There was a tremor on the political Richter scale you may have missed, since partisan prognosticators and Crossfire fan-kids have been all but assuring us of a Cory Booker senate race shoo-in. In fact, you’d think the New Jersey Senate race was done and that Booker was already hanging drapes in his Capitol Hill office.
But the latest Quinnipiac University poll suddenly shows Newark Mayor Booker’s lead much smaller than Gov. Chris Christie’s hit-and-run crush of State Sen. Barbara Buono in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race. Booker now leads Republican and former Bogota, N.J., mayor Steve Lonegan 53 percent to 41 percent. While that might seem like a comfortable 12-point lead, Booker should be concerned since the last Quinnipiac poll on Aug. 7 showed Booker leading Lonegan by 25 points.
Conventional wisdom suggests that with the high-profile Democratic primary now over, the past month gave Lonegan room to finally break out despite racial gaffes and mistweets. And Quinnipiac says Lonegan’s “show horse vs. work horse” messaging might be making gains.
Booker still appears as if he’s got it locked. But here are six reasons why he shouldn’t get cocky:
1. Booker is overestimating the star power of his tweets. Booker’s overuse of social media could be giving him a premature sense of political security. This is still a non-Presidential ‘off-cycle’ election year and he still needs Jersey-based voters to win. And off-cycle voters are not your typical Twitter junkies. Additionally, his Twitter stripper problem shows that while Twitter can giveth, Twitter can also taketh away.
2. Too much Barack? Not sure Booker as the second coming of Barack Obama works when the latter’s approval ratings can’t break past 45 percent. While a May Marist College poll of New Jersey voters showed 56 percent approval for the president, having nearly 40 percent disapprove is not cool in a blue union state. And with a state electorate identifying as 40 percent Independent, 45 percent of Independent voters disapproving of Obama’s job performance is disconcerting, along with whites who barely approve at only 45 percent.
3. Lonegen’s anti-LGBT dog whistle may have worked a bit. A July Quinnipiac poll showed 60 percent of New Jersey voters supported gay marriage—but that still leaves 31 percent who didn’t—and a missing 9 percent “unsure.” Booker, hoping to seize the moment and please progressives, should have stayed silent on the question of his private life. Lonegen may have effectively touched a nerve with that slice of the Jersey electorate that’s as unabashedly squeamish about homosexuality as Tony Soprano’s capos.
4. Maybe New Jersey is seeing too much Cory Booker. In a nation that loves underdogs and any team other than the New England Patriots, candidates and politicians can do too much media. Just like pop radio stations can play too much of the same song. Watch replays of Republican billionaire Meg Whitman’s colossal fail in the 2010 California gubernatorial race against common man Jerry Brown. After spending $163 million of her own money and blasting the airwaves with her mug, Whitman lost by 13 points. Whitman’s all-out assault on the state’s public sector unions, at one point threatening to lay off thousands of state workers, didn’t help. Booker should also watch his left flank and do more to mend his tense relationship with state teachers who don’t like his charter school cheerleading.
5. Frank Lautenberg haunts the polls. Residue from Booker’s very personal clash with the late Sen. Lautenberg’s family could be lingering. That metastasized into a crowded primary field that shouldn’t really have been there. The state’s black political old guard lashed out via a Jersey speaker Sheila Oliver. Quinnipiac shows only 84 percent of black voters breaking for Booker and, interestingly enough, only 69 percent with a favorable opinion. Black media folks from Philly to New York quietly complain about a detached Booker and others, quoting a source, say “he needs a sister on his arm like Barack.”
6. Christie doesn’t help Booker. Regardless of all the talk that Cory and Chris are BFFs, Christie’s 34-point lead over Buono could be hurting Booker. Christie’s reluctant endorsement of Lonegan could be mobilizing the 20 percent of Jersey voters who identify themselves as “Tea Party” and the 49 percent of whites who aren’t voting for Booker—along with 44 percent of Independents, as well.
A race to watch? At some point Booker will need to look up from his Twitter feed and shake some more hands.
CHARLES D. ELLISON is a regular contributor to The Philly Post, a veteran political strategist and Chief Political Correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine, the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and the weekly Washington Insider heard every Sunday at 9:50am ET on WDAS 105.3 FM. Reach him via Twitter @charlesdellison.