When Jon Corzine won election as New Jersey’s Governor in 2005, he hardly seemed destined for the “most vulnerable incumbents” list. After retiring from the U.S. Senate, Corzine had won election as Governor by a 10-point margin. But the obstacles to Corzine’s re-election in 2009 began soon after he took office, if not before. Despite his comfortable win in 2005, Corzine has had consistently sub-par approval ratings from New Jersey residents.
When Corzine decided to vacate his U.S. Senate seat and run for Governor, New Jersey already had a very popular incumbent Democrat in office who was well positioned to win re-election. Richard Codey had inherited the Governorship after the resignation of Jim McGreevy and after a few months on the job enjoyed very strong approval numbers (59% Approve, 9% Disapprove, according to Quinnipiac in January 2005) . Codey seemed to have a clear path to election in November 2005. In fact, Codey did as well or better than Corzine against potential Republican opponents, winning hypothetical match-ups handily. Despite the absence of any clamoring for a new candidate, Corzine indicated his intentions and Codey played the good party soldier and decided not to run, resuming his role as President of the State Senate.
After a short period of decent poll numbers subsequent to his election, Corzine’s favorable rating reached a net negative just three months after taking office. An April 2006 Quinnipiac Poll showed 35% approving and 42% disapproving of his performance. Starting from these low levels of support, a series of events have largely kept his numbers in the danger zone. Right after becoming Governor in 2006, Corzine faced a huge budget mess and no politically popular options for dealing with them. A 2007 budget battle with the state legislature shut down the government for a week and set unpopular tax hike and spending cut plans in motion. And, of course, the current economic crisis trumps all previous crises the Governor has faced. The economic crisis has set every Governor’s popularity a step lower than it would normally be. As Roger Simon writes on Politico.com, “being a governor these days is like having a target on your back.” Which is one reason why the latest polls
show Corzine trailing the Republican candidate by around 10 points.
But despite all this, and his undisputed underdog status, Corzine has a decent chance of pulling out an upset victory. Beyond the so-so poll numbers and the economic problems, New Jersey is now a firmly Democratic state where an incumbent Democratic Governor has a lot of inherent advantages. The Democratic Party has a long winning streak of nine statewide elections since 2000 winning three straight Presidential elections (56-40, 53-46, 57-42), four straight U.S. Senate elections (50-47, 54-44, 53-44, 56-42) and two straight governor elections (53-43, 54-44).
And though its electoral value can be overstated, there is Corzine’s personal wealth, available to outspend any Republican opponent – Corzine spent over $63 million in his 2000 election for Senate and approximately $40 million in his 2005 campaign for governor. Corzine also has the advantage of a relatively unknown opponent in Christopher Christie. As Joshua Grossman noted, “No matter how much of his ample fortune Corzine spends on his re-election campaign, he’s not going to become suddenly popular in New Jersey. But Corzine still has a shot to win if he can become just popular enough and Christie’s negatives can be driven up significantly by a hard-hitting campaign against him.”
When the election comes on November 3rd, Edison will be exit polling throughout the state. It will be interesting to see if Corzine can rebound from his rocky relationship with New Jersey’s voters, and to learn what issues mattered most in whatever judgment they hand down.