they didn’t know enough about him to reach a clear judgment on his candidacy.

His support in the face of being largely unknown suggests that a growing number of voters are willing to take a chance on someone merely because he’s not a part of the current power structure. Any change, the theory goes, is warranted if it delivers a sufficient jolt to those in charge and sends a message that the calcified status quo is no longer acceptable.

The disenchantment certainly exists among New Jersey voters (the poll demonstrated that), but how deeply it runs is yet to be answered.

Bell is positioned to exploit it to the extent he can, while Booker must make a convincing case that, despite being the incumbent and bearing some responsibility for the legislative gridlock, he is more capable of dealing with it than his untested and right-of-center opponent.

Booker’s millions place him a considerably more advantageous position to deliver his message than Bell. In the air war to be played out on network television in New York and Philadelphia, Bell will be clearly overmatched and unable to compete effectively.

Booker continues to be the favorite, of course, but must remain aware of the unsettled and restive political environment in which he’s running. He’s not the quintessential insider, but he’s an insider nonetheless at a time when the benefit of such status has eroded.

Coming within 10 points of Booker despite widespread unfamiliarity with him and his philosophy of government, Bell has become the candidate of the disillusioned, those who are so angry over the direction of the country they will turn to the unknown and hope for dramatic change.

It’s a long shot that the unhappiness and unease will be sufficient to carry Bell to a victory this fall, something which would go down in New Jersey history as the political upset of the century, one matched only by that 36 years ago in which Bell was also involved.

It is cause for concern, but not alarm, that Booker failed to meet early expectations, but it is the foolish candidate – and Booker is not foolish -- who ignores footsteps approaching from behind. Any doubts, ask former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

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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