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The Expectations Game

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Election Day is tomorrow. And as is typical of these low turnout affairs, it’s now a matter of managing expectations. Over the past few months, the New Jersey GOP has been putting out mixed messages about what they hope to accomplish in this election. Let’s put these expectations in context.

When the new legislative map was first unveiled in April, it was clear that neither party could launch a “referendum” type campaign. The map locked down too many districts for one party or the other. The Republicans saw a few opportunities to pick up seats and claimed they would try to make lemonade out of what were very sour lemons.

Over the summer, the GOP leaked some internal polling “data” showing that Gov. Christie was very popular in key battleground districts while Pres. Obama was very unpopular there. The underlying message was that, even if they couldn’t turn the election into a statewide referendum, they could do it district by district.

As anyone who closely studies voting behavior understands, the electorate doesn’t cast their vote as proxies for other offices. It’s extremely rare that a sizable number of votes for legislator are cast specifically to show support for or opposition to a sitting governor’s agenda. And they never think about the president; voters are smart enough to distinguish between DC and Trenton.

Certainly, voters’ opinion of the governor comes into play, but that is part and parcel of their general partisan inclination. Unless a governor’s actions cause voters to change their normal voting choice or come out to vote when they typically wouldn’t, there is no referendum.

New Jersey’s 1991 was one such exception. But it’s important to remember that voters were also specifically punishing the legislators who supported Gov. Florio’s tax hikes as much as they were expressing anger at the governor himself. And that election featured a new legislative map friendlier to Republicans, to boot.

So, by the end of summer, Gov. Christie was saying that there was no way much was going to change due to the new legislative map. Then a few weeks ago, he suddenly said that the GOP would make history!

It turns out the governor’s definition of history is a bit underwhelming. Basically, if Republicans could hold on to the seats they already have, the election would be historic. To back this up, the state GOP put out a memo showing that the governor’s party has lost legislative seats in the first midterm elections of 7 of the past 8 governors.

Putting aside numerous mathematical errors in the memo, the state GOP doesn’t take into account the fact that the governor’s party usually picks up seats as a coattail effect during the governor’s initial election. In this context, a loss of seats in the midterm can be viewed as something of a course correction.

Analyzing these two-cycle changes in legislative seats (governor’s election year plus midterm), we find that 4 of the past 7 governors have actually seen their party experience a net gain of seats.

Let’s go back to Gov. William Cahill, the first governor elected under the current legislative structure of 120 seats. His fellow Republicans gained one seat during his election in 1969, but lost 26 seats in the 1971 midterm – for a net loss of 25 seats.

Gov. Brendan Byrne’s Democrats picked up an astronomical 39 seats when he was first elected in 1973. This was on top of the 26 they picked up in the prior election, so it’s not surprising that Democrats wouldn’t be able to hold all these gains. They lost 17 seats in the 1975 midterm, but that still left the legislature with 22 more Democrats than it had before Byrne was first elected. Democrats picked up another 3 seats during Byrne’s re-election but lost 10 in his second midterm. In the end, Byrne left office with his party holding 15 more legislative seats than it did before he was elected.

The 1981 election brought New Jersey a new legislative map and a record close race for governor. Tom Kean eked out a 1,600 vote win and his fellow Republicans picked up 6 seats in the legislature under a brand new map. They picked up one more seat in an ensuing special election but lost 3 in Kean’s first midterm. This netted the Republicans a 4 seat gain compared to where they stood before Kean was elected. Kean’s party picked up 12 seats and control of the Assembly during his landslide 1985 re-election, but lost 6 seats during his second mid-term election. Kean ended his tenure as governor with 9 more Republican seats than before he was elected. [Note: the initial version of this column included incorrect numbers for Kean’s second term.]

Jim Florio, the man Kean beat, came to office in 1989 with 4 additional Democratic seats. His party lost one seat in an interim special election and another 31 in the midterm on the back of voter anger over tax hikes, for a net loss of 28 seats during his term.

Christie Whitman is the only governor of the past 40 years who never saw her party gain seats. She governed under a legislative map that slightly favored Republicans, but not by nearly the number that the GOP picked up in the anti-Florio backlash. Her party lost 8 seats when she was first elected in 1993, one seat in an interim election, another 2 in her first midterm, 2 during her re-election, 3 during her final midterm, and another one in a special election. Republicans maintained their legislative majority throughout the 1990s, but by 16 fewer seats than they had before Whitman was elected.

A new legislative map in 2001 helped Jim McGreevey come into office with a net gain of 14 Democratic legislators. However, rather than lose some of those gains in a midterm correction, Democrats were able to pick up 5 more seats in 2003. This gave McGreevey’s party a net 19 seat gain during his abbreviated tenure.

Democrats picked up another 2 seats when Jon Corzine was elected in 2005 and held even during his 2007 midterm. This is the smallest net legislative change of any governor’s administration, but it is a gain nonetheless.

That brings us to Chris Christie. His Republicans were able to pick up one Assembly seat when he was first elected in 2009, but lost one Senate seat in a special election last year. So he’s at “square one” regarding tomorrow’s election.

Looking back on the past 40 years, neither a gain nor a loss of Republican seats would be particularly historic. Both outcomes have happened about equally, although more governors have in fact gained rather than lost seats if both their initial election and midterm years are combined.

On the other hand, if Republicans can hold onto the 49 seats they have now, it would indeed be historic. Chris Christie would be the first governor since the legislature went to 120 seats to experience neither a net gain nor a net loss in the two-cycle number of seats his party controls. And given the current legislative map’s limitations, I bet that’s exactly the type of history he’s shooting for.

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Bizarre fact: Eleven legislative candidates nominated by either Democratic or Republican primary voters will not appear on the ballot tomorrow. An astounding four of those are from the 8th district. Democrat Carl Lewis was kicked off the Senate ballot. His two Assembly running mates were placeholders and subsequently substituted on the ballot. And incumbent Patrick Delany resigned his seat over the summer and was replaced. That means that 8th district voters will only see two names on the ballot out of the six candidates they nominated in June.