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In New Jersey, Two Glasses Half-Empty

Stu Rothenberg has New Jersey half-right:

Describing Corzine as closing the gap or pulling closer conveys the impression that Corzine is gathering support and increasing his standing in the contest. He is not. He hasn’t moved in the Quinnipiac University poll (or in other polls, for that matter) since the beginning of the year.

Corzine’s chances of winning re-election now are no better than they were a month ago. The governor continues to be stuck between 38 percent and 42 percent in the ballot test, where he has been for many months, and the fundamentals of the race continue to favor the Republican challenger.

Rothenberg is absolutely correct that it would be improper to convey the impression that Jon Corzine, the embattled Democratic governor of New Jersey, is surging in his race against Republican challenger Chris Christie. Corzine’s numbers, which have been stuck around 40 percent some time, haven’t really moved at all. What’s happened, rather, is that Christie has been losing support:

But Rothenberg is wrong that “Corzine’s chances of winning re-election now are no better than they were a month ago”. Those voters that Christie is losing aren’t disappearing into the ether. They’re moving, rather, to independent candidate Chris Daggett, who has run on a Bloombergian platform (pro-reform, pro-environment, pro-choice) although without any of Michael Bloomberg’s monetary firepower. The decline in Christine’s numbers since July and the rise of Daggett’s correspond nearly one-for-one.

It’s hard to say what will happen to those Daggett voters on Election Day. You can perhaps draw a parallel to Minnesota’s Senate race, where you had an unpopular incumbent (Norm Coleman) running against a challenger (Al Franken) that many people were uneasy with. In that race, the third-party candidate, Dean Barkley, wound up with 15 percent of the vote, almost exactly where pre-election polls had pegged him.

But Minnesota was different; there was a Presidential race on the top of the ticket and Minnesota was a swing state. People who showed up to cast their votes for Barack Obama or John McCain had to vote for someone in the Senate race. Well, not technically: it’s perfectly legal to undervote a race and a few people skipped the Senate contest. But the vast majority figured, as long as they were there in the ballot booth, they might as fill out one the ovals for Senate; 15 percent went ahead and voted for Barkley.

In New Jersey, it’s the gubernatorial race at the top of the ticket, and this being an odd-numbered year, in fact, there are no federal races at all on the ballot. So what will those Daggett voters do? There are two more debates remaining in New Jersey and I suppose there is an outside chance that Daggett can surge further, to the point where he actually appears he has a shot at winning. But if he doesn’t (and in all probability he won’t), and the Daggett vote appears to be purely symbolic, a lot of those folks might exercise their right to stay home. From the standpoint of Corzine and Christie, however, this makes no difference: a Daggett vote and a nonvote are essentially the same.

Then there’s the issue of New Jersey’s undecideds, which constitute about 7 percent of the electorate. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, 8 percent of Democrats are undecided as are 7 percent of independents. The Democratic undecideds, most likely, will probably be deciding between Corzine and not voting. Although it’s likely that a plurality of the independent undecideds will turn to Christie, to whom they give somewhat better favorability ratings, a lot of them will probably stay home too. And there are hardly any Republican undecideds — just 2 percent of them, according to Quinnipiac. So Christie won’t get much help there.

Here’s what this boils down to: there are probably a finite number of people willing to get out of bed and vote for Jon Corzine on November 3rd. And it’s a number, moreover, that wouldn’t ordinarily be enough to allow a candidate to carry the state. But the voters who don’t want to vote for Corzine have two alternatives, other than voting for Christie: they can vote for Chris Daggett or they can sit the election out. If enough of them choose one of those options, then Corzine can still win a low-turnout election. Although Corzine remains the underdog, that possibility is indeed looking much stronger than it did a month ago, and Christie still has some work left to do to convince people that he is worth voting for.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.