Although 2011 has just begun, the battleground for 2012 is already beginning to take shape, and veteran political observers are taking a close look at New Jersey for signs of where the electorate might end up in two years. It’s the first time in a while that the Garden State has received such national political attention, quite the departure from years of scorn as the plot location for gritty mafia dramas and, more recently, ridicule as a reality show haven for misfit hits like Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of New Jersey.
But, this state of nearly 9 million also lies between two of the largest global media markets in the country and, despite its size, is also home to some of the most legendary political battles in American history. And while still an overwhelmingly Democratic machine state in terms of voter registration, it boasts an unapologetically aggressive Republican Governor with an increasing national profile. It also houses the fourth poorest city in the country, now run by a seemingly sleepless young Mayor whose larger ambitions still remain unknown. Not to mention an eclectic mix of highly active ethnic enclaves sure to make any seasoned campaign strategist salivate.
It’s a political nut many analysts want to crack, especially as Democrats are still smarting over GOP Governor Chris Christie’s (R-NJ) surprise 2009 defeat of then-Democratic Governor John Corzine. Observers were left momentarily scratching their heads at the flipping of such a reliably blue state into a red corner – even though Christie’s anti-tax-through-leaner-government message clearly resonated with voters. And, now, strategists are looking hard for cracks in the tough Christie armor, recently underscored by the mini-scandal in which it was revealed the Governor was vacationing in Florida with family while Jersey residents were struggling through a Christmas blizzard.
Not a good look for the hard-charging, Braveheart-like Governor that Trenton critics and state Democrats refer to as a “bully.” There are signs of vulnerability as Christie must decide what message, if any, he wants to reinforce heading into a 2013 re-election bid.
Still, Christie appears steadfast and strong in post-blizzard polling with a recent Fairleigh Dickinson poll putting him at 53% – opposed to 36% disapproving. Pre-midterms, it was 51%; post-midterms it slipped to 49%.
Considering those respectable approval ratings for Christie, it’s also worth noting that local Jersey municipal taxes jumped 7% in 2010. With taxes being the holy grail of political issues in the Garden State, one wonders whether that will hurt Christie, an avowed tax-cutter. Or, will that hurt local Democratic machines hungry to hold on to longtime home rule, leading into a combined voter revolt that could put the state out of blue state contention for a years to come? Is taking out Christie the key to Democrats’ fortunes in the Soprano state?
It’s important to note how Democrats can put Jersey back into their column come 2012 in spite of Christie. Of note is the state’s massive Black and Latino populations – 15% and 13% respectively. Democratic strategists admit that the Corzine outreach machine to those two groups completely failed, and with it an unforgiving inability by the party to marshal their most reliable base voters. Now, the Black political machine is in a state of relentless rebellion against Christie as the Governor seeks across the board cuts to everything from schools to government salary rolls, much of that being bread and butter for the state’s African American working and middle class.
But, what of Cory Booker? Similar polls find the Newark Mayor and telegenic Black new school pol in a statewide draw against Christie, with a strong 46% approval rating and 16% disapproving. And he maintains well across party lines, with 52% of Democrats approving and 47% of Republicans the same, as with 36% of independents. Clearly, his blizzard response – a rapid fire response system of personal touch tweets – ruled the headlines. But Booker, laser-focused on reviving the beleaguered city of just under 300,000, is completely mum on his future political ambitions. Some say he sees himself in Trenton. Others say he’s looking south to D.C.
Within that context, a recent poll shows President Barack Obama “shellacking” Christie should the GOP successfully runs a candidate like Christie in 2012. If that were to happen, Obama would slam the Jersey Governor by 17 points. “Obama leads Christie by a 17 point margin in a hypothetical contest, the same amount Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich trail by,” observes Tom Jensen in a recent Public Policy Polling survey. “Mitt Romney does the best of the leading Republican contenders in the state, trailing Obama by 15, and Sarah Palin has one of her worst performances in any state we’ve polled to date, lagging the President by a whooping 30 points.”
Another Public Policy Polling poll shows incumbent Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) flat at 37% – and just managing to fend off a challenge from political family brand name Tom Kean, Jr. (R) at 41% to 39%, even though 51% of Jersey voters have “no opinion about him,” says Jensen. Kean is reportedly considering a bid against Menendez, one of the few Latino Members in the Senate.