New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican poised to win re-election tomorrow, has garnered support across partisan lines. He led Democratic challenger Barbara Buono by 28 percentage points in the latest poll.
The Democratic-leaning state’s voters embrace him, even as they pan his handling of taxes and jobs and expect him to leave a second term early to run for president. He opposes raising the minimum wage and higher taxes for the rich. The state’s unemployment rate is the seventh-highest in the U.S., and its credit rating is the third-lowest. Property-tax bills, already the nation’s steepest, have climbed 8.3 percent under his watch.
Christie won over Democrats and independent voters with his post-Hurricane Sandy leadership, and polls show his victory margin could be the widest since 1985. He raised five times as much as Buono, a state senator unknown to 37 percent of those likely to cast ballots. A more funded and familiar challenger, like U.S. Senator Cory Booker, might have had more success chipping away at Christie’s economic record.
“If it was Christie and Booker, I would have totally went to Booker,” said Pauline Messina, 34, a hairdresser and independent voter from Rutherford. “One hundred percent. But that’s not happening, so Christie is going to win this election.”
Booker, 44, the former mayor of Newark, was sworn in as the newest U.S. senator Oct. 31 after winning a special election to complete the term of Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who died in June. Booker chose a Senate run over a challenge to Christie, dashing the hopes of Democratic leaders who saw him as their best chance of unseating the popular incumbent.
In an Oct. 23 Rutgers-Eagleton poll, 85 percent of respondents approved of Christie’s post-Sandy work. Yet on their biggest concerns, the economy and jobs, only 42 percent approved, while on taxes, even fewer approved, 38 percent.
The incumbent had overall support from 74 percent of independents, the largest voting bloc in New Jersey. Forty-seven percent of registered voters are unaffiliated, while 33 percent are Democrats and 20 percent are Republicans.
Christie, the only U.S. governor seeking re-election this year, raised $13.2 million for his campaign through Oct. 25, according to the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission. Buono, a state lawmaker since 1994, raised $2.8 million.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released today, Christie led Buono, 61 percent to 33 percent. The last candidate for New Jersey governor to win by at least 28 percentage points was incumbent Republican Tom Kean, with a 41-point win in 1985. A landslide makes Christie appear stronger as a contender for president, according to Julian Zelizer, who teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University.
“With his appeal to independent voters, and even Democrats, Christie-for-President 2016 begins a few minutes after 8 o’clock tomorrow night,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac poll.
While Buono, 60, has been forced to stick mostly to online videos and social media because of her fundraising woes, Christie has spent $8 million to get on television and radio. Buono, whose campaign declined to say how much was spent on advertising, has run one television spot, a 30-second ad accusing Christie, 51, of being more focused on a White House run than a second term.
Buono’s message isn’t being heard, said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton poll in New Brunswick.
“Christie could have been vulnerable on the issues voters care about, but not without the presence of a visible, viable alternative,” Redlawsk said. “In the absence of seeing an alternative and being able to pass judgment on it, voters will choose what they know.”
New Jersey has added 142,400 nongovernment jobs since February 2010, Christie’s first full month in office. That’s 59 percent of the jobs lost during the recession that began in December 2007. Neighboring New York had gained back all of the jobs it lost during that period by last year.
Under Christie, the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent in August, from 9.7 percent in February 2010. That’s 1.2 percentage points higher than the U.S. average for August, and tied for the seventh-highest. New York’s August unemployment was 7.6 percent and Pennsylvania’s was 7.7 percent.
In web ads, press releases, debates and posts to social-media sites, Buono has accused Christie of ignoring the middle class and small businesses, and of not being responsive enough to the needs of Sandy survivors. She has criticized his opposition to a minimum-wage increase, a millionaire’s tax and gay marriage.
Voters side with Buono on such issues, according to polls. Fifty-nine percent of voters in an Oct. 10 Quinnipiac University poll supported efforts to override Christie’s gay-marriage veto, and 65 percent of voters in a June Monmouth University poll opposed Christie’s decision to hold the special Senate election in October, rather than tomorrow.
“He has an incredible knack for taking issues where New Jersey voters don’t agree with him and pivoting them back,” said Matt Hale, who teaches politics at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
Aside from Booker, Democrats lacked a potential candidate with the political skills to match Christie, Hale said.
“I certainly think there could have been a stronger challenger,” Hale said. “Even Barbara Buono could have been a stronger challenger, and I don’t think she’s done a particularly good job of letting people know why they should vote for her.”
Christie, in his ads, has called Buono a big-government Democrat who would raise taxes. He has touted his ability to balance four budgets without raising levies.
The governor has also touted his ability to slow the growth in the state’s property taxes by capping annual increases at 2 percent. Even so, he cut rebates, which are aimed at softening the blow of the bills.
New Jersey’s average residential property-tax bill reached a record $7,885 in 2012, up from $7,281 in 2009. In the decade before Christie took office, the taxes rose more than 70 percent.
Christie’s campaign has run 18 TV and radio spots this year. He also had the advantage of appearing in a $25 million, federally funded “Stronger Than the Storm” ad campaign meant to lure visitors back to the Jersey Shore after Sandy.
Messina, the hairdresser, said the lopsided ad war has shaped her impression of the race. During an interview outside a church in Moonachie that Christie visited on the Oct. 29 one-year anniversary of Sandy, Messina said Buono, who she referred to as “his opponent,” hasn’t sold herself.
“Does she ever talk?,” Messina said. “I’m sure she does but nobody ever hears about it. So I don’t know exactly what she does or who she is. You just hear the negative things about her. And you always hear from him because of his mouth.”