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How the Internet Could Make Chris Daggett NJ's Next Governor [UPDATED AGAIN]

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, October 28 2009

Could New Jersey independent gubernatorial candidate Chris Daggett pull off a Jesse Ventura in next week's election? That's the intriguing question posed by Mark Blumenthal over on his "Mystery Pollster" column at National Journal. I think the answer is that it's pretty unlikely--unless the Daggett campaign uses the internet in a way no campaign has ever done before. I'll explain how in a moment. But here's a hint:

First some background. Blumenthal reports that the two most recent nonpartisan polls of the race show Daggett at 19 or 20 percent of the vote, with the two major party candidates, Democratic Governor Jon Corzine and Republican Chris Christie each at around 40 percent. Even though he lacks any party organization and is significantly being outspent, Daggett has been trending upward, the beneficiary of a solid debate performance in early October, the endorsement of the Newark Star-Ledger, and rising voter disgust with the negative advertising being run by both of his larger rivals. Similar conditions helped Ventura surge to victory in the final days of 1998's Minnesota governor's race.

But as Blumenthal notes, the two races are not totally analogous. Daggett, an environmentalist and lawyer, has less name recognition than Ventura, who was widely known in his state for his professional wrestling career and then for hosting a popular talk-radio show. New Jersey's media is dominated by TV stations in NY and Philadelphia, neither of which focus as intently on state politics as did Minnesota's media. So even if Daggett is saving a really great TV ad for the last week of the race--and I'm guessing that's his plan, given that his ad guy is Bill Hillsman, the same marketing genius who did Ventura's hilarious TV ads--it may not get nearly as much free exposure via TV where it's most needed.

Ventura also benefited from some modest public funding in his race, and perhaps most crucially, was the beneficiary of his state's same-day voter registration system. That means his late surge in the streets (and sports bars) of suburban Minneapolis and St. Paul could get translated into an Election Day shocker that pollsters couldn't have predicted. Daggett, by contrast, has to somehow eak out a win among the existing pool of registered voters in New Jersey. And right now he is banging up against what might be called the "Prisoner's Dilemma" of third-party politics.

Blumenthal reports that his brother-in-law, who lives in the state, is leaning toward Daggett but worried that he won't win. "I have been watching the polls in New Jersey," his brother-in-law 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?"

Right now, I'm betting that several hundred thousand New Jerseyites are mulling the same problem in their heads. (At least one-third of the state's voters are independents, and there were a total of about 2.2 million votes cast in 2005's gubernatorial election.) They're tempted to vote for Daggett for all the reasons that more and more people have registered "independent" in America over the last few decades. They're tired of money-driven, negative politics and they want a blend of socially progressive and fiscally tough leadership. And they're attracted, at least sentimentally, to outsiders and mavericks who maybe, just maybe, can shake up the system and offer new ideas that will get things done. (If you doubt that New Jersey has a tradition of supporting such outsiders, recall the huge crowds that independent Ross Perot drew there back in the spring of 1992, when some polls in the state found him ahead of both major party candidates.)

Fear of "wasting" one's vote will likely cause most of those wavering New Jerseyites to vote their second choice, one of the major candidates. But here's where the internet could change that dynamic. Daggett needs voters to believe that he can win the race, and the only way he can do that is demonstrate that it is a true three-way heat. He needs a poll to come out showing that he's within single digits of the other candidates--say, at 25% to their 33% or 35%. But he's only at 20% now, and shifting another five percent of the vote means finding roughly 100,000 registered voters who will change their minds. And ever single one of those possible switchers is thinking like Mark Blumenthal's brother-in-law: will I be wasting my vote if I vote for Daggett?

The internet can be Daggett's bridge. His campaign needs to set up a public pledge site, where wavering voters can announce the following: "I want to vote for Chris Daggett, but only if he has a real chance of winning. He needs pledges from 100,000 people like me. I don't want to wait til Election Day to find out that those votes existed, but we were all afraid to cast them. So, I'm signing my name below, with my address to prove that I'm real, and pledging that if 100,000 people like me sign up, I will vote for Daggett."

Like other vote-trading websites from past elections, such a pledge campaign can work to swing several percentage points in the race. It could be the tipping point the Daggett campaign needs. I don't know. Without it, I'm pretty sure Daggett's late rise in the polls is going to fall short. With it, he might win.

UPDATE: A Daggett supporter named Alexander Higgins emails me to say that he read this post, and put up a petition here. It's a start, but my sense is he needs a better url if this is going to spread...

SECOND UPDATE: Well, it's midday Saturday and something is going on over at The number of voter pledges is at about 17,000 and seems to be rising at the rate of a few thousand an hour. This could get interesting.

Bonus link: Here's Daggett addressing the "wasted vote" issue: