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2011 is No Referendum

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Governor Christie is becoming a pretty good public opinion analyst.  Earlier this week, he noted that the Occupy Wall Street movement is not unlike the Tea Party, saying that both grew out of an “underlying problem… that people feel like government is unresponsive and dysfunctional.”  His view is an accurate read of current polling data.

That demonstration of public opinion acumen follows Christie’s dead-on analysis of the upcoming legislative elections: “In the end, I don’t think these Legislative elections are a referendum on Barack Obama or on me. I think they are a referendum on each one of these individual candidates in these individual districts.”

Legislative elections are rarely referenda on the governor, 1991 being a notable exception.  And they are never a referendum on the U.S. President (despite some GOP backroom chatter trying to get us to think otherwise).  Heck, sometimes they are not even a referendum on the legislature!

Certainly, the governor is an overshadowing presence in any legislative election.  But there are no signs that this year’s contest will be a referendum in the classic sense.

Technically, a referendum is a direct vote by the electorate on a single question.  In that dictionary-definition sense, the only referendum on this year’s ballot is the non-binding one to allow sports betting in the state.

If we expand the term’s definition to its cultural context, a “referendum” can occur when a particular election is used to make a statement about a larger set of issues.  You can identify a referendum election in a number of ways.

After the fact, you can look at turnout.  A sign of a “referendum” election is when turnout is unusually high for all voters or a particular bloc of voters, or when there are noticeable swings in how people usually vote.

For example, since most Congressional seats are safe for the incumbent, the fact that control of the House of Representatives has changed hands twice over the past four years indicates there is some sort of referendum going on.  However, since it has gone back and forth between the parties, the message is unclear.  This goes back to Gov. Christie’s observation that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are really outgrowths of the same public sense that government is broken.

The 2009 gubernatorial election could have been a referendum on the Corzine administration. We saw big swings toward the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Middlesex and Gloucester counties and unprecedented turnout jumps in Monmouth and Ocean.  This suggests that many voters were thinking in terms of a referendum on Corzine, but the results did not trickle down to local races (except in Gloucester County).

The makings of a  referendum election can also be detected beforehand.  One clear sign is whether the political parties actively try to make it a referendum election.   A clue to this is whether they engage – i.e. spend money – on a comprehensive and cohesive messaging strategy.

In New Jersey right now, we see no such effort.  The Democrats are not running advertisements in the New York and Philadelphia media markets saying “We need to push back on the harmful Christie agenda.”  Republicans are not littering the state with flyers saying:  “We have to take control of the legislature to speed up Governor Christie’s reforms.”

That’s just not happening.  Follow the money.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports, there are only five districts where the challenging slate has raised more than $100,000 – districts 1, 11, 14, 27, and 38.  In each of those cases, the incumbent team has outraised the challengers by more than 2 to 1.

Only two other districts show both sides with sizable campaign warchests.  District 7 is a Burlington County split district where the Democrats have outraised the Republicans $725,000 to $436,000 and district 2 in Atlantic County is a split district where each party’s ticket has raised nearly $950,000.

Another source of money is the state party and legislative leadership committees, and their finance reports show no major expenditures on a statewide communications strategy.  If this were a referendum, we would also see the state wealth spread across many local races.  Looking at just the official state committees, funds have been distributed to only a handful of districts – 2, 3, 7, 14, and 38 on the GOP side and 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 14, and 38 for the Democrats.

Neither side is making this a referendum on Gov. Christie.  That’s because neither side could win such a referendum.  The legislative map is doing exactly what it was designed to do – lock in the status quo.  There is practically no way that either party can pick up more than a couple of seats in this election.  Thus, regardless of the outcome, both sides would “lose” a referendum vote.

This is not to say that Christie won’t be a presence in this campaign.  Republican voters like him.  Democrats don’t.  Expressing those sentiments will be a part of their vote.  But would they vote any differently for legislature if Christie wasn’t governor?

Be careful with polls that purport to show a referendum brewing.  Read the wording of those poll questions carefully.  Of course Christie is going to have “something” to do with how a person votes in this election.

The real question is whether the governor’s presence in this race is going to get a significant number of people either to change how they normally vote or to turn out when they normally would not.  And the answer to that is a resounding “No.”