By Matt Friedman | July 14th, 2009 - 4:37pm
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To get a true picture of where the New Jersey gubernatorial race stands right now, analysts and pollsters say you need to look past the horse race poll numbers and focus instead on some of the recent suveys' underlying questions.

While the head-to-head match ups demonstrate a clear trend of Republican Christopher Christie leading incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, they're malleable this early in the campaign, and fluctuations in that number- whether swings or incremental changes - are to be expected.  Voters, for the most part, do not start paying attention until September at the earliest.

"That's why the campaigns are paying attention to all the stuff underneath that: the favorability rating, the issue ratings," said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray, whose organization, along with Gannett New Jersey, is releasing its own poll on Thursday.

What's clear is that Governor Corzine faces enormous political problems, and that the public is clearly in an anti-incumbent mood.  But there is still time - especially given Corzine's huge monetary advantage - to close the gap with Christie.

In the Quinnipiac University poll released today, Murray said the most important number is the 40% of voters who don't know enough about Christie to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him.  Although Christie's favorables remains net positive, there's plenty of room for his unfavorables to increase.

"That 40% who don't know Chris Christie hanging out there in this poll, that's got to leave his campaign worried," he said.

That number, Murray said, will move before the horse race gap legitimately changes.

Murray took issue with the poll's question about whether it was fair for Corzine to criticize Christie as being linked to former President Bush, since Corzine has yet to put any ads pointing to the connection - even if he has mentioned it in a couple statements.

Although the 40% does give Christie reason to worry, it also shows an electorate ready to vote for anyone but Corzine - even if they barely know anything about his opponent.

"They're saying they're going to vote for him but don't know enough about him," said Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute's New Jersey Project.  "It really sounds like anybody but Corzine."

Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Harrison said that she puts "absolutely no stock" in the horse race numbers in terms of predicting the race's outcome.

"Most people are thinking about vacations and the beach, so even if they have an opinion it doesn't necessarily reflect for whom they're going to vote," she said.  "The other thing is that most of the polls at this point don't have very good composites of their likely voters."

The number that really jumps out at Harrison is the 8% garnered by independent Christopher Daggett, a former state Commissioner of Environmental Protection and Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator. 

"That really exceeds expectation, and those are spoiler numbers," she said.

Cook Political Report Senior Editor Jennifer Duffy has watched poll after poll of bad news for Corzine, but has continued to classify the race "Leans Democratic" in her publication, largely because of the size of Corzine's pocketbook.  New developments may cause her to change the rating next week -- or not. 

"I struggle with this race every day. I still have it in ‘lean,' because I'm sort of under the belief that Corzine's just going to throw so much money at it that there's just not a whole lot that Christie is going to be able to do.  On the other hand, Christie has probably earned that toss-up rating," she said.

A lot of politicos around the country will notice if that rating is changed, since it's one of only two gubernatorial races this year.  Although Duffy said that the race - like almost all gubernatorial races - will be decided on statewide issues, observers will read national political implications into it.  And there may be some validity to that, since it's one of President Barack Obama's first tests of how much he can help candidates from his own party.

"We've seen in the past, every four years, that a lot is read into results in New Jersey and Virginia rightly or wrongly - mostly wrongly.  It is what it is.  There's not a lot you can do about it.  It just happens," she said.

But even if New Jerseyans don't view the race as a referendum on Obama and national Democrats, the results will have a national meaning - especially to Republicans.

"If the Republicans can win with a damaged national brand, and given the condition of the state party, that will say something, I think, about the Republicans' longer prospects," said analyst Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.  "It would be one giant adrenaline shot for the Republican Party."

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