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Obama-Corzine 2009?

Democrats continue to trail both the New Jersey and Virginia governors races. Last week, I raised the question of whether Northern Virginia voters can save Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds. This week I ask, Can Barack Obama save Jon Corzine in New Jersey?

As Nate wrote a couple days ago, evidence of a Corzine comeback is mixed. And there is mounting evidence that Corzine knows that perhaps only with Obama’s help can he stagger across the finish line ahead of Republican candidate Chris Christie–namely, the mounting of billboard signs around the state juxtaposing the two men’s names.

But the real testament is found in the state registration data and recent poll results showing Corzine either tied or potentially ahead–if, that is, one projects an electorate next November that looks like the registered votership in the state as opposed to the likely votership in the state. This key distinction requires a bit of unpacking, so let’s start with the party registration data in New Jersey today as compared with the recent past.

Here are the most current voter registration data from the NJ State Board of Elections. If we hold aside the very small fraction of voters who identify as third-party registrants–that is, those registering as something other than “DEM”ocratic, “REP”ublican, or “UNA”affiliated–the three-way splits for registration work out as follows: Democrats, 33.9%; Republicans, 20.4%; and Unaffiliateds, 45.7%. These are not the final data, but registrations in the final month will not alter these shares very much.

Registration over the past four years, however, has changed these numbers dramatically. If you think the nearly 46% “unaffiliated” share is big today, four years ago on the eve of the last statewide election, as indicated by the final, official registration figures for 2004, Garden State “unaffiliateds” were an eye-popping 53.0% of registrants. More tellingly, the 14-point net (and 62 percent two-party share) Democratic advantage today is significantly wider than the 5-point (and 56 percent two-party share) advantage Democrats enjoyed just four years ago.

So, how the heck can Corzine possibly be trailing Christie? Setting aside the myriad campaign, candidate and issue-related reasons, the short answer is two-fold:

1. The electorate expected to turn out five weeks from today contrasts starkly with the registered votership, most notably in that the former is likely to be both whiter and older. (These are not mutually-exclusive distinctions, of course.) If you look at the very bottom of the Monmouth results, you’ll see that the likely-voter screen they use results in a drop of about four percent in the statewide share of non-white voters. The share of likely voters ages 18-34 drops six percent. The younger, more multiracial electorate on the state registrant rolls puts Corzine ahead, 41% to 40%; the older, whiter likely-voter one has Christie ahead, 47% to 39%. (After speaking yesterday to reps from Monmouth and Quinnipiac, I’m satisfied they are weighting the samples appropriately–but more on that below.)

2. Though some of the unaffiliateds have strong partisan inclinations, among those who do not Christie is holding down a significant enough share to compensate for the wider, two-party registration gap he faces today, as compared to the one Republican Doug Forrester faced in 2005. In the Quinnipiac poll, Christie’s lead among independents has shrunk from 30 points in July to just 13 now. If registered “unaffiliateds” or self-defined “indepdents” were a much smaller share of the state, the two-party advantage Democrats enjoy statewide would be enough to swamp that margin.

Which brings us back to Obama. His election–in New Jersey and nationally–depended upon forging a new coalition. Nationally, the white vote increased just 1% between 2004 and 2008, but the non-white vote jumped 19%. The (somewhat overlapping) youth voter turnout also surged. In short, an Obama-style turnout has the potential to tilt the NJ electorate closer next November toward its registration splits than its presently estimated likely-voter splits. And Obama has proved previous turnout models to be wholly wrong before (think Iowa, January 3, 2009). Which is why an Obama-Corzine may well be Corzine’s best, even only, hope.