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  • Biden fighting an uphill battle to win over public opinion

    by Patrick Murray

    This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed on on February 9, 2023 and was published in the February 12 edition of the Star-Ledger.

    Let’s make one thing clear about President Biden’s State of the Union speech. It will not change public opinion. Very few presidential addresses do. What these speeches can indicate, though, is a future direction in either policy or messaging the presidential administration wants to take. On this level, Biden’s intent was fairly clear. He wants to win over working class white Americans who have departed the Democratic Party.

    His focus on “build and buy American” is a classic trope in political rhetoric. It appeals to both patriotism and the bread and butter issues that have historically been a pivot point for public opinion. The Biden administration faces two hurdles in getting this message to penetrate – one self-inflicted and one largely out of their control.

    The self-inflicted problem is that the White House and the Democratic leadership have not been able to maintain a concise and coherent economic message. Part of the problem with a large tent party is the tendency of various constituencies to spin off in different directions with their own priorities. The administration has not been successful in corralling all these messages under one umbrella, thus allowing the Republican opposition to portray one bloc’s priority as representative of the entire Democratic Party’s focus. The administration, to date, has tried but has only had limited success at sustaining a steady drumbeat on their main priorities.

    The other problem facing Biden in his attempt to control the terms of debate is that bread and butter economic issues are secondary to cultural identity as a primary driver in how Americans today view politics. The partisan tribe we belong to and how strongly we identify with that tribe is more important than having at a somewhat consistent set of policy beliefs. A recent Monmouth University poll of Republican voters finds that how strongly they identify as a member of the party is more important to their choice of candidate than whether they are very conservative, somewhat conservative, or moderate in their policy views. This idea of in-group identity has become predominant in our political discourse.

    Indeed, most Americans may claim they value political compromise, but in the end they have a much more deep-seated fear of what the “other side” might do to the country if they get hold of the reins of power. It’s not surprising that in this current environment, most Americans see Biden’s declaration that the state of the union is strong as wishful thinking.

    We even see the supremacy of partisanship when we ask Americans about what should be objective evaluations, such as their own family’s financial stability. Over the past few years, the response to this question in polls has become linked more to partisan identity than to a dollars and cents reflection of one’s own financial status. Specifically, when a Democrat is in the White House, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say they are falling behind financially regardless of their actual economic situation. The opposite is true when presidential control flips to the other party.

    It wasn’t always this way, but it is the new reality of American politics. Biden’s working class message is likely to fall on deaf ears, as it has through most of the first two years of his presidency. However, there has been one shift in Biden’s messaging that suggests he knows what he’s up against.

    During his first year and a half in office, Biden seemed to cling to the misplaced belief that he would be able to bring back the kind of civility and compromise that characterized Washington when he first arrived in there 50 years ago. That was an obvious pipe dream to anyone who has paid close attention to steady disintegration of Congressional norms since the 1990s and the rapid entrenchment of partisan tribalism over the past decade.

    However, Biden now appears to be taking a different tack. His America first message was tied to an acknowledgement that our democratic norms are under threat. We saw this shift in his thinking back in September, with his speech in front of Independence Hall. Biden finally recognized that the power of his personality would not be enough to correct the nation’s current trajectory.

    If he realizes this fundamental problem, then what was the point of delivering an economic message on Tuesday? I think it is a byproduct of Biden’s innate optimism. The current political divide, where partisan identity is linked more to cultural fear than economic need, cannot last forever. When that dam finally breaks, Biden hopes that the American public will be more willing to respond to messages around policy rather than identity. That remains to be seen, but it may be the best we can hope for as well.

  • The 2022 midterm election in New Jersey was not about policy. It was about Trump.

    by Patrick Murray

    This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on November 20, 2022.

    A lot of issues were on the ballot this year without actually being on the ballot. Inflation, crime, immigration, abortion, gun control, climate change, and not least of all — democracy itself. Midterms are supposed to be a referendum on the incumbent president. This year added an unprecedented twist by being a referendum on a former president as well. All of these factors played out in New Jersey.

    The topline analysis of the congressional results is that many Democratic incumbents did better this cycle than two years ago despite the overall statewide margin being tighter. Specifically, New Jersey Democrats won the total statewide House vote in the 2020 election by 16 points. This year that number was cut almost in half to about 9 points, but Democrats still held onto 9 of their 10 seats.

    In fact, half of the Democratic incumbents actually saw bigger victory margins this time around. This was largely a byproduct of redistricting. The new congressional map was specifically drawn to give a boost to relatively new Democratic House members by placing more Republican voters in Republican districts and distributing Democratic voters from very safe districts into more vulnerable areas. The map performed pretty much the way the Democratic redistricting team hoped it would.

    This also means that one of their incumbents, Tom Malinowski in the 7th Congressional District, was sacrificed to ensure the other Democrats were protected. In hindsight, it appears that with a little more gerrymandering the Democrats probably could have held onto all 10 seats. The reason for that is found in the motivating factor of “Trumpism.”

    While Malinowski lost his race because of the addition of heavily pro-Trump northwestern New Jersey communities to the 7th district, he actually performed a little better than 2020 in other parts of the district that remained from the old map. For example, he lost Hunterdon County by a little more than 11 points two years ago. This year he lost it by just under 10 points. A loss is a loss, but this slight improvement in the face of a statewide shift in the opposite direction reinforces a pattern we saw in last year’s gubernatorial election.

    In 2021, an influx of Republican voters motivated by national issues and the Trump agenda — particularly in South Jersey — contributed to a much narrower than expected margin of victory for Gov. Phil Murphy. We saw these voters come out again this year in certain spots, such as picking up seats in Cumberland and Salem counties.

    But 2021 also showed a bright spot for Democrats. Murphy actually did better in formerly Republican suburbs that had swung firmly Democratic in the past five years. Like Malinowski, Murphy had narrowed his deficit in Hunterdon county compared to his first run in 2017 and actually won Somerset, a county he narrowly lost four years earlier.

    That pattern held again this year. In fact, Somerset Democrats, who were resigned to seeing their newfound lock on county government broken in a predicted “red wave,” held onto all their seats by comfortable margins. While many voters in red parts of the state have fully embraced Trumpism, other suburban areas, like Somerset, which had been solid GOP for decades continue to reject a Republican Party that is fixated on rolling back established rights and peddling conspiracy theories that undermine faith in the democratic process.

    The 2022 election was less about whether policies of the left or the right were better options to address key issues of the day. It was more about the fundamental direction of the country. As one New Jersey politico said to me last week, “The election confirmed that Americans still love America.” By that, he meant America’s genius — which has made us the envy of the world for many generations — is that we agree on the rules of the game even when we don’t like the outcome. The electoral support garnered by some election-denying candidates indicates the importance of preserving American institutions isn’t valued by all voters. But it is valued by the majority. Prior to November 8, that wasn’t a certainty.

    As far as the micro-level policy preferences of New Jersey voters, this election does not give us a clear picture. My guess is that an appetite for common sense conservative economic and tax policies coupled with the protection of fundamental rights and liberties exists among a sizable segment of the electorate. But as long as Trumpism remains the Republican Party brand, the country will remain deeply divided; and New Jersey will remain a state where that divide favors the Democrats.

  • 2022 Monmouth University Poll Recap

    by Patrick Murray

    At the Monmouth University Poll, we have never shied away from taking responsibility when we’ve been wrong, so it only seems fair to recap when we got it right as well. However, more than taking a bow, there are lessons to be learned about election polling from our 2022 experience.

    Most established pollsters only made minor methodological changes this year, in part because there is no clear evidence for a methodological fault behind the polling miss in 2020. Good pollsters don’t make changes to methodology based on a guess about partisan skew. After examining our 2020 and 2021 Monmouth polls, we made a minor but important methodological modification by simplifying our sample weighting matrix and a major alteration to our election framing in the way we present the “horse race” and likely voter estimates.

    Let’s take the latter alteration to our vote choice presentation first. The media is so obsessed with the “horse race” and likely voter models that it’s difficult to get them to focus on the context issues covered in our polls. The big problem with likely voter models is they are simply educated guesses at what a voter population will look like. This violates rule number one of sampling: you need to know who is in your population before you start polling. Predictive likely voter modeling is fundamentally a different exercise than public opinion polling (i.e., finding out what a known population is thinking right now). As such, Monmouth did not provide a typical likely voter model in our polling this year, but we did present the results for different subsets of the electorate based on past voting turnout and some key metrics from the poll questions (more on that below). Educated readers of our poll reports were free to pick their own scenario from among those possibilities – or develop their own models.

    The other change Monmouth made this year is in how we measured candidate support. Horse race polls are not judged on the range of support shown for a candidate – i.e., each candidate’s vote share plus or minus a margin of error – but on assessing the size of the gap between the two candidates’ shares. This obsession with “the gap” is fraught with potential error. I’ve talked ad nauseam about the media’s perceptual difference of small leads being “wrong” when compared with final election results because they don’t understand the amount of error inherent when one candidate’s vote share can easily shift 2 points one way while the other candidate’s share shifts 2 points in the opposite direction. This year, rather than ask a head-to-head question in each race, we asked about the probability of supporting each candidate in the race as separate questions. This gives a proxy for the horse race question while also providing another layer of understanding the campaign’s dynamics – specifically, how high or low is each candidate’s potential ceiling of support.

    The weighting modification was a different situation. In the 2020 and 2021 cycles, Monmouth added some predictive interactions to our weighting in an attempt to capture more of the unknowns in different types of voters who could support Donald Trump. Both our 2020 experience and especially our 2021 gubernatorial polling indicated those added layers actually produced movement in the wrong direction. As a result, we pared back our weighting parameters in 2022 to focus on known key demographic information. This simplified matrix appears to have produced better results in 2022 (and when applied retrospectively in 2021, our estimates improved there as well).

    On to the big question: how did we do in 2022?  Fairly well as it happens. Our Pennsylvania poll – which wrapped up interviewing a week before the election – was spot on in terms of relative candidate support (i.e., the number of voters who definitely/probably would support each candidate). Our Georgia poll – conducted two weeks out – was a little farther off from the eventual result, but accurately showed the Democrat ahead for U.S. Senate and the Republican ahead by a larger margin for governor. On top of that, our poll numbers came even closer to the actual results when voter motivation was taken into account.

    As mentioned previously, Monmouth did not create a typical likely voter model this cycle, but we did provide results for different electorate subsets. Results for the subset of voters who turned out in prior elections (specifically 2020 and 2018) were not much different than the results we found for all voters. However, the results for the subset of high motivation* voters did shift the results in Georgia’s U.S. Senate race in a way that matched the actual result. Another interesting finding in our analysis, is that “motivation” showed a much better correlation with the actual results than our “enthusiasm” metric did in the four races Monmouth polled this cycle. The latter metric pushed voter support a little too Democratic in Pennsylvania and too Republican in Georgia.

    One caveat on the motivation metric’s utility is our evidence is limited to four contests in two states. When we retroactively applied it to our 2021 gubernatorial polling it improved the New Jersey estimate to D+3 (in line with the actual result) but worsened the Virginia estimate to R+9 (7 points off the result). It’s certainly not a panacea, but worth exploring further.

    Of course, Monmouth’s polling also followed our standard practice of asking about a lot of issues in each of the races we covered. We were likely the first poll that provided actual data countering the unsupported and overblown media narrative that John Fetterman’s debate performance hurt his chances. But we also covered a slew of issues and undercurrents in our polling that did not make it into media coverage. [We actually have a team of students working on a content analysis study of how our polls were covered this fall – more on that in the coming months.]

    We are under no misapprehension that we can change the way media covers election polling, but that will not stop us from using our polls to provide a better context for understanding voter dynamics in the electoral contest. Contextualizing the state of these races in a way that stymies the polling aggregators is just an added bonus. On to 2024.


    *  Shout out to Melissa Bell of Global Strategy Group. In 2019, I moderated a panel at the American Association for Public Opinion Research national conference where Melissa presented some of GSG’s work correlating turnout with their poll questions on motivation and excitement. As a result, I started asking a similar motivation question in 2020 and modified it for this year’s Monmouth polling.

  • Performance of New Jersey’s 2022 Congressional Map

    by Patrick Murray

    I’ve been fielding a lot of “what-if” questions, particularly in light of Rep. Tom Malinowski’s election night comment about the likelihood of having won if it was his old district.  So I ran some numbers for a simple “uniform shift” analysis (see table).  Put simply, New Jersey Democrats won the cumulative statewide two-party House vote in 2020 by 16 points. They are winning the 2022 total by 8 points – that’s an 8-point shift in the Republican direction. Assuming this shift is uniform across all 12 districts, we can calculate the effect of redistricting on each district.  For example, Rep. Norcross won NJ01 by 25 points in 2020 and by 27 points in 2022. That 2-point difference is minimal on the face of it, but when you account for the fact that the statewide vote went down for Democrats, then you can make a simple projection of how he would have performed if the Democratic margin had been as strong this year as it was two years ago. In that analysis, the D-friendlier district lines in the new NJ01 map gave the incumbent a 10-point cushion. In other words, we would have expected Norcross to have won by 17 points this year if he was running in his old district.

    There are a lot of caveats to this, including the fact that new district lines mean some voters are unfamiliar with the incumbents. Out-of-power party voters from the old district may not show up because they’ve gotten used to their side not winning elections. However, that can be overcome with strong outreach efforts by these incumbents to their new voters. Still, it’s obvious that New Jersey’s new congressional map gave Dem. CDs 1/3/5/8/11 along with GOP CDs 2/4 sizable cushions over the old map.  That came in part by reducing the Democratic advantage in CDs 9/10 (2 of the top 3 Dem. CDs in NJ). CDs 6/7/12 came out about even (i.e., performed about the same as you would have expected them to under the old map). 

    On the NJ07 question, Malinowski won by one point in 2020 and lost by 5 points in 2022.  The “uniform shift” metric suggests he still would have lost his old CD, albeit by a tight margin, everything else being equal (which is a huge caveat). Malinowski may have had a narrow path to victory in his old district, but that argument is purely academic because the lines had to be redrawn. Therefore, a more interesting question – considering the extra D advantage in other districts – is whether Democrats on the redistricting commission could have in fact drawn a 10D-2R map.  That’s still not clear. The current map is still pretty funky.  You can make an argument that NJ07, by rights, should have been even more Republican because they really contorted it to get it all the way to Linden in Union County.  The fact that NJ08 got even more Democratic is also a byproduct of geographic constraints. The concentration of Democratic voters in the urban northeastern part of the state means that CDs 8/9/10 are always going to be very Democratic unless you draw districts with lots of tentacles that likely would violate other principles of redistricting (such as diluting the voting power of specific ethnic/racial groups). That’s a larger philosophical and strategic question which we’ve got nearly a decade to ponder until the next redistricting cycle comes around.

  • If the Polls Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix Them

    By Patrick Murray

    Is public opinion polling accurate?  The answer to that question is driven in large part by whether a specific subset of polling – specifically, preelection “horse race” polling – is perceived as accurate. On that front, the polling industry has hit some bumps recently, particularly with the 2020 election. An evaluation of preelection polls conducted by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) could not identify a clear culprit behind that year’s polling miss. The most likely explanation is differential nonresponse – i.e., that a cohort of Donald Trump supporters did not participate in the polls out of mistrust in political institutions.

    In other words, the poll samples may have in fact looked “right” from the perspective of age, gender, race, and education, but within each group was a small overrepresentation of Democratic support because of nonresponse from Trump backers across these demographics.  Keep in mind that these errors are small, and in fact would not be noticeable in most public polls.  But when taken together in the context of the presidential election, these group errors resulted in a 4-point skew in the average polling sample.

    We examined the polling Monmouth conducted in six states prior to the 2020 election. We validated turnout for 2020 for everyone selected for the sample – both those who participated in the survey and those who did not – in an attempt to identify patterns that could identify the nonresponse problem. This included demographic and vote history data for tens of thousands of voters in each state. Even with this enhanced data set, we could not find a “silver bullet” in the voter files that distinguishes a cohort of likely Trump supporters who refused to participate in the polls. Our review is summarized in a presentation prepared for the 2022 AAPOR conference here.

    Was this suspected nonresponse problem also behind the polling miss in the New Jersey gubernatorial election the following year? The short answer is no.  It turns out – via post-election voter verification – that the underlying sample in the New Jersey polling was representative of the full voter population. The real culprit was an unusually large partisan skew in who actually turned out – a skew that was not captured by likely voter models. This skew was not present in the Virginia electorate that year, which is why the polls in that state were better barometers of the actual outcome there. In other words, the samples of registered voters in both states were accurately representative of all registered voters there. The problem in New Jersey was likely voter modeling. [This is also reviewed in our presentation.] 

    Prior to 2016, our first suspect in an election polling error would have been the likely voter model – which is exactly what we found to be the case here. But since 2016, we have to contend with the notion that every polling error is due to a systematic problem.

    Thus, we are left with a dilemma.  Polling is a social science methodology with an acknowledged potential for error. This means that polls can and do miss the mark, either individually or as a group, from time to time. The magnitude of those misses can be as much perceptual as statistical.  For example, an election poll that has Candidate A ahead by 2 points in a race that Candidate B actually wins by 3 points is perceived by the public as being more erroneous than a poll with Candidate A ahead by 10 points in a race she wins by 16 points – even though the absolute error in both instances is the same.

    Public pollsters, unlike campaign pollsters, have a mission to hold up a mirror to the public on important political, cultural, and behavioral issues of the day – e.g., think prevalence and rationale for COVID vaccine opposition. While it is important to survey voters about elections, the “horse race” question is fraught with problems and likely voter modeling pushes polling methodology to do things it is not designed to do – i.e., predict future behavior. It is a testament to the polling field that election polls tend to get things right more often than not.

    The 2020 election aside, there is little evidence that public opinion polling is measurably less accurate today than it was a decade or a generation ago. The polling industry has been proactive, and largely successful in addressing challenges as they arise (such as declining response rates, the growth in cell phone use, etc.). But in an era of distrust, we have to be even more vigilant and transparent.

    In that spirit, Monmouth is making available the full datasets for its final state election polls in 2020 and 2021. The 2020 files include appended voter file information for both respondents and nonrespondents.  As mentioned earlier, the Monmouth team did not identify any “silver bullet” corrective – either for the 2020 nonresponse error or the 2021 likely voter model error.  We hope that by sharing these datasets, though, other researchers may be able to further our understanding of challenges in polling these elections.

  • 2021′s election results may signal some new, troubling trends for Dems and the GOP

    By Patrick Murray

    This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on December 20, 2021.

    Last month’s gubernatorial election sent shockwaves through New Jersey’s political world. An incumbent governor, who got positive reviews for handling the biggest health crisis in a century, won re-election by a relatively small margin in a state where his party has a million voter registration advantage.

    With the election results now certified, we see patterns that point to a shifting dynamic in the partisan coalitions that have characterized New Jersey politics for a generation. Overall turnout, as measured by the number of votes cast for governor, increased by 22% from 2017 to 2021. The greatest jumps came in heavily Republican areas, such as the northern shore and the northwest corner of the state. This surge in traditionally Republican areas was significant but does not really tell the whole story.

    Turnout also increased by a larger than average percentage in the southern part of the state. More importantly, support for the Republican candidate increased by an especially large margin there. The total number of ballots cast for Jack Ciattarelli in 2021 jumped by at least half over Kim Guadagno’s 2017 result in Gloucester (up 69%!), Atlantic, Camden, Cape May and Cumberland counties.

    Ciattarelli also did relatively well in northern Democratic strongholds — or, more specifically, incumbent governor Phil Murphy did worse. For example, in Hudson County, Ciattarelli got 11,000 more votes than Guadagno did four years ago, while Murphy’s ballot count was basically the same in both elections. In fact, outside of South Jersey, the biggest growth in the gap between Republican and Democratic vote totals from the prior election occurred in traditionally blue Essex, Hudson and Passaic counties.

    Murphy’s ballot total in each of these three supposed Democratic bastions was relatively flat from 2017. However, this countywide stability actually masks a significant drop in urban support for Murphy. We can divide Essex County into two regions; one comprised of the four cities where Murphy got at least 90% of the vote in both elections (i.e. Newark, East Orange, Orange, and Irvington) and one with the remaining, more suburban, part of the county. Murphy actually increased his ballot total by just over 10,000 votes in suburban Essex. In urban Essex, though, the number of Murphy ballots actually dropped by more than 7,000 from four years ago. The story is similar in Passaic County. The Democratic vote total dropped by almost 2,400 in the city of Paterson at the same time it increased by nearly 2,800 in the rest of the county.

    Another region with interesting results is Central Jersey, specifically Hunterdon, Mercer, and Somerset counties. Even though these counties have a mix of party control, they showed the greatest stability in terms of the partisan gap. In other words, the winning candidate’s margin in 2021 was very close to the same party’s lead in 2017. It is true that the competitive 16th district legislative race – the only GOP seat that Democrats flipped this year – spans parts of these three counties and accounts for some of the Democratic engagement there. But this pattern of stability extends to towns outside of the 16th district as well.

    So what does this all mean? We have to acknowledge that these aggregate results may not apply to every voter group within these geographic areas. However, the overarching implications are compelling:

    (1) The South Jersey results suggest the last vestiges of the white working class faction of the Democratic Party may have vanished, at least in any sizable number. Republicans can probably count on these voters to stay in their column.

    (2) The urban North Jersey results indicate that a hitherto reliable cornerstone of the Democratic base feels it is not being heard. These results should be the canary in a coalmine for Democrats.

    (3) The Central Jersey results suggest that the reasons why higher socioeconomic status former Republican voters left the party during the Trump era remain a problem for the GOP image in New Jersey. That is something that could change if the party rebrands (although that does not appear to be likely any time soon).

    And what of the ultra-progressive wing that has become the face of the Democratic Party? Polling shows that progressive economic policies have widespread support, but in-your-face messaging around those policies is turns off many voters. The 2021 election results suggest that woke-based campaigns do not bring out more woke voters.

    Take a look at the results from Montclair, perhaps the epitome of woke-ness in New Jersey. Murphy’s vote total there went up by 11% from four years ago. That is no more than his average increase statewide and pales in comparison to the 39% municipal increase in Republican ballots. If the Democratic Party is going to capitalize on its built-in registration advantage in the future, it probably needs to go back to basics, at least in the way it communicates with voters.

  • ‘I blew it.’ Maybe it’s time to get rid of election polls.

    By Patrick Murray

    This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed on on November 4, 2021.

    I blew it. The final Monmouth University Poll margin did not provide an accurate picture of the state of the governor’s race. So, if you are a Republican who believes the polls cost Ciattarelli an upset victory or a Democrat who feels we lulled your base into complacency, feel free to vent. I hear you.

    I owe an apology to Jack Ciattarelli’s campaign — and to Phil Murphy’s campaign for that matter — because inaccurate public polling can have an impact on fundraising and voter mobilization efforts. But most of all I owe an apology to the voters of New Jersey for information that was at the very least misleading.

    I take my responsibility as a public pollster seriously. Some partisan critics think we have some agenda about who wins or loses. I can only assume they have never met a public pollster. The thing that keeps us up at night — our “religion” as it were — is simply getting the numbers right.

    Unlike a campaign consultant, my job is not to figure out a candidate’s best path to victory, but to provide an explanation of the public mood as it exists now. Polling continues to do that quite well when we are taking a snapshot of the full population. For example, polls on the impact of COVID and attitudes toward vaccines over the past year and a half provided an accurate picture of shifting behaviors that directly impacted public health.

    Election polling is a different animal, prone to its fair share of misses if you focus only on the margins. For example, Monmouth’s polls four years ago nailed the New Jersey gubernatorial race but significantly underestimated Democratic performance in the Virginia contest. This year, our final polls provided a reasonable assessment of where the Virginia race was headed but missed the spike in Republican turnout in New Jersey.

    The difference between public interest polls and election polls is that the latter violates the basic principles of survey sampling. For an election poll, we do not know exactly who will vote until after Election Day, so we have to create models of what we think the electorate could look like. Those models are not perfect. They classify a sizable number of people who do not cast ballots as “likely voters” and others who actually do turn out as being “unlikely.” These models have tended to work, though, because the errors balance out into a reasonable projection of what the overall electorate eventually looks like.

    Monmouth’s track record with these models, particularly here in our home state over the past 10 years, has been generally accurate within the range of error inherent in election polling. However, the growing perception that polling is broken cannot be easily dismissed.

    Monmouth’s conservative estimate in this year’s New Jersey race was an 8-point win for Murphy, which is still far from the final margin. More than one astute observer of polls has pointed out that the incumbent was consistently polling at either 50% or 51% against a largely unknown challenger. That metric in itself should have been an indication of Murphy’s underlying weakness as an incumbent. Still, in the age of polling aggregators, needles, and election betting markets, we tend to obsess more on the margin than on the candidate’s vote share. And we end up assuming that the “horse race” number is more precise than it actually is. This can lead to misleading narratives about the state of the race, as happened in New Jersey this year.

    While pundits and the media are hardwired to obsess on margins, we pollsters bear some responsibility too. Some organizations have decided to opt-out of election polling altogether, including the venerable Gallup Poll and the highly regarded Pew Research Center, because it distracts from the contributions of their public interest polling. Other pollsters went AWOL this year. For instance, Quinnipiac has been a fixture during New Jersey and Virginia campaigns for decades but issued no polls in either state this year.

    Perhaps that is a wise move. If we cannot be certain that these polling misses are anomalies then we have a responsibility to consider whether releasing horse race numbers in close proximity to an election is making a positive or negative contribution to the political discourse.

    This is especially important now because the American republic is at an inflection point. Public trust in political institutions and our fundamental democratic processes is abysmal. Honest missteps get conflated with “fake news” — a charge that has hit election polls in recent years.

    Most public pollsters are committed to making sure our profession counters rather than deepening the pervasive cynicism in our society. We try to hold up a mirror that accurately shows us who we are. If election polling only serves to feed that cynicism, then it may be time to rethink the value of issuing horse race poll numbers as the electorate prepares to vote.

  • Redistricting is set to begin. Do we need a hard-nosed judge to help draw the lines?

    by Patrick Murray

    This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on August 22, 2021.

    The U.S. Census Bureau has finally released the data states need to carry out redistricting. That sets a number of processes in motion for the commissions responsible for redrawing New Jersey’s congressional and legislative districts.

    Despite the six-month delay, our process is pretty much on track. The Redistricting Commission, which draws the congressional map, is not required to deliver a final map until mid-January.

    The Apportionment Commission – the body responsible for redrawing the state legislative map – could have been in trouble since the election for those offices is less than three months away. However, a constitutional amendment approved by voters last year allows the state to delay implementation of a new map until 2023.

    The first order of business for the Apportionment Commission is the appointment of an independent member, commonly called the “tiebreaker.” In past decades, these independent members have pushed for consensus and compromise – and have even proposed their own plans – but in the end, they ultimately had to choose between two partisan maps.

    When the commission format was initially proposed it was hoped that there would be enough common ground for the two parties to reach consensus on a new map. That actually worked for the first couple of legislative rounds in the 1960s and 1970s. By the time the congressional commission was created in 1991, though, it was clear that some type of tiebreaking vote would be the norm.

    There are a number of flaws with this type of system. The most glaring problem historically is that tiebreaking members have idiosyncratic preferences on redistricting criteria. The New Jersey Constitution is largely silent on which principles should guide redistricting deliberations. The choice of an independent member therefore results in an unaccountable prioritization of some principles over others.

    In the state’s past experience, one tiebreaker focused on “partisan fairness” while another was mainly concerned with “continuity of representation.” It comes as no surprise that the independent member has chosen the partisan map that came closer to meeting these personal priorities, or at least were convinced by one party that their map was closer to these priorities.

    Two years ago, I joined with a group of redistricting experts who proposed improvements to New Jersey’s apportionment process. Our recommendations included increasing transparency and public input; instituting standard, yet flexible, guidelines for redrawing the legislative map; and creating a panel of not one, but three, independent members.

    An independent panel means no single personal priority could drive the process. Moreover, a multi-member panel can bring greater diversity and representation. It is worth noting that the tiebreakers on every past commission have been white men from either Rutgers or Princeton.

    This year will be different though, at least for the congressional commission. And this could provide a blueprint for the legislative commission tiebreaker.

    The congressional commission chooses its own independent member. If the partisan members cannot reach an agreement – which happened for the very first time this year – the state Supreme Court takes a vote between the preferred choices of the Democrats and Republicans.

    In a change with past practice, the names that arose this year were not academics. They were retired judges. The court decided on one of their own to be the tiebreaker for the congressional commission. Not only will former justice John Wallace, Jr. be the first jurist in this role, but he will be the first person of color.

    The tiebreaker selection process for the legislative commission works a bit differently. In this case, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner makes a unilateral appointment. Although he is not required to do so, he has asked both parties to submit names in the hope there will be a common choice. As with the congressional commission, a bipartisan pick is unlikely to emerge, which means Rabner must name someone of his own choosing.

    Given the lack of clear constitutional reapportionment principles and prior concerns with the personal priorities of academics – it could make sense to have a jurist serve in the role of mediator.

    Since the court went with the Democrats’ preference on the congressional commission, Rabner could simply opt for the GOP’s runner-up, former Superior Court Judge Marina Corodemus. Other possibilities include former Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, who was floated as a compromise candidate for the congressional commission, and retired Judge Paulette Sapp-Peterson, the first African-American woman to serve at the appellate level in New Jersey.

    Another name that should be given serious consideration is Judge Mary Jacobson, who is about to retire from the bench. As Mercer County Assignment Judge, she has presided over some of the state’s highest profile political process cases. Jacobson has shown she can handle the partisan maneuvering that is part-and-parcel of every redistricting process.

    My ultimate preference, of course, would be to institute the reforms we proposed in 2019. Until that happens, though, perhaps a hard-nosed judge is the best choice for now.

  • Is Theology or Politics Behind Catholics Bishops Move?

    by Patrick Murray

    This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on June 27, 2021.

    If headlines are to be believed, Catholic bishops are on a mission to keep President Joe Biden from taking Holy Communion. In reality, nothing has happened… yet. What lies on the horizon, though, could mark a turning point for American Catholicism.

    The bishops actually approved a resolution to draft guidelines on the meaning of Communion which would be voted on later. This is an effort to launch a “Eucharistic revival” among U.S. Catholics in response to the fact that only one-third of Catholics believe in transubstantiation, which is a central tenet of Church doctrine. What sparked the media frenzy, however, is that these national guidelines could also establish rules denying Communion to people who publicly support legalized abortion.

    A majority of self-identified Catholics say abortion should be legal in most cases, according to the Pew Research Center. However, that finding masks a stark divide based on church attendance. Two-thirds of regular mass-goers oppose abortion access while two-thirds of more nominal Catholics support it. Draconian guidelines on Eucharistic eligibility are likely to drive away many, particularly younger, Catholics rather than fill parish pews.

    In New Jersey – which has the second highest concentration of Catholic residents in the United States at – this could lead to a significant shift in religious affiliation. About 4 in 10 state residents call themselves Catholic, but far fewer regularly go to church. Based on national figures, mass attendance ranges from half of those over 60 years old to one-quarter of those under 30. That is a far cry from the 1950s, when 3 in 4 Catholics – regardless of age – regularly attended mass.

    Some conservatives may actually welcome a shrinking, but more ideologically pure, body of the faithful. One question, though, is whether theological concerns are the sole driver of this move, or whether partisan politics are playing a much more central role.

    Pew’s study on abortion beliefs points out that Catholic Republicans are much more likely than Catholic Democrats to oppose legalized access to abortion. Some may say this is simply because devout Catholics are siding with a political party more in line with their religious beliefs. That may be true on this particular issue, but other evidence suggests that party affiliation may in fact be determining what is acceptable for the Church rather than the other way around.

    For example, when Pope Francis was about to make his first visit to the U.S. in 2015, a Monmouth University Poll found that large majorities of Republican and non-Republican Catholics alike said he should feel free to speak out on issues like abortion and human rights. Things started to get a little trickier, though, when asked whether Francis should express his views on issues such as economic inequality and climate change. On these topics, most Republican Catholics said the pope should keep his mouth shut.

    Keep in mind, the question asked was not whether Catholics agree with Francis on these issues. It was simply whether the pope should be able to speak about topics that have secular as well as spiritual implications. Rather than being open to the Holy Father challenging their views on certain issues, many Republican Catholics felt entitled to tell the supreme pontiff when he should or should not open his mouth. That does not sound like a group of devout followers adhering to their catechism, particularly the part about the pope having “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church.” Those poll results are a stark example of the dissonance between claims of piety and the primacy of partisanship.

    This takes us back to the problem with the bishops’ statement. This crusade seems set on establishing a moral purity standard for public officials. Moreover, it links a Eucharistic proscription to only one public issue – among many secular issues that are also supposed to be central to church teaching. It is also difficult to accept as mere coincidence that the timing of this push comes when a practicing Catholic who supports legal abortion occupies the Oval Office.

    Back in the 1980s, Republicans appealed to working class Catholics on issues around the economy and public safety more than morality. This is not to say abortion does not raise important spiritual questions. It is just that this new move appears to be another sign of religion becoming weaponized in the tribal partisan war that currently plagues our country.

    The existing statement on the reception of Communion, adopted by the U.S. bishops 25 years ago, expressed hope that a deeper understanding of the Eucharist would “begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us.”  It appears that the current effort to revise that statement is designed to accomplish exactly the opposite.

  • For now, keeping a mask on indoors isn’t such a bad idea

    By Patrick Murray

    This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed on on May 21, 2021.

    Follow the science. That’s the mantra. Recent reports on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly the mRNA ones, prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to loosen its advice on wearing a mask. Gov. Phil Murphy is getting grief for not immediately jumping on this new guidance.

    The CDC, and advocates of lifting mask mandates, point to a recent real-world study showing that certain vaccines are 94% effective at preventing illness from COVID-19. Following that science, they say it is safe for vaccinated people to take off their masks around other vaccinated people. However, epidemiologists continue to punt on pinpointing the likelihood that a vaccinated person could become infected without showing symptoms and potentially transmit that infection to unvaccinated people. That is why an indoor mask mandate should still be on the table.

    On top of this, the CDC’s recommendations seem to ignore, or at least give short shrift to, another set of sciences altogether — the social sciences. In other words, we need to take into account typical human behavior and how this guidance will be interpreted and acted upon by real people.

    When the pandemic first hit last year, we were initially told that it really only affected older people and those with preexisting health conditions. It soon became clear, of course, that we were all at risk of getting the virus. Mask-wearing became mandatory in the state, not only to protect oneself but to protect others. However, not everyone saw it that way. To a sizable minority, the mask mandate was a partisan dictate that infringed on one’s “freedom” rather than an opportunity to pull together for the sake of one’s community.

    As with everything in society today, COVID-19 restrictions were viewed first and foremost through a narrow partisan lens. This did not surprise those of us who have been engaged in the study of public attitudes and behaviors.

    Take the issue of differing vaccination rates. The public opinion data has pretty consistently pointed to three basic groups in the population — those who are eager to get the vaccine, those who are hesitant and those who are opposed. In New Jersey, the hesitant group makes up about 14% of the adult population and the opposed group makes up another 14%, according to a recent Monmouth University Poll.

    Those in the hesitant group want reassurances that the vaccine is safe or they lack easy access to get the vaccine. These two factors tend to go hand in hand. For example, vaccination rates in urban areas are incredibly low. These residents are among the most hesitant because they do not see many of their neighbors and community leaders getting the vaccine, in part because vaccine sites are not within easy reach.

    The new CDC guidance is supposed to encourage more vaccine uptake, according to a brief published last month. They frame loosening mask restrictions as an incentive to get vaccinated. This may be true on the margins, but on the whole, this incentive won’t increase acceptance of vaccines in areas where access is the dominant roadblock.

    More importantly, the CDC doesn’t provide any real evidence to support its assertion that loosening restrictions for the vaccinated will act as an incentive for the unvaxxed. Where’s the science they are following? Because here’s the problem: existing social science data suggests those in the COVID vaccine opposition camp cannot be incentivized. And in fact, the psychometric data suggests that folks in this group, because of a belief system that casts themselves as pitted against the rest of society, will use the lifting of mask requirements for vaccinated people as cover to go maskless themselves.

    In other words, once the mask requirements are lifted, the only people you are likely to see wearing masks are vaccinated people who are worried about the relatively low, but still very real chance, of becoming infected with the coronavirus from unmasked, unvaccinated people. Their concerns are not just for themselves, but for others. And that is because the CDC still hasn’t been completely clear on the extent that vaccinated people can transmit the virus to the unvaxxed, especially children.

    Fortunately, here in New Jersey, outright opposition to the vaccine is lower than it is in the nation as a whole. That means achieving some level of herd immunity — a standard on which the science is not clear, by the way — is more likely to happen here than in other states. But it will take a greater effort to reach the vaccine hesitant than offering a free beer or dinner with the governor to make it so.

    In the end, maybe having an indoor mask mandate for just a little bit longer isn’t such a bad thing if it may help keep another surge at bay when we are so close to getting to the other end of the tunnel. At the very least, it’s the neighborly thing to do.

  • New Census, Same Old Redistricting

    by Patrick Murray

    This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on May 2, 2021.

    The release of a new decennial census usually means that redistricting cannot be far behind.  But this year will be different for New Jersey.

    The first round of numbers released this past week held some unexpectedly welcome news for the state. We gained more residents over the past ten years than annual survey-based estimates had indicated. Our population tops 9 million for the first time!

    While we now know we will hold onto our 12 Congressional seats, we don’t know what needs to be done to adjust those districts to ensure each one has an equal number of people. And perhaps even more importantly, we also lack the data necessary to redraw the state’s 40 legislative districts so they are substantially equal.

    That’s because we are still a few months away from receiving the population data that gives precinct-level detail of population shifts. And that won’t arrive until August or September – about 6 months later than New Jersey usually receives it.

    The pandemic-related delay in completing the national census has now delayed states getting the data they need for redrawing congressional and legislative lines. This isn’t a problem for most states. Some have statutory deadlines that they will be pressed to meet, but all states should have enough time to create new maps in time for their upcoming state and federal elections in 2022.  All states, that is, except two.

    New Jersey and Virginia are the only states in the nation that hold legislative elections the year after the U.S. Census is taken. The delay in that count means neither state will have a new map in time for this fall’s contests.

    New Jersey was prepared for this. Last year, voters passed a constitutional amendment that postpones legislative apportionment if the census data is not received by mid-February. Our bipartisan commission will have until March 2022 to create the new map, which will go into effect with the 2023 elections for state Senate and General Assembly. Our 2011 map gets to stay in play for an extra inning.

    Pity poor Virginia, though. They do not have any statutory direction on what happens when census data is received late in the game. Like, New Jersey, they won’t have a new legislative map ready for November. But rather than being able to just delay its implementation until the next regularly scheduled election, the courts could force the state to hold a special election with the new map in 2022. That would mean their House of Delegates would be on the ballot 3 years in a row.  It’s happened before. Virginia had to hold successive elections in 1981, 1982, and 1983 because of redistricting problems.

    Why didn’t Virginia have the foresight New Jersey did? Well, it may be because they were too busy implementing real reforms. While Garden State voters inserted some new deadlines in our state constitution, those in the Old Dominion actually had to decide on a significant change to their entire redistricting process.

    Virginia voters last November approved a measure that took the process of drawing new district maps out of the hands of the legislature and assigned it to a commission made up of both legislators and citizens. The legislature still gets an up or down vote on the plan and the ability to boot the final decision to the state’s Supreme Court, but it cannot actively create or alter the map.

    One potential problem with the Virginia process this year is the clock that starts ticking when the state receives detailed census data. Based on when that is expected to arrive now, it is probable that a special session of the legislature will be convened right before the November election.  Legislators will have to vote on a new map that will directly impact own political futures. In other words, the new map has the potential for becoming a campaign issue.

    New Jersey may have been forward thinking on the timing of this year’s census, but we continue to fall behind in terms of real redistricting reform. We were one of the first states to put legislative apportionment in the hands of a commission over 50 years ago. Now, other states have surpassed us in reform efforts by creating commissions with even more independence as well as providing principles to follow when creating new district maps to reflect ever-changing communities of interest.

    In the end, our redistricting process still boils down to two partisan teams strategizing on how to earn the favor of a single tie-breaking vote. Kudos to New Jersey for avoiding the uncertainty of a pandemic-delayed census. But we still have a lot of work to do get back in vanguard of best redistricting practices.

  • Hate is thriving in New Jersey | Opinion

    by Patrick Murray

    This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on March 28, 2021.

    New Jersey easily ranks as one of the most racially and culturally diverse states in the country. In fact, nearly one in four residents were born outside the United States. This diversity brings a vitality to life in the Garden State that can be found in few other places. Unfortunately, it brings a lot of hate, as well.

    Recent reports from the state Attorney General and the Anti-Defamation League show a huge increase in the number of bias crimes and the spread of white supremacist propaganda over the past few years. While this trend has been on the rise nationally, the ADL report puts New Jersey near the top of the list for the spread of hate speech. Moreover, the Southern Poverty Law Center keeps tabs on 16 different hate groups active in the state.

    The recent growth of hate activity in New Jersey has been stunning, particularly since it erased what had been a steady decline from 876 bias incidents in 2008 to a low of 367 in 2015. That number slowly started to climb in 2016, reaching 569 incidents in 2018. It then skyrocketed to 994 in 2019 and to 1441 last year.

    A recent Monmouth University Poll found that more than six in 10 Americans view white nationalism as a problem for the country, with nearly half seeing it as a big problem. And New Jersey is right at the center of it.

    There is no question we need to confront these dangerous ideologies head-on. But we also need to address the larger environment that gives hate groups the air to thrive. We need to find ways to starve them of that oxygen.

    In any society — be it the United States, Great Britain, or Myanmar — a certain, and not insignificant, percentage of the population is willing to submit to authoritarian leadership in times of instability. This trait always lurks beneath the surface. At the same time, a segment of the public is prone to believe that one group — their group — is inherently better than others.

    The intersection of these two traits — authoritarianism and intolerance — is the root of hate activity’s rise today. Stemming the rise of authoritarianism is a key component in reducing white nationalist activity. This question is what can we do about it.

    The American political culture is unique among established democracies in that our “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy leads to a rather large dose of skepticism about the role of government. New Jerseyans have this characteristic in abundance. The problem is when healthy skepticism turns to an unhealthy fetish that government itself is fundamentally malicious.

    That is where we stand today. A sizable segment of the public has replaced any prior trust in our political system with an unqualified faith in charismatic authoritarian leadership. The irony here is that many of these people believe that their support of insurrectionist behavior is actually “defending the Constitution.”

    We need a civic revival in this country. An understanding that the longevity of our nation is not based on fealty to a particular leader or ideology but on a consensus of public trust in our political processes and institutions. You may not always get the outcome you desire, but you believe that your side will get a fair hearing.

    This is not to say we can ignore the very real and very deep inequities that have been brought to the surface in recent years. But in terms of reducing hate activity, shrinking the public appetite for authoritarianism that props up this societal ill should be an important part of the broader strategy.

    One of the most disturbing findings in the recent reports on hate activity is its prevalence in New Jersey’s college and university towns. These groups are recruiting young people who lack an appreciation for the norms that maintain stability in our society.

    Tackling the idea that authoritarianism is an acceptable governing philosophy requires a concerted effort starting as early as possible. The New Jersey Assembly is currently poised to consider Laura Wooten’s Law, named after the nation’s longest-serving poll worker. This bill, which mandates civics education in middle school and creates a civics curriculum for required high school history courses, is an important first step.

    This step will not eradicate hate crime in New Jersey, but it will begin to starve this evil of the oxygen it needs to spread.

  • ‘Unprecedented Times’? We’ve Seen This Stuff Before

    by Jimmy Watson, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

    A common adage in the study of history is “The Past is Prologue.” While overused in certain areas, the phrase holds up well when viewing many of the issues facing society today. Professors, teachers, and even media members have given a nod to this phrase. Yet 2020 seems to have been the year that the American public has forgotten it. COVID-19, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and Biden vs. Trump have prompted terms like “unprecedented” and “new normal.” While the events of 2020 thus far have certainly been dramatic in many respects, they are, in actuality, a sobering reminder that America has been through similar situations. In 1918, the country grappled with a widespread pandemic while fighting World War I. In 1968, another pandemic presented itself, social unrest spread like wildfire, and a major presidential election took place in November. The events of 2020, while termed “unprecedented,” are sadly similar in scope, composition and influence to what is now in history books.

    As WWI raged on in Europe, 1918 gave Woodrow Wilson the most trying year of his presidency. An invisible enemy arrived now known as the Spanish Flu. Claiming the lives of 675,000 people in the United States alone, the pandemic raged on as the November midterm elections took place. Quarantines were put into effect, mask mandates angered people, and large gatherings were prohibited. The election looked a lot different. The San Francisco Chronicle called it, “the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America.” The country was forced to adapt in a time of global turmoil.

    1918 was 102 years ago. 102 years ago, people were afraid to go outside, to the store, or to cast a vote. People were forced to wear masks and socially distance. In the “unprecedented times” of 2020, America has seen similar effects with COVID-19. People have been quarantined and mask mandates have become strict protocols across much of the country. 102 years ago, people still voted and American democracy continued as it had in years prior. Society did not dwell on its strife, but it moved on to rebound in the next decade. The unfortunate truth is that America has had to relive similar events in 2020 with a new pandemic. But let us not forget that we have been through this all before, and we came out the other side to fight on into the next decade.

    1968 proved to be another year filled with unrest and uncertainty. The year brought a historic presidential race between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace. It also brought the assassinations of two monumental Civil Rights advocates in Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Violence swept the nation amid the deaths of two giants in the push for African American equality. Places like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles saw rioting, looting and protests. A new flu pandemic arose taking the lives of 100,000 Americans. While there were nowhere near the same amount of protocols put in place as in 1918, the pandemic added more fuel to the proverbial fire that was spreading across the country. In November there was to be a general election during one of the most provocative and chaotic years since the end of World War II.

    1968 was 52 years ago. 52 years ago, there was looting and rioting in the streets. For all intents and purposes, people of color had still not achieved true equality. The death of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy marked the end of one of the most prominent decades in the push for equal rights and the beginning of some of the most violent protests that the decade had seen. In the midst of the chaos, third party candidate George Wallace was quoted as saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In 2020, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, America has seen little change. Looting and rioting have flooded the airwaves. As people ran to the streets to stand for social justice, Twitter saw President Trump use the same words as George Wallace did 52 years ago. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The unfortunate truth is that America is reliving history once again. 1968 and 2020 look increasingly similar. 1968 was a major moment that brought equality to the forefront of discussion. 2020 might reinvigorate a generation to do the same. The election is said by many to be a choke point for change just as 1968 was. America will soon find out whether or not that is the case.

    2020 has certainly been a chaotic year. There has been a global pandemic like the one in 1918. There has been social and racial unrest just like there was in 1968. Just because these times might not be as “unprecedented” as they may seem does not make this year’s November election any less historic, important, or scary. However, it is worthwhile to understand where America has been and how an understanding of past experiences can help shape decisions that may impact the future. Past is prologue. However, the prologue does not necessarily determine the rest of the story in the remaining pages. It is the actions that are taken within a particular narrative that can influence the final pages. Let this tumultuous year not just be another prologue. Allow for history to instruct rather than discourage. Allow it to put things in perspective and be a force that keeps America moving forward.

  • Authoritarianism Among Pro- and Anti-Trump Voters (Part 2)

    by Patrick Murray

    As discussed in a prior post, Monmouth University’s Polling Institute assisted with a survey that formed a central part of Authoritarian Nightmare, a new book by John Dean and Bob Altemeyer. In another post, I examined measurements for Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) and Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) and how they relate to support for President Donald Trump. I take that analysis a step further to examine variations within the electorate on both sides of the partisan divide and a key question about constitutional norms.

    While the analysis in the book, as well as in my last post, show a clear correlation between RWA and SDO inclinations, that is not to say that all Trump supporters are authoritarians. Or indeed that all Trump opponents are not authoritarians.  While 32% of strong Trump approvers score in the highest quartile on both the RWA and the SDO scales, 23% actually score below the top quartile on both dimensions (Table 1). Among voters who somewhat approve of the president’s job performance, 51% fall below the top quartile on either scale. Conversely, while the vast majority of Trump opponents have a moderate or low score on these scales, 21% of those who somewhat disapprove of Trump and 5% of those who strongly disapprove of Trump exhibit high RWA and/or SDO tendencies.

    Table 1.RWA/SDO Inclination by Trump Job
    Double High RWA & SDO1%0%9%32%
    High RWA only2%14%24%20%
    High SDO only2%7%15%26%
    Moderate RWA/SDO21%49%41%19%
    Low on both74%30%10%4%

    Some Trump supporters aren’t particularly enamored of his authoritarian tendencies and at the same time some Democrats prefer authoritarian leadership, just not Trump’s.  Since opinion of Trump’s job performance correlates highly with partisan identity, we can ask which types of Republicans are more likely to be on the authoritarian train. The data do not show a lot of variation demographically (Table 2). Republicans without a college degree tend to score highest on the RWA scale, while younger Republicans are somewhat less authoritarian than older partisans. But that’s about it.

    Table 2.Mean RWA/SDO Scores
    Among Republicans
    All Republicans + leaners (n=465)11286
    GOP identifiers only (n=300)11586
    GOP leaners only (n=165)10686
    Men (n=292)11388
    Women (n=169)11183
    Age 18-44 (n=53)9582
    Age 45-64 (n=188)11090
    Age 65+ (n=215)11884
    High school or less (n=71)12089
    Some college (n=137)12086
    4-year college degree (n=160)10886
    Post-graduate (n=96)10284
    White (n=415)11287
    Latino, Black, Asian, other (n=39)10983

    There’s a similar lack of differentiation among Democrats (Table 3). All demographic groups score significantly lower than their Republican counterparts, but there are only minor variations within the party itself. Democrats who never attended a college class tend to be most authoritarian and white Democrats tend to score lower on the RWA scale than Democrats of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Otherwise, the scores are fairly similar across the board.

    Table 3.Mean RWA/SDO Scores
    Among Democrats
    All Democrats + leaners (n=408)5345
    DEM identifiers only (n=284)5344
    DEM leaners only (n=124)5246
    Men (n=192)5349
    Women (n=216)5241
    Age 18-44 (n=93)4945
    Age 45-64 (n=147)4843
    Age 65+ (n=168)5947
    High school or less (n=36)7547
    Some college (n=69)5545
    4-year college degree (n=137)4945
    Post-graduate (n=166)4944
    White (n=323)4945
    Latino, Black, Asian, other (n=81)6645

    I looked at potential variations among Democrats in another way by using a question on presidential preference as a proxy for different orientations within the party. Remember, the Democratic nomination was still wide-open when this survey was conducted in the fall of 2019. Mean RWA scores ranged from a relative high of x̅=59 among Joe Biden supporters (n=101), to x̅=48 among Bernie Sanders supporters (n=41), x̅=48 among Pete Buttigieg supporters (n=88), and x̅=44 among Elizabeth Warren supporters (n=75). The mean RWA score among Democrats with no candidate preference (n=63) was x̅=59.  [Interesting side note: Tulsi Gabbard was named by 32 respondents as a preferred Democratic nominee, but not by anyone who actually identified as a Democrat (the nominee preference question was asked of all survey respondents). Her supporters averaged x̅=106 on the RWA scale, which is much closer to the Republican average than the Democratic one.]

    Both parties include their share of “authoritarians,” but there is a clear lack of critical mass on the left. Among Democrats, 11% of Biden supporters and 10% of Sanders supporters had a high score on the abbreviated 5-item RWA scale in the poll, while only 3% of Buttigieg and Warren supporters did. There simply aren’t enough authoritarian Democrats in the electorate to rally around a single leader and take control of the party. Of course, this may also be a “chicken and egg” problem. Voters who prefer authoritarian style leadership may be less comfortable with the Democratic Party as much for its lack of centralized leadership as for any specific set of policy issues. But considering the strong link between authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism in general, social issues must certainly play a key role in these wide partisan gaps on the RWA scale.

    I attempted to strip the original RWA scale of its obviously religious items (discussed in my prior post). I found that the scales held up without the items that referenced values on gender and sexuality. However, this finding needs to be taken with an important caveat. The full battery of questions in the survey interspersed the value-laden items among the leadership items, so it is possible that respondents answered the full question set in ways that attained a level of internal attitude consistency (what we call context effects in the polling biz). This means that we could possibly get a different set of answers to the 5 questions in the shorter RWA measurement if they had been the only part of the scale included in the survey. We would need to test this in isolation to be certain.

    As I mentioned earlier, my research interest lies in exploring the psychosocial underpinnings of political behavior. But I also have a normative interest in this particular study. To what extent does authoritarianism pose a danger to the U.S. Constitution?

    The authors added a question to the survey that attempted to directly measure this question. However, the results may seem counterintuitive, at first glance. The question wording was: “The U.S. Constitution gets in the way of things too much nowadays and should just be ignored when it interferes with taking action on some issue.”  Overall, only 6% of respondents agreed with this statement or even took a neutral stance on it. In fact, 69% picked the most extreme “disagree” option.

    Now, the first thing that comes to my mind in examining these results is social desirability bias. The idea that we should respect the U.S. Constitution is so baked in to the American psyche that you can hardly expect anyone to admit they are willing to disregard it when asked so blatantly: “I’m not undermining the Constitution. You’re undermining the Constitution!”

    In fact, the responses to this question tended not to correlate with any of the RWA items in the survey. In the few cases where there was a significant – albeit weak – relationship, the correlation tended to be negative. In other words, willingness to ignore the Constitution to attain a policy end tended to be held – to the extent it was held at all – by people who had lower authoritarian tendencies.

    I have not spoken with Dean and Altemeyer about this, but I expect they may have been surprised by the results.  Fully 83% of respondents who strongly approve of Trump said they very strongly disagree with this statement – the most negative option in the survey’s 9-point response set. This level of disagreement was less widely shared among voters who were less stalwart Trump supporters, including those who somewhat approve (68%), somewhat disapprove (51%), and strongly disapprove (62%) of the president’s job performance.

    If you look at this question by partisanship, just 4% of Republicans either agreed or took a neutral stance on the question of the Constitution getting in the way of things, compared with 8% of Democrats and 10% of independents. This is a small, but still statistically significant difference. There is even further differentiation among Democrats. Sanders supporters (20%) are more likely to agree with this sentiment than backers of Biden (10%), Warren (5%), or Buttigieg (3%).

    This may be a bit of a shocker because the charge against Trump has been that he is willing to trample on the Constitution to further his aims and his followers have been willing to go along with it. Does this mean strong Sanders supporters are more likely to ignore the Constitution to achieve their ends than strong Trump supporters are? I don’t think so. In fact, I hypothesize that these Sanders backers are just more likely to admit it – and indeed even recognize that they are doing it.

    If you look at the Constitution as an operational framework for government rather than an ideological document, its purpose can basically be boiled down to concerns rooted in its historical origins. One key purpose was to create a functioning central government that would engender enough public trust to prevent anarchy and chaos (think Shay’s Rebellion). The other purpose was to prevent authoritarianism; that is, allowing any individual leader to put themselves above the law (think King George III). Basically, the Constitution works, not when everyone gets what they want from a policy standpoint, but when the public trusts that those who hold the reins of power are observing its rules of engagement.

    Now, there are people on the left who want anarchy and those on the right who want an omnipotent ruler. For both, the U.S. Constitution’s purposeful ambiguity is an impediment to their ends. It just seems those on the left are more likely to actually recognize this and admit it. What neither side seems to realize, though, is this: in a nation as vast and diverse as ours, those tedious checks and balances embedded in the Constitution are in fact what keep this country on an even keel during uncertain times.

    The bigger danger to our Republic does not, in fact, come from those who admit to seeking a wholesale change in our form of government. You can see that coming.  No, the more perilous hazard comes from those who are willing to erode Constitutional norms from within by manipulating the natural fears and psychological dispositions of a segment of the American public. And the biggest danger of all comes from those who do this while duplicitously giving lip service to the core principles of our Republic’s founding document.

  • Authoritarian Tendencies in the American Electorate (Part 1)

    by Patrick Murray

    The release of Authoritarian Nightmare by John Dean and Bob Altemeyer raises important questions about the underlying values and motivations of the American electorate. A core part of their analysis is based on a survey of voters conducted with the assistance of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute. I discuss our participation in the project in another post, but here I take a deeper dive into the explanatory power of authoritarianism for American voter attitudes and behavior.

    [Note: this is a lengthy “extra for experts” post aimed at those wanting to understand psychosocial dimensions of political attitudes and behavior – and whether it is even possible to measure these constructs. If you are only interested in polling to forecast the next election, look elsewhere. The analysis here is based on a survey of 990 registered voters conducted online from late October to November, 2019.]

    The framework for the book’s analysis is found in a number of psychological scales developed by Altemeyer and others to measure perceptions of prejudice, social equality, morality and preferences for strong leadership. Altemeyer’s premise is that traditional religious values and authoritarian tendencies are interrelated. [However, I must emphasize that the following thoughts are mine alone and do not represent Altemeyer’s research or writing.]

    The existence of a correlation between traditional social values and authoritarianism makes sense from a lay person’s point of view. People who value tradition are more likely to be threatened by changes to the social order they know – whether those changes are real or perceived. And if you are concerned about the world changing too rapidly, the more likely you are to cede control to a strong authority figure who will do whatever is necessary to stem or reverse that cultural shift.

    In fact, many evangelical voters offer a similar rationale in their continued support of Donald Trump. His behavior may be antithetical to their stated belief system in many ways, but they can rely on him to fight for their priority concerns. And while none of them have actually articulated it in this way, it basically boils down to: “If some Constitutional norms need to be undermined to overturn legal abortion, then so be it.” The ends justify the means.

    This description is admittedly a simplistic depiction based on one type of single-issue voter. For many other Trump supporters, though, the cultural shifts they hope to reverse are more amorphous than any particular policy. This type of person’s calculation is more about having to confront unknowns in their daily life – a sense of discomfort and discontent that they are not getting ahead while “others” are. In this context, the passive authoritarian is willing to cede control to a strong leader who can identify and vilify the “other.”

    Altemeyer has been utilizing his scales in a variety of settings for nearly four decades, but this new book marks the first time they have been put to the test with a representative sample of the American electorate. As the discussion in the book illustrates, this new data supports many of his prior claims about authoritarianism.

    How Does One Measure Authoritarianism?

    As someone new to the scene, though, I examined his Right Wing Authoritarian (RWA) scale and asked whether it is a measurement of traditional values more so than it taps into a willingness to cede authority to a strong leader. A look at the 20 questions in the scale finds a mix of items, such as “Our country will be great if we… do what the authorities tell us,” as well as “God’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed before it is too late.”  The scale includes constructs around strong leadership as well as items tapping into traditional views of sex and sexuality.

    My question is whether we can tease out these two constructs. Altemeyer’s 20-item scale seems pretty solid as a measurement tool, with high reliability score of α=.96.  I wondered if the scale hold up without the sexual morality component, so I excluded the most blatant religious value questions and replaced them with a couple of additional items in the survey that asked about adherence to strong leadership (see question list here). This new 11 item scale had a similarly strong reliability score (α=.91). And because academic social scientists have a tendency to overegg the sauce, I also created an even more efficient 5-item scale. This produced a similar level of reliability (α=.90).

    Lo and behold, these new scales exhibit nearly the same distributions as the findings discussed in the Dean and Altemeyer book that showed increasing authoritarian tendencies among Trump supporters (Table 1).  The mean authoritarian score of strong Trump approvers is more than twice that of strong Trump disapprovers across the board.  The results here suggest that removing the most blatantly religious items from the RWA scale demonstrates a squarely different mindset among Trump supporters on the proper exercise of leadership to maintain “order.” In other words, there are greater authoritarian tendencies among Trump supporters regardless of whether the scale includes references to specific social “norms” of gender and sexual orientation.

    Table 1.RWA Scale Means by Trump Job Rating
    RWA scale…Strongly
    Original 20-item scale
    (range=20-176;  x̅=.84)
    11-item non-valence
    (range=20-178;  x̅=.82)
    5-item non-valence
    (range=20-176;  x̅=.87)

    Despite the different composition of these RWA scales, all three of them correlate significantly with a separate scale measuring religious fundamentalism, although they do so at notably different levels (Table 2). These correlations range from r=.83 for the original 20-item scale to r=.68 for the 5-item scale with the sexual norms items removed. It is also interesting that all three RWA scales correlate highly with a separate scale in the survey designed to measure racial and religious prejudice (between r=.78 and r=.84). These concepts – racial equality and religious piety – were not referenced directly in any of the RWA scale items. While the religious aspect may be implicitly tied to authoritarianism because of how the original scale was constructed, racial prejudice is not. Yet, the two scales are indeed highly correlated. [By the way, the direct correlation between the prejudice scale and the fundamentalism scale is r=.65. Prejudice is not as strongly related to evangelism qua evangelism as it is to authoritarianism. These findings hold even when the analysis is run among white voters only.]

    Table 2.Scale Correlations
    (all are significant at p<.01)
    RWA scale…Religious
    Original 20-item scale.83.84.68
    11-item non-valence.72.78.62
    5-item non-valence.68.79.63

    The survey included another scale – one that may be even more telling about the underlying psychosocial dimensions of political behavior. The 16-item Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) scale measures a belief in and preference for maintaining hierarchy in society in general. [Note: the developers of this scale note that it includes two distinct dimensions – group dominance and anti-egalitarianism – that are meant to be scored separately. However, the correlations of the separate components to the other scales in our survey are nearly identical, so for ease of discussion I am using a summary scale value for SDO.]

    The SDO scale does not specify any group identities, but it still has a strong correlation with the Prejudice scale (r=.80). This is much stronger than its correlation with the Religious Fundamentalism scale (r=.50). SDO also correlates with RWA – between r=.62 and r=.68 depending on which RWA scale is used. Other research has shown a weaker correlation between SDO and RWA, but those studies were conducted primarily with university students, whereas this study was conducted with a representative sample of American voters. The gap between Trump supporters and other voters is apparent on both scales, although the social dominance dimension varies over a smaller ranger (Table 3).

    Table 3.Scale Means by Trump Job Rating
    RWA scale5482101119
    SDO scale (rebased to
    match RWA scale range)

    The Dean and Altemeyer book suggests that while authoritarian followers provide Trump’s base of support, social dominators in his camp may pose the bigger threat. Basically, they see authoritarianism as passive and social dominance as aggressive (e.g. think of QAnon). About 1-in-8 survey respondents scored in the top quartile on both the RWA and the SDO scales and among this group, 89% are solidly in the pro-Trump camp. Among those who score highly only on the RWA scale, solid Trump support stands at 74% and among those who score highly only on the SDO scale solid Trump support is 58% of this group.

    We know these “Double-highs” – as Dean and Altemeyer call them – on the RWA and SDO scales are firmly in Trump’s corner. The question is how far are they willing to go to back him?  One question in the survey is illustrative. It asked what should happen if Trump loses in November but he “declares the election was fixed and crooked” (Table 4). Nearly 1 in 4 (23%) double-highs agree that Trump should continue as president in this situation, while 53% disagree. Other high RWAs are not far behind (19% agree and 66% disagree) while other high SDOs are not as willing to back an unconstitutional extension of Trump’s term (5% agree and 79% disagree). That puts them in basically the same category on this question as voters who score moderately high on either the RWA or SDO scales (5% agree and 85% disagree).

    Table 4.Trump should continue in office despite a loss  
    if he declares election was fixed and crooked
     Double High
    High RWA
    High SDO
    Low on
    Agree (7%)23%19%5%5%1%
    Neutral (10%)24%15%16%10%1%
    Disagree (83%)53%66%79%85%98%

    Now, I am not a big fan of hypothetical questions. There are too many instances where what people thought they would do in a given situation do not match up with their actions once they are faced with the reality of the situation. But these results do suggest that Trump does maintain a core base of high RWA/SDO voters who might take to the ramparts for him and another group of high RWA voters who will tacitly offer their support. The question is whether these two groups form a critical mass in American politics.

    Altemeyer’s position is that a certain number of people in any given population will always have authoritarian tendencies. The question is whether those inclinations are validated and authoritarian behaviors are deemed acceptable by a critical mass in society. Such situations seem to require a perfect storm of social uncertainty and economic volatility, but also seem to depend on the willingness of political leaders to cravenly play on those fears – or stand idly by while others do this.

    It is possible that much has changed since Altemeyer first developed these scales. Religious fundamentalism as a political force was in its nascent stage four decades ago. There may have been other belief systems that correlated with authoritarianism just as well.  Regardless, these two constructs seem to be tightly linked today, at least in American politics.

    This does not mean that all evangelicals or all Trump supporters are predisposed to authoritarianism. Nor does it mean that only those on the right of the political spectrum exhibit these tendencies. But the correlations are rather strong. I discuss these exceptions to the rule, as well as consequences for a constitutional republic, in the second part of this post.

  • Monmouth Poll Research on Authoritarianism

    by Patrick Murray

    The Monmouth University Polling Institute recently provided research support for a new book by John Dean and Bob Altemeyer entitled Authoritarian Nightmare. Our objective was to further public understanding of what drives voter attitudes and behavior in the 21st century. This is how our association with the authors came about. Thoughts on the data in the survey can be found in separate posts (Part 1 and Part 2).

    I have a long-standing interest in the role of identity in politics – how people see themselves and how that translates into political attitudes and behaviors, be it through the lens of race, class, geography, etc. The rational choice models typical of political science tend to miss the more visceral need to be part of a group and how that group identity can subsume other political calculations. This is the main reason why I studied political psychology in graduate school and eventually found my way into the polling business.

    These factors became especially evident with the ascendance of Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy. It is worth remembering that Trump had only a 20% favorable to 55% unfavorable rating among Republican voters before he got into the race. Within weeks of his June 2015 announcement, that opinion had flipped to 52% favorable and 35% unfavorable. He hit 70% favorability by Election Day and now routinely tops 80% among his fellow Republicans. I remarked at the time that a universally known candidate suddenly upending what voters think of him on the basis of a campaign speech was unprecedented.

    Trump, however, was no typical politician and his appeal could not be readily explained by the usual political paradigms – no matter how much academics and pundits tried to do so. It wasn’t that a critical mass of Republican voters were looking for certain policy boxes to be ticked. These voters were not saying to themselves, “The lack of a border wall is keeping me up at night. Which candidate can I trust to build one?” They were looking for someone who could articulate why they felt unsettled in a changing world; someone who could identify the culprits responsible and vilify them. They were looking for someone who would ostensibly allay their fears – ironically by stoking those fears.

    Clearly, something more than a rational choice model of political behavior was at work. But standard public opinion polling has a difficult time tapping into these psychosocial dimensions. These factors are always present but have become much more prominent – perhaps even overwhelming – in the Trump era. There were a few attempts to measure these extra-political factors during the 2016 campaign. None was particularly robust, though, largely because the lengthy question sets needed to tap into these dimensions cannot be administered reliably in a telephone poll. Surveys with psychological batteries tend to be long, wordy, and intentionally provocative, while standard polls are short, succinctly worded, and intentionally bland.

    I began looking into ways to obtain better measurements of these phenomena as Trump supporters’ loyalty solidified once he took office. Enter John Dean.

    Dean has spoken on the Monmouth University campus twice in the past five years and I had the opportunity to join him for lunch on those occasions. During a conversation in October 2018, I mentioned my concern that standard political polling and the media coverage of voter attitudes was not up to the task of fully explaining the current political climate, and specifically Trump’s ability to maintain his core support. John contacted me shortly after that meeting to discuss a book idea he was working on. In 2006, he published Conservatives Without Conscience, a play on the title of Barry Goldwater’s seminal work, The Conscience of a Conservative. Dean’s book profiles the evolution of the Republican Party as he saw it, drawing on the authoritarianism research of Altemeyer, a retired professor of psychology from the University of Manitoba. While the 2006 volume profiled Republican leaders, Dean and Altemeyer were collaborating on a new book examining Trump’s rank-and-file supporters in the context of the typologies Bob started developing four decades ago.

    One thing they were missing, Dean explained, was a broad-based survey of American voters that could directly test their hypotheses. Upon hearing my own interest in developing a fuller understanding of voter attitudes and behavior in the Trump era, Dean asked if Monmouth might be interested in conducting a survey using Altemeyer’s psychological batteries. I saw this as an opportunity to further our body of knowledge by combining academic research with public polling methodology.

    We came to an agreement where the authors underwrote a representative online survey of American voters (although we slightly oversampled Republicans to ensure a sufficient group size in the study). Monmouth maintained full control over the selection and management of the sample in line with our standard protocols. And while we agreed to work cooperatively with Altemeyer on the questionnaire content, Monmouth effectively had veto power over any questions, aside from the validated psychological batteries, that did not meet our standards for objective measurement. Dean made it clear on multiple occasions that he was fully prepared for the possibility they might need to rethink their premise if the data led to different conclusions. The numbers would fall where they may. In the end, the findings did support their hypothesis.

    Monmouth delivered the final data set to the authors late last year, but played no role in the findings and conclusions of their book. However, part of the agreement was that Monmouth would have the ability to publish its own analysis of the data once the book was released. As such, we provide some initial thoughts on the results Part 1 and Part 2.

  • Issues in Implementing All-VBM Elections in New Jersey

    by Patrick Murray

    [The following was presented as testimony to the New Jersey General Assembly State and Local Government Committee on June 17, 2020.]

    I am not an expert in voter access law or the mechanics of election administration. I do know something about voter motivation and behavior. So that’s what I will address today in providing some context about what we saw in New Jersey in May’s local elections and what we may see in the July primary and beyond.

    In 1992, more than 90% of all votes in America were cast traditionally – that is to say at polling places on Election Day. By 2016, the Election Day vote had dropped to 60% of national turnout, with the remainder evenly split between mail ballots and in-person early voting.

    It is likely that vote by mail – or VBM – will increase this year because of Covid even without a state change. Half of voters in a recent national Monmouth poll said they are very (31%) or somewhat (20%) likely to vote by mail this year. Covid is accelerating the already existing move in states to provide more convenient – and safer – access to the voting franchise.

    I want to talk about two related impacts – turnout and public confidence in the system.


    If you looked at the turnout in last month’s local elections here, you’ll notice a large increase for many, but not all, of those races. Looking at the six Bergen County school districts that held Board of Education elections, average turnout more than doubled in these contests compared to last year’s April elections. However, we didn’t see quite the same jump in more urban communities. Turnout was much higher in Irvington for both its municipal and school board elections, but was up only slightly in Newark’s school board race. Turnout was actually lower in municipal contests in Orange and Paterson than for the same races four years ago.  However, in both those cities, these races were less competitive than in the prior cycle – and you need to factor that in.

    We need a larger sample of elections before we can draw any firm conclusions about VBM in New Jersey. However, it does seem that VBM had a bigger impact on turnout in the suburbs. There is one other side note to this. It appears that there were fewer undervotes on the public questions relative to overall turnout. So perhaps, VBM prompts more voters to fill out the entire ballot.

    But July will be a statewide election, so the question is what do we know about turnout from other states that have implemented all-VBM?  Researchers are not quite agreed. It looks like there were initial bumps in Oregon and Washington when they first implemented all VBM more than a decade ago, but those gains may have been maintained inconsistently. VBM does seem to have had an impact in CO, which made the switch only recently. The impact seems to be higher in lower turnout elections.

    There is no evidence that VBM has a partisan impact on turnout, even though Republicans tend to express less enthusiasm for it than Democrats. A study of recent elections in CA, UT, and WA by Stanford researchers, which was just released last week, found a negligible shift in pre-existing partisan turnout advantage related when those states moved to all VBM elections (maximum 0.7% Democrat).

    Looking back at May, the overall picture is that VBM may increase turnout more in the suburbs than the cities. Irvington stands out as an exception to this limited finding. That may be in part because the municipal and school elections were combined. Holding fewer elections in a year has a measurable impact on increasing turnout by decreasing voter fatigue.

    We also saw a five-fold increase in turnout for mayor and council in Montclair, which was much higher than the increased turnout in other municipal contests. However, most of the Montclair seats were uncontested in the prior cycle. And we know that the one thing guaranteed to cause a sizable increase in turnout is a competitive election. But it doesn’t look like we are going to have too many of those in July.

    -Public Confidence-

    The other issue I want to discuss is public confidence. Researchers have found a correlation between confidence that one’s vote will be counted accurately and the likelihood to vote. This is one area where New Jersey could have problems in July, particularly if there are close contests in high profile races.  And that’s because implementing VBM properly takes time.

    A recent study by Brigham Young University political scientists found a decrease in public confidence in Utah after that state went to all-VBM. The percent of all Utah voters who said they were very confident that their ballot was counted accurately went from 69% after the 2008 election to 60% in 2018.  Nearly all the remainder were somewhat confident and only about 5% were not confident in either year. However, that dip in confidence was tempered by past experience with voting by mail. Among voters who had cast a mail ballot in two or more elections, strong confidence in the process stood at 68% – nearly identical to the 2008 number for all voters. This result was a similar 64% among those with one VBM ballot under their belts, but it was only 53% among those who voted by mail for the first time in 2018. Thus the switch to all VBM caused an initial dip in confidence that disappeared once voters experienced it.

    On the other side of the coin, an examination of the voter files in one particular California county after it switched to all-VBM more than a decade ago actually found a decrease in individual voting turnout after that change. Confounding factors in that county included poor communication about the switch and large numbers of non-English speaking voters. These issues were not factors in Utah, Oregon or Washington State, but are the kind of things we could see here in New Jersey with our diverse population and sudden implementation of VBM.

    It’s important to caveat this. New Jersey may face certain VBM problems that are not noticeable in July, because it is already a low turnout primary without high-profile competitive races at the top of the ticket. If we have an all- or even high-VBM election in November, though, these cracks in implementation could become more apparent.

    So, let me mention some key factors that should be considered in implementing and examining VBM elections:

    First, if you look at states that have successively implemented VBM, “vote by mail” is actually an inaccurate term. Yes, all voters receive their ballot by mail. But the vast majority actually deposit it at one of many offices and drop-box locations near them. Only about one-third of voters in these states actually return their vote by mail.  In other words, they do not rely on the U.S. Postal Service to carry the full load of delivering ballots. We already saw some problems in May with relying almost exclusively on the U.S. Postal Service to handle returned ballots. Some were missing the requisite postmark and others were not delivered to the county clerks in time, or at all. A successful VBM process requires multiple drop off locations that voters can easily access.

    Second, we need to give voters the opportunity to rectify rejected ballots. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 16 states require clerks to notify voters if their ballot signature does not match the voter file. Election officials are not handwriting experts and should not have the final say based only on their own visual examination.

    Third, allowing additional time for ballots to be received and problems to be addressed is also important for building public confidence. Some states only rectify problems for ballots received before Election Day, but others allow for a longer period to ensure full voter access. Washington, for example, gives voters from 10 to 21 days after the election to rectify signature discrepancies.

    Fourth, another feature of a high-confidence VBM process is providing an easy way for a voter to verify that their ballot has in fact been accepted – via either automated phone interface or online.

    Finally, VBM actually addresses a glaring security problem in New Jersey’s current voting system – the lack of a paper trail. While there are costs associated with moving to all-VBM elections, they more than offset the capital investment required to address the urgent need to replace all of the state’s existing voting machines.

    These things, along with an extensive voter communication campaign, are some of the things that have contributed to the successful transition to all-VBM elections in other states. We lack most of these factors here in New Jersey. Even so, we may have a seemingly “successful” primary election here next month. However, that experience may not tell the whole story of how VBM might perform if we administer November’s high turnout general election in a similar way.

  • Trump Job Rating “Bump” in Context

    By Patrick Murray

    Fact 1: Donald Trump’s job rating is at an all-time high.

    Fact 2: Donald Trump has not received the same approval “bump” as past presidents in a crisis.

    Recent shifts in the president’s job approval have been met with “either alarms or fist pumps,” as one reporter put it to me.  But we really have to keep this in context.  We have become so accustomed to the fact that Trump’s numbers never move all that much, that we accept that as the norm. The current crisis is just an exceptionally stark example of that.

    To put this in perspective, if this were any other president, we would expect job ratings to have swung almost instantaneously by at least 10 points.  George W. Bush got a nearly 30 point bump after 9/11.  John F. Kennedy saw a double-digit hike in his already high ratings during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even Jimmy Carter got a 25 point bump in 1979 when Americans were taken hostage in Iran.

    In Monmouth’s polling, Trump’s approval rating is only 2 points higher than where it was one month ago, before the pandemic really spread in the country. And for context, his current rating is 3 points higher than two months ago in the midst of his impeachment trial, and 5 points higher than six months ago, when the impeachment process was just getting underway.  Monmouth’s numbers track consistently with the average of all polls.

    The scale of these shifts means that we end up trying to discern significance from infinitesimal amounts of evidence.  I am not saying that these small movements cannot be consequential. When the country is as evenly divided as it is now, they most certainly can be the tipping point for political change. What I am really trying to say is that is it very difficult to explain the reasons for these shifts at the microscopic level of detail many observers want. That’s because standard public opinion polls are not the right tool for the job. They are more like magnifying glasses than microscopes.

    Let’s take the recent shift in Monmouth’s poll numbers as an example. The one major change we saw in Trump’s job rating was that approval among Democrats went from 6% last month to 11% now. The numbers for Republicans (91%) and independents (44%) stayed exactly the same. Now, the fact that the latter groups were exactly the same in the poll does not mean they are exactly the same in reality, because of the potential margin of error in the poll sample. It’s just that we know they did not move as much (if at all) as the Democrats.

    A five percentage point movement among a group that makes up about a third of the population is microscopic in polling terms. Absent a sample size in the tens of thousands, we just don’t have the ability to examine this group with any level of precision. In real terms, this shift may represent about 3 or 4 million adults across the country. In polling terms, this equates to approximately 15 respondents in a sample of 850).

    It is likely that this group had a range of reasons for changing their opinion. For some it was probably movement from soft disapproval to soft approval for a specific thing Trump had done. For others it may be aspirational.

    There’s a body of literature about the psychological need to rally around a leader in times of crisis, which is why the bigger research question for a student of public opinion is why that effect isn’t bigger right now rather than finding explanations for the few people who have become more positive toward the president.

    Part of the explanation is certainly down to Trump’s inability to project a more inclusive, non-partisan persona as well as a steady hand on how his administration is tackling this situation. Part of the explanation is the failure of opposition leaders to signal to their followers that they should get behind the president (which admittedly is difficult for them to do as Trump’s rhetoric continues to lambast those who don’t show due deference to him).

    Basically, the current times are blowing away a lot of the political theories about what typically happens in a time of crisis.  And that, to me, is the more important public opinion story right now.

  • Should We Reform the Presidential Nomination Process?

    by Vincent Grassi, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

    The process by which the Democratic Party chooses its presidential nominee has faced increased scrutiny this election cycle, especially after a flop at the Iowa caucuses. One argument has been that the first two states that hold a caucus or primary, Iowa and New Hampshire, do not represent the demographics of the Democratic Party and hold an outsized influence on choosing the party’s nominee.  A majority of Democratic voters (56%) believe that Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primary have too much influence over who wins the party’s presidential nomination, according to the Monmouth University Poll. One in four say having these states go first hinders the party’s ability to nominate the best candidate. It may be time to shake up the primary calendar and try something different.

    To begin, what are some of the advantages of having Iowa and New Hampshire go first? Candidates with limited funds can stay competitive in small states with less expensive media markets but would not be able to compete against more well-funded candidates in bigger states. Since Iowa and New Hampshire are small states, candidates who are less well known or have fewer supporters are given the opportunity to gain traction and secure a win, something that would not be possible if larger states like California went first.

    Candidates turn to different methods of campaigning in these states to establish closeness with the electorate. For example, in small states like New Hampshire, candidates hold small, intimate gatherings with voters like town halls. In bigger states there wouldn’t be an incentive to hold these types of events. Candidates would be more focused on holding large rallies and giving interviews on television. Also, candidates would have little motivation to campaign in a smaller state like New Hampshire if a larger state like Florida (with more delegates to be won) were to vote first.

    However, there are some disadvantages to the current system as well. The first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, provide poor representations of the demographics of the Democratic Party. For example, having New Hampshire as the first primary has been criticized because the state’s racial demographics are 90% white, with African Americans only making up 1.7% of the population, Asian Americans 3%, and Hispanic Americans 3.9% according to the US Census Bureau.

    The addition of Nevada and South Carolina as early states somewhat offsets the problem regarding the demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire. With this, some claim the first four states in the nomination process are somewhat representative of the country. Hispanic Americans account for 29% of Nevada’s population. In South Carolina, African Americans account for 27% of the population and make up an even larger share of the Democratic electorate. The media uses these states to gauge candidates’ support among minority groups. 

     However, if a candidate does not perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire, they are usually compelled to drop out of the race and never have the opportunity to compete in more diverse states. The candidates that perform well in Iowa and New Hampshire get increased media coverage that propels their campaigns. The process is all about gaining momentum leading up to Super Tuesday.

    Iowa’s caucus system has been criticized for being noninclusive. It disenfranchises large parts of the state’s population due to its design and procedures. According to the ACLU of Iowa, the physical demands of caucusing in the state, “… makes participation difficult for people who can’t get or afford child care, people living with disabilities or mobility issues, people who lack transportation, and people who work evenings.” According to the Brookings Institute, the current way, “caters to older voters and those for whom politics is a passion.” Voter turnout in Iowa was also lower than expected this year.

    What are some possible solutions or reforms that can be made to better the process? There are multiple different options and proposed reforms that can replace or complement what we have now. The Monmouth University Poll shows a majority of Democratic voters (58%) favor a national primary day. A national primary day would make it so that all states hold a presidential primary election on the same day. Proponents of this reform claim that this system would be more efficient, however, opponents argue that it would be very expensive for candidates to compete on a national scale.

    Another reform that garnered 15% support in the poll is having a few other states hold their contests on the same days as the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. This would keep the drawn out process of the current system and calm the criticism surrounding Iowa and New Hampshire going first.

    According to the Monmouth Poll, one in ten support replacing the current system with grouped primaries. Rotating regional primaries is one reform that The National Association of Secretaries of State has supported. This would group states by their geographical location (making segments) and create the primary schedule according to region. The order of these primary elections according to region would be rotated each election cycle.

    Another possible reform is the elimination of caucuses and establishing primaries with ranked-choice voting. Not only does this address the concern over the accessibility of caucuses, but it may also answer the concerns expressed by Democrats over how much influence early states like Iowa and New Hampshire have over the candidate pool. Ranked-choice voting would enable fringe candidates to stay in the race even after Iowa and New Hampshire by allowing people to rank their preferences in a primary vote.

    Ranked-choice voting could ensure that nominees have broader support among the electorate. According to FairVote, “The system incentivizes candidates to work together rather than attack one another in the hopes of earning backup choices, and to campaign to a broad swath of voters rather than just their own base.” Nevada used ranked-choice voting in their early voting period which helped increase voter turnout significantly according to FairVote. 

    It might be time to give more consideration to reforming the current presidential nomination system. Criticism over Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s status as the first states to vote on presidential candidates has caused many to reexamine the process. Within our country’s history, the way political parties nominate their presidential nominees has evolved and changed to suit cultural shifts. By weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the current system, we can propose the right reforms.

  • There’s more to key voter groups for Biden and Sanders than meets the eye

    by Patrick Murray

    The story of the 2020 primary has been that Joe Biden does well among older voters, moderates, and black voters.  Bernie Sanders counts younger voters, liberals, and Latinos among his key backers.

    We have exit poll data from 16 states so far this cycle – nine won by Biden, six won by Sanders, and one yet to be called.  Analysis of key group support across these states reveals that victory is not just a matter of which groups supported each candidate, but by how much.

    Biden was backed by just over half of voters aged 45 and older in the states he has won so far, but he only managed to get 3 in 10 of this group’s support in the states won by Sanders. Similarly, Biden won half the vote of moderate and conservative voters where he was victorious, but only one-fourth in the states he lost.

    Joe Biden Share of Key 2020 Primary Voter
    Groups in States Won by …
    Biden Sanders
    Age 45 and over 51% 30%
    Moderates/Conservatives 50% 27%
    Black voters 62% 35%
    White voters 38% 22%
    Source: NBC News Exit Poll

    In the states that landed in Sanders’ column, he won a clear majority of voters under 45 years old. That group’s support dropped to less than half in the states he lost to Biden. In the states Sanders won, he got the backing of 4 in 10 liberals, but only a third of this group in states Biden won.

    Bernie Sanders Share of Key 2020 Primary Voter
    Groups in States Won by …
      Biden Sanders
    Under age 45 44% 56%
    Liberals 33% 40%
    Latino voters 38% 49%
    White voters 26% 30%
    Source: NBC News Exit Poll

    Biden’s black support has been a key factor in his surging campaign this week. Biden has emerged victorious when he was able to claim the backing of 6 in 10 black voters on average, regardless of the share of the black electorate in any given state. He lost states where his support among black voters was about half that level. When Sanders was able to win about half of the Latino vote, he tended to win the state as well, but he lost states where his Latino support was less than 4 in 10.

    While all these demographic groups have been identified as key blocs for the two candidates in pre-election polls over the past year, the way white voters have divided their support has also proven to be a critical factor in Biden’s comeback.  In states he won, Biden tended to claim more than one-third of the white vote. His share of the white vote was about one-fifth in states he lost. The white vote has not been as decisive for Sanders – he has won about the same proportion of this group in states he has won and states he has lost.

    The one state that really tested these countervailing racial dynamics is Texas, which has significant numbers of both black and Latino voters. Biden got 58 percent of the black vote in Texas, only a few points shy of his average black share in the states he won.  Sanders won only 39 percent of the Latino vote there, which is on par with the average margin in states he lost. The two candidates split the white vote (30% for Sanders and 28% for Biden), but it was the differential vote shares between black and Latino voters that put Biden over the top. And this linkage between key group vote share and outcome held even though there were many more Latinos than black voters in yesterday’s Democratic electorate in Texas.

    Now, of course, there are exceptions to these overall trends. Biden won Massachusetts, for example, despite low support among the small group of black voters in that state. But the overall analysis of the exit polls to date suggests that the threshold of support within each candidate’s key groups may be more critical in determining the outcome than the share each group represents in any given state’s electorate.  We will see if this trend continues in the diverse states up for grabs in the coming weeks.


    Notes: Thank you to the NBC News Decision Desk for access to the exit poll data.

    Biden states = AL / MA / MN / NC / OK / SC / TN / TX / VA

    Sanders states = CA / CO / IA / NV / NH / VT

    Iowa is a Sanders state based on initial preference vote. Maine’s winner is uncertain.

  • Big Tech, Fake News, and Political Advertising

    by Vincent Grassi, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

    Social media has had a huge impact on politics by shaping public discourse and revamping civic engagement. However, as we have seen with foreign interference in elections, social media is an outlet for everyone, including what many refer to as online “bad actors.” Here, we’ll look at how big tech companies (namely Facebook, Google, and Twitter) have been taxed with combating the spread of fake news and disinformation ahead of the 2020 election. And, more specifically, we’ll examine their role in safeguarding political speech while also acting to dismantle false or deceptive political advertisements shared on social media.

    Fears concerning disinformation campaigns that target voters and our elections were chiefly birthed from the revelation of a Russian state-backed online influence operation that maliciously used social media to interfere in the 2016 election. According to a Monmouth University Poll from March of 2018, most Americans (87%) believed outside groups or agents were actively trying to plant fake news stories on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, and 71% felt this was a serious problem. Nearly three-in-ten (29%) believed that social media outlets were mostly responsible for the dissemination of fake news, although a majority (60%) said they were partly responsible but other media sources were more to blame. In addition, over two-thirds of Americans (69%) felt that Facebook and YouTube weren’t doing enough to stop the spread of fake news.

    In the lead up to the 2020 election, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have taken responsibility for eliminating social media accounts operated by foreign actors that intend to mislead the citizens of other countries. For example, Facebook has focused on removing accounts that take part in what it deems “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” or networks of accounts that are intentionally trying to mislead others. According to an article on Facebook Newsroom, Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of cybersecurity policy, said, “In the past year alone, we have announced and taken down over 50 networks worldwide for engaging in CIB, including ahead of major democratic elections.”

    Deceptive practices on social media platforms are not only attributed to foreign agents, but also American citizens. Gleicher said, “While significant public attention has been on foreign governments engaging in these types of violations, over the past two years, we have also seen non-state actors, domestic groups and commercial companies engaging in this behavior.”

    Recently, the issue of false ads was brought to the forefront when a controversial Trump campaign advertisement about Joe Biden was published on Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube. The ad has been largely regarded as spreading false, unfounded claims about the former vice president’s past involvement in Ukraine. Biden’s campaign urged the social media giants to remove the advertisement from their platforms, but they declined.

    Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been under fire for this decision. In a speech on free expression given at Georgetown University after his decision, Zuckerberg said, “I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy. And we’re not an outlier here. The other major internet platforms and the vast majority of media also run these same ads.” Also in the speech, the Facebook CEO revealed that the company does not fact-check political ads.

    Since then, Facebook has been under heavy scrutiny and, according to an article posted to Facebook Newsroom on October 21, they are looking to make some changes to address the problem. The article reads, “Over the next month, content across Facebook and Instagram that has been rated false or partly false by a third-party fact-checker will start to be more prominently labeled so that people can better decide for themselves what to read, trust and share.”  Facebook’s plan to protect the integrity of the U.S. 2020 elections includes fighting foreign interference campaigns, increasing transparency by showing how much presidential candidates have spent on ads, and reducing misinformation by improving its fact-checking labels and investing in media literacy programs.

    In response to Zuckerberg’s defense of Facebook’s policy, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter will do the opposite and not allow any political advertising on its platform starting at the end of the month. Dorsey explained the decision by highlighting some factors that should be considered in the ongoing debate, tweeting, “Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”

    While both Twitter and Facebook have addressed their platform’s policies on political advertisements, Google has refrained from commenting on YouTube’s policy. According to Google’s transparency report, they received around $126 million in revenue from political advertisements since May 31st 2018 running 172,308 ads. Also, findings from Quartz show that the Trump campaign’s controversial advertisement appeared more often on YouTube than it did on Facebook.

    Some of the Democratic candidates for president have signaled their frustration with the social media giants. Leading democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren targeted Facebook by posting her own purposely false advertisement on the platform stating that Zuckerberg had endorsed President Trump’s reelection in order to see if it would be approved (it was). Another candidate, Kamala Harris, urged Twitter to suspend President Trump’s twitter account partly due to a series of tweets about the Ukraine scandal whistleblower and the impeachment inquiry in which, she believes, the president violated Twitter’s terms of service by using the platform to obstruct justice and incite violence.

    While big tech companies are taxed with disrupting foreign disinformation campaigns, they have also had to focus on domestic issues such as the viral spread of misinformation. Another concern has appeared over their political advertising policies as well and the debate over how social media companies should approach political speech on their platforms. Is it better to not fact-check political social media advertisements, ban them altogether, or is there some middle ground that can be deemed effective at safeguarding political speech online?

  • New Jersey’s legislative election and 2020 implications

    By Patrick Murray

    Was New Jersey’s election good news for Republicans? As you may have guessed from the way I phrased that question, the answer is both yes and no.

    First, let’s take nothing away from the Republican legislative victories.  They held onto seats that were targeted by Democrats and also knocked off Democratic incumbents in at least one district, all while being outspent by a lot.  But the fact that this outcome – i.e. the governor’s party losing a couple of seats in a midterm – was not something we were really considering before the election says something about the state of politics in the age of Trump.

    Republicans won by keeping their races local.  Gov. Phil Murphy, who has middling approval ratings, was a factor, but not the major one. For example, the Democrats’ vote-by-mail effort, while formidable statewide, did not materialize into a large advantage where it counted.  And Democrats’ attack ads in the 1st District seems to have backfired.

    Taken in isolation the result was “normal” for a midterm, but it does seem like New Jersey Republicans overperformed and/or state Democrats underperformed when viewed in the context of what happened elsewhere in the country. This includes an apparent Democratic gubernatorial victory in Kentucky and an unusually close race in Mississippi, as well as Democrats picking up both chambers of the Virginia legislature in a midterm with a sitting governor of the same party (who is best known nationally for wearing blackface).

    Keep in mind, though, that New Jersey Democrats had already picked up a number of “red” seats in prior legislative elections. They had already reached a saturation point in the size of their majority – unlike Virginia, which has only recently been trending more Democratic.  Also, the Virginia race was nationalized, whereas New Jersey’s was not.  Which means if you start digging past the superficial results, there are some factors in the New Jersey results that actually confirm what we saw elsewhere.

    First, political engagement has increased in the Trump era.  Yes, turnout was low in New Jersey, but it was significantly higher than the last legislative midterm in 2015.  Part of this has to do with the state’s new automatic vote-by-mail law, but part is a sign of the times. But since New Jersey’s races weren’t nationalized to the extent they were in other states, our increase in turnout was not as high as elsewhere.

    Second, Trump Republicans did well in Trump areas (see LD1 and LD2), but not in moderate Republican areas. This is similar to what we saw in the other states’ voting yesterday.  In New Jersey, Republican incumbents were able localize their races by reclaiming the party brand from the president (at least temporarily), while Trump-aligned independents did little damage to the GOP ticket in LD21 and LD8.  Democrats in the other states did better because those races had higher stakes that spurred turnout among Democrats in suburban areas.  This was not the case in New Jersey.

    What this tells me about 2020 is that Jeff Van Drew could have a tough reelection bid in CD2 – even with the attempt to inoculate himself by voting against the impeachment inquiry.  Those types of calculations rarely help if the political environment is against you (cf. John Adler and his ACA vote). Yesterday’s results also means that Andy Kim will need an even greater suburban turnout in the Burlington portion of CD3 to offset Trump’s strength in the Ocean County portion.  On the other hand, Mikie Sherrill (CD11) and Tom Malinowski (CD7) probably can count on stronger Democrat turnout in their districts next year.  Results in hotly contested local races (such as the strong Democratic performance in Somerset County) seem to support the idea that there is Democratic vote to be tapped that wasn’t this year in districts with popular moderate Republican state legislators.  This is not to say that anything is guaranteed, just that the evidence does not support one can count on a return to Republican voting patterns in those suburbs.

    In the end, it is not the night New Jersey Democrats wanted and the state Republican Party got a reprieve from the ever-present death watch.  But the results also suggest that in a national context, Democrats will continue to do well in the suburbs while Republican success may be limited to the most Trump-friendly parts of the state.

    What does this mean for Phil Murphy?

    The governor and first lady, Tammy Murphy, made a mad scramble to hit as many parts of the state as possible in the last days of the race. This was a smart move with little downside for him – even though most of the candidates they were stumping for would have preferred to use that time on last minute GOTV efforts rather than gubernatorial photo ops.  While Murphy’s direct impact on the outcome was limited, if there had been an upset he could have claimed credit for the victory.  On the other hand, in the worst case legislative scenario for Democrats (which is what actually happened), he would have been blamed regardless of whether he went on the campaign trail or not.  

    Republicans aren’t the only ones who will be calling this “the Murphy midterm.” You can expect the South Jersey wing of the Democratic Party to start saying that as well. [Although Murphy can counter this with the fact that the only Dem losses were in South Jersey.] All this is a lead-up to the big prize in January – i.e. who will head the state Democratic Party.  The anti-Murphy Democrats will attempt to use these results to rally committee members to oust the sitting chairman John Currie as ineffective.  This is one of the reasons why Murphy ended his Election Day in Somerville.  The Democratic bright spot was success at the county and local level.  The support of these leaders – particularly key players like Somerset County Democratic Chairwoman, and state vice chair, Peg Schaffer – will be crucial to Murphy keeping Currie in his position.

  • Halloween 2019 – Costume Trends and Safety Tips

    by Vincent Grassi, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

    Halloween is almost here, and according to the Monmouth University Poll that is good news for the 45% of Americans who say Halloween is either their favorite or one of their favorite holidays. Here, I will discuss some of the trends, safety considerations, and news surrounding the spooky fall holiday.

    The poll finds that 29% of adults plan on dressing up for Halloween this year. If you are looking for a unique costume, check out Google Trend’s “Frightgeist” website to see what to avoid. It shows the most searched for costumes on both a national and local level, as well as each costume’s trending status over time and the popularity of different costume categories. At the moment, searches for costumes related to the horror movie IT take the top spot while witch and Spiderman costumes trail in second and third, respectively.

    An annual survey by the National Retail Federation projects Halloween spending to reach 8.8 billion in 2019, slightly behind the 9 billion consumers spent last year and 9.1 billion in 2017. The survey also shows the trend of dressing up pets for Halloween. Americans are expected to spend $490 million on costumes for their pets, with the most popular being pumpkins, hot dogs and superheroes. Overall, the NRF survey found that consumers plan to spend 2.6 billion on Halloween candy this year.

    The Monmouth poll finds that out of eight top-selling Halloween candies, a plurality of Americans (36%) pick Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as their favorite, while Snickers (18%) place second and M&M’s (11%) take third. Whether you grab the candy mix bags from Walmart or splurge on packs of full-size candy bars, make sure you stock up on enough. According to the poll seven-in-ten parents and caregivers report that their children plan to go trick-or-treating this year.

    Among those (70%) who say their children plan to go trick-or-treating, the poll finds almost all children (95%) and even most teenagers (76%) will be accompanied by an adult. To help keep children safe, the American Academy of Pediatrics has published some important safety considerations. They advise parents to rethink letting children wear masks as it can obstruct their vision, making sure their costumes fit appropriately to avoid trips and falls, giving children glow sticks or donning them with reflective tape if they plan to go out later in the evening or at night, and purchasing fire-resistant costumes, wigs, and accessories.

    In an effort to address safety concerns regarding motor vehicle accidents on Halloween and make celebrating more accessible to other age groups, the Halloween and Costume Association started a petition in 2018 on to move Halloween from October 31st to the last Saturday of October. The petition would be sent to the president for his consideration if their goal number of signatures is met. In July, the petition was updated to reflect concerns over the holiday’s historical significance and cultural and religious ties. Now, the petition calls for the creation of a separate National Trick or Treat Day to be held on the last Saturday of October in addition to Halloween, “so families across the country can participate in community parades, throw neighborhood parties and opt for daytime Trick or Treating.”

    Not only does the petition aim to reduce the number of accidents involving cars and kids, but it is also trying to make the holiday more accessible to other age groups other than children. This effort may reflect the poll’s finding that just about three-in-five (58%) adults aged 18-34 said Halloween was either their favorite holiday or one of their favorite holidays. The poll also finds that half of those aged 18-34 plan to wear a costume.

    Changing the date on which Halloween trick-or-treating takes place is not unheard of. One example was after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when former NJ Governor Chris Christie signed an executive order that postponed Halloween to the following Monday due to unsafe conditions caused by the storm.

    Trunk or Treat events also uphold safety priorities and act as a safer alternative to door to door trick-or-treating. These events are usually held prior to Halloween in blocked off parking lots and are hosted by the community, local schools, or local churches. It is praised as being more convenient for parents and, more importantly, safer for children. This year, Monmouth University will be hosting its Trunk or Treat event on 11/3 at 12-2 p.m. in lot 16. You can also find a list of other Trunk or Treat events happening all over NJ here.

    Whether you enjoy decorating your home with spooky decorations, taking your children trick-or-treating, watching scary movies, or attending a Halloween costume party – have fun, be safe, and Happy Halloween!

  • Will New Jersey Ban Single-Use Plastics? Here’s a Look at its Journey So Far

    by Vincent Grassi, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

    West Long Branch, NJ – According to the Monmouth University Poll, a majority of New Jersey residents claim to support a ban on both plastic bags and straws. They also see ocean pollution caused by plastic products as a serious problem, but many are unaware of the threat posed by microplastics – extremely tiny pieces of plastic used in certain products like cosmetics or caused by the breakdown of larger plastic objects. Although legislation has been proposed to ban certain single-use plastic products, the state legislature has not yet enacted such a change.

    The poll finds that a majority of New Jersey residents (65%) would support a ban on single-use plastic bags. The same rings true for plastic straws with a majority (52%) supporting a complete ban. Although the poll also suggests that public support may not be quite as robust as these numbers suggest.  More on that in a bit.

    Last year, the state’s General Assembly introduced bill A3267 that would have put a nickel fee per bag on both plastic and paper carryout bags. The bill also called for the Department of Environmental Protection to put forth a public information program on the effects that single-use carryout bags have on the environment, and advocate for the use of reusable carryout bags. However, Governor Phil Murphy vetoed the bill saying that even though the bill was well-intentioned, “the time has come for a more robust and comprehensive method of reducing the number of single-use bags in our State.”

    Critics of Governor Murphy’s decision say the fee would have been an important first step in the right direction. Those who supported the Governor’s veto may be pleased with the introduction of bill S2776, which would prohibit plastic carryout bags, polystyrene foam food service products, and single-use plastic straws. Customers would also be charged at least ten cents per paper carryout bag. Those who violate the law would have to pay a fine of $500 for their first offense, up to $1,000 for a second offense and up to $5,000 for subsequent offenses. Introduced in June of last year, the bill is currently pending in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. In the meantime, there is a growing list of New Jersey towns that have enacted their own bans on single-use plastic bags.

    Gov. Murphy is holding out for a complete ban on single-use plastic bags, but maybe he should have settled for the Assembly bill last year. The Monmouth poll found that support for a “ban” may not be as strong as it first appears. Only 31% of New Jersey residents support a complete single-use plastic bag ban when it is posed against two other options, having customers who request a plastic bag pay a small fee (27% support) or allowing stores to continue to give away plastic bags for free (39% support).

    In an effort to reduce the amount of plastic bags and straws that end up in the ocean, the proposed statewide ban highlights the public’s concern regarding ocean pollution. According to Monmouth’s poll, a majority of state residents (64%) believe ocean pollution caused by plastic products is a very serious problem. Most (71%) believe that plastics in the ocean causing injury to marine life is a major problem. Similarly, 60% feel that plastics in the ocean making seafood harmful to eat is also a major problem.

    Another consideration in relation to ocean pollution is the issue of microplastics. Extremely tiny pieces of plastic in the ocean, referred to as microplastics, result from the breakdown of larger plastic products or come from certain products like cosmetics. These toxic pollutants pose risks to both ecological and human health. Attention has started to focus not only on the impact that microplastics have on marine life and their habitats, but also on human seafood consumers and drinking water.

    In October 2018, the New Jersey state legislature introduced a resolution (ACR198) encouraging all levels of government to work together to clean up plastics from the state’s waters. The resolution touches on the impact of microplastic pollutants stating, “There is evidence that microplastic pollution can move through natural food webs and accumulate in fin fish and shellfish tissues, which means microplastics and associated pollutants have the potential to move into the human food chain.”

    Unsurprisingly, some have raised the alarm at the idea of microplastics in drinking water. The World Health Organization does not recommend routine monitoring of microplastics in drinking water right now, however, this is largely due to the limited amount of research on the impacts they have on human health. Lawmakers in Trenton addressed concerns over microplastics in drinking water and introduced bill S3792 in May, which would direct the NJ Department of Environmental Protection to “adopt regulations concerning identification and testing of microplastics in drinking water.” It is currently in the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

    Interestingly, the poll shows nearly half of Garden State residents (45%) say they have never heard about microplastics. Significantly fewer (17%) have heard a great deal about microplastics, 19% have heard some, and 19% have heard only little.

    Since the poll shows that a vast majority of New Jersey residents believe ocean pollution is a very serious problem, there is the possibility that support for more rigorous government action could increase. However, there is still a way to go to create an informed public about the challenges posed by plastic in all its different forms.

  • A Welcome to New Citizens

    by Patrick Murray

    I was asked to deliver the keynote remarks at a naturalization ceremony this week, where 24 new U.S. citizens took their oaths of allegiance to this country.  These new Americans came here from Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, United Kingdom, and Zambia.

    I’ve given a lot of speeches and presentations over the years, but this was one of the biggest honors of my life.  During the turbulent times our country is going through right now, it was truly inspiring to witness these new Americans promise to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

    The urgent need to remember the values of our Constitution was one of the reasons I started the Guardians of the Republic podcast with my friend Ian Kahn (who portrayed George Washington on TURN: Washington’s Spies). And in that spirit, I wanted to share my welcome to those new Americans with you.

    Remarks for US Naturalization Ceremony

    Washington’s Headquarters Museum

    Morristown National Historical Park

    September 25, 2019

    Welcome, fellow citizens of the United States of America!  It is an honor to be the first to say that to you in person.

    Every September, we celebrate Constitution Day to commemorate the signing of the document that would become the foundation of our system of government.  And immigration was one of the issues they debated at the Constitutional Convention.

    During this debate, the renowned statesman Benjamin Franklin reportedly said: “When foreigners – after looking about for some other Country in which they can obtain more happiness – give a preference to ours, it is a proof of attachment which ought to excite our confidence and affection.”

    Franklin saw people wanting to immigrate to America as validation of the distinctiveness of our new country and a sign of the opportunities that could only be found here.

    Indeed, from the very beginning, our founders acknowledged that immigrants were central to building America.

    Now, I’m going to give you a little quiz.  It might be a little tougher than the questions on the naturalization test. But here it is.  The first official government holiday – that means a recognized day off – in the United States of America is believed to have been declared right here in Morristown in 1780.  Does anyone know what holiday it was?

    It wasn’t the 4th of July.  And it wasn’t Christmas.

    It was actually Saint Patrick’s Day – an immigrant’s holiday.  Yes, General George Washington wanted to give his troops a day off after a harsh winter camping just south of where we are sitting right now.  So, in recognition of the many Irish immigrants who were serving in the Continental Army and their connection to the fight for Irish independence, he felt that St. Patrick’s Day was the perfect choice.

    After the war, Washington wrote a letter to a friend in New York who was helping new Irish immigrants coming to this country.  This is what he said in that letter:

    “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

    What Washington was saying is that America welcomes immigrants from all walks of life.  But with that welcome comes responsibility.

    One of your most important responsibilities is to exercise your right to vote.  And you are in luck, New Jersey holds elections for some office or another every single year.  Which means the next one is in six weeks.  You have until October 15th to register to participate in your very first election.  You will be able to choose representatives for state government in the General Assembly as well as a number of local offices.

    And I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  The people who serve in these local offices will have much more impact on your day to day life than those who get elected to big statewide offices like Governor and U.S. Senator.  So get out there and do your civic duty this November!

    Okay.  So that’s your first job as citizens.  But there is one more special thing about your home state that I want to tell you before I close.

    We are fond of saying that America is a nation of immigrants.  And indeed New Jersey is a state of immigrants.  Did you know that over 20 percent of the people who live in New Jersey were not born in this country?  That means that 1 out of every 5 people you meet in the great Garden State are like you – immigrants!

    Indeed, 125 years ago, my own ancestors were among the many immigrants who came to these shores. And my family continues to be populated with recent immigrants.

    When I was a child, my grandfather would take my brother and me to many of the sites in New Jersey that were crucial to the creation of our country.  I do the same with my children today – whether they like it or not! 

    One of the great things about living in New Jersey is that you can stumble across some reminder of the values and the struggles that gave birth to our country every single day.  These places are everywhere in New Jersey.  It is why, 13 years ago, Congress designate much of the state as the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area.

    All these childhood visits to Revolutionary War sites instilled a very important message in me.  It’s one that I hope is instilled in my own children – and in you as well.  And that message is that this grand story – the story of America with all its high points and low points – is our story too. We may not be able to trace our lineage back to 1776, but we share equally in the story of the creation of America and in everything that makes it what it is today.

    I hope you come to feel that too.  Because you are now part of the American story!  And your job is to keep that story going.

    And for agreeing to accept that job, I have only one thing to say – Thank you!