Is it possible that the revelation about Chris Christie's loan to a colleague in his office has re-shuffled the chess-board of the gubernatorial election?
There can be no doubt that any week a campaign is on defense is a bad week for that campaign. While the earlier revelation from Karl Rove that he had conversations with Christie were trumpeted by his opponents as something nefarious, it had the ring of true inside baseball uninteresting to voters outside the realm of political junkiedom (a politician running for office today might have talked to someone about it? yawn).
The loan gives the Corzine campaign more ammunition, inasmuch as Christie admitted that he made a mistake (albeit worth all of $400), in not reporting it and the pittance of the income it generated. And it is the second "un-forced error" of the Christie campaign.
But have the fundamentals that were underlying this race been altered in any meaningful way? I don't think so. Here's why:
An incumbent election is always a referendum on that incumbent and his/her record, and the mood of the population, as evidenced by the percentage of voters who think that things are moving in the right or wrong direction.
Today, Governor Corzine's numbers on all these scores is very very low. In fact, they are much worse than Governor Florio's numbers at this time in 1993, when he lost re-election.
In these circumstances, an incumbent's only hope is to make the challenger candidate so unacceptable as an alternative, that the incumbent is re-elected regardless.
I don't think anyone can credibly argue that even with the latest revelations, Chris Christie is approaching "unacceptable" as an alternative. The Corzine campaign has a long way to go to make Christie an unacceptable alternative.
Moreover, the political environment does not seem to have changed much, and there is growing evidence that it is improving for Republicans. In recent polls conducted for the state Assembly Republicans, the Governor is seriously under-performing his 2005 results, and most meaningfully, voters in these districts are voting Republican for Legislature, in solid numbers.
1991 was the last time Republicans were winning the so-called generic ballot in these districts, and in that year the Republicans won control of 2/3 of the State Legislature.
President Obama's numbers have also cooled. Among NJ independents his dis-approval ratings have climbed and are now equal to his approvals. That is a stunning drop, among independent voters, in just 8 months.
Nonetheless, the Corzine campaign has accompanied its aggressive opposition research marketing to the press with a large paid media advertising campaign since June, outspending the Christie campaign by 10:1 on the air.
This is all likely to take a toll on Christie's leads in new state-wide polls.
But pay attention to Governor Corzine's actual ballot number in the new head-to-heads. If he succeeds in lowering Christie's lead, but remains in the low 40's, past history suggests an incumbent with continuing serious problems.
While the fundamentals of this race have been shaped by voters interpreting events for themselves for the past 4 years, and they currently favor Christie, the GOP candidate's campaign cannot afford any more unforced errors. The room for error for a Republican in NJ is so low as to be non-existent. If $5-6 million of Corzine advertising can affect an 8-12 point lead over the summer, what will happen when even more get spent in the fall?
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