My brother-in-law lives in New Jersey. A few days ago he sent me an e-mail.
"I have been watching the polls in New Jersey," he explained. "The governor's race seems to be a dead heat right now. Each major candidate is getting 40 percent." He wondered, however about the remaining 20 percent. Independent Chris Daggett, he wrote, "seems to have won both debates (in my opinion). If I vote for him, am I wasting my vote?"
Most polls show that Daggett's rise to an average of roughly 16 percent has hurt Republican Chris Christie and helped incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine. But whether Christie continues to rise depends partly on how voters like my brother-in-law answer the question: Can Daggett win?
Those who follow politics are familiar with a pattern, evident mostly in primary elections, in which two front-running candidates will battle for months, often with an acrimonious exchange of negative advertising, only to be overtaken by a little-known third candidate who surges from single digits in the campaign's final weeks.
In almost every case, three dynamics facilitate the also-ran's rise: Strong performances in campaign debates and endorsements from prominent newspapers boost their name recognition, while a last-minute surge in the polls helps convince voters that the long shot really can win.
Most of these elements now seem to be in play for Daggett. He won plaudits following a strong debate performance in early October. He then received the endorsement of the Newark Star-Ledger, the state's most widely read newspaper. And his support in most polls has been rising, from the single digits in September to the mid-teens as of about week ago.
The hurdles are much higher, however, for an independent candidate in a general election. Of the 365 governors elected or appointed since 1970, according to the National Governors Association, only five have been anything other than Democrats or Republicans, and only two of those -- Minnesota's Jesse Ventura in 1998 and Maine's Jim Longley in 1974 -- won with a late surge of support. You don't need to be a Bayesian statistician to figure out that with less than two weeks to go, the probability of a Daggett victory is still very low.
Yet the parallels to the 1998 Ventura race are intriguing. Surveys conducted by the Minneapolis Star Tribune (shown in the chart below) had Ventura languishing in the mid-teens for most of the race. He only started to rise, to 21 percent, in late October and reached just 27 percent on the final survey, tied for second with Democrat Skip Humphrey, before surging to a victory with 37 percent of the vote.
Tantalizing as those numbers may seem, there are still six reasons why Daggett faces a much steeper climb than Ventura:
• "Can You Say 'Name Recognition?'" That's how Rob Daves, the former pollster for the Star Tribune, puts it. Ventura was already well known as a pro-wrestler and radio talk show host. Voters had doubts about his prospects and qualifications, but as of mid-October 1998, according to a Mason-Dixon poll, 91 percent were able to give Ventura a favorable or unfavorable rating. By contrast, according to this week's Rutgers-Eagleton poll, more than half of New Jersey's voters (53 percent) have not yet heard enough about Daggett to rate him.
• Media Markets. New Jersey's media markets, New York and Philadelphia, are two of biggest and most expensive in the nation, with local news stations that tend to focus on their home states. This double-whammy presumably precludes cash-poor Daggett from television advertising and blunts the impact of his growing "free" media exposure. By contrast, says Paul Maslin, the pollster for Skip Humphrey in 1998, "Jesse Ventura was a popular wrestler/radio host/mayor in a media market that dominated his state and was willing to give him every break in terms of coverage."
• Baseball. If the New Jersey news hole in those markets were not already small enough, the prospect of a Philadelphia-New York World Series during the last six days of the race diminishes it even further (the Phillies have clinched, the Yankees are one game away).
• Spending Limits. Ventura's win was also facilitated by state campaign finance laws that leveled the playing field by providing him with matching funds for television ads while also limiting his opponent's expenditures. New Jersey has a similar system, but Corzine is opting out and spending his personal fortune freely, while Christie still has millions left to spend. The two front-runners also benefit from independent expenditures by the Democratic and Republican governors associations. Meanwhile, Daggett's budget has not allowed for television advertising.
• History. Minnesota has a history of support for third-party candidates. The Farmer-Labor Party elected three governors, four U.S senators and eight representatives during the early 20th century before merging with the Democrats in 1944. By contrast, New Jersey has elected only Democratic and Republican governors since the Civil War.
• Christie's Attacks. The Republicans, seeing Daggett as a mortal threat, are aiming negative radio advertising at Daggett, and Christie's television advertising now attacks both Corzine and Daggett. The Democratic pollsters at Democracy Corps see evidence of those attacks driving up Daggett's unfavorable rating.
For these reasons and more, Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray believes Daggett's support has already "topped out" and will likely fall short of 20 percent on Election Day.
Still, with New Jersey voters soured on both Corzine and Christie and independent identification hitting all-time highs nationally, I have to wonder. Which brings me back to my brother-in-law. I asked him what he might do if he saw Daggett's numbers jump in the final polls. His answer illustrates Daggett's challenge:
"I'd only vote for him," he said, "if I got more info on him and he was at 25 and they were at 35."