Skip to main content
CloseSearch

‘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 NJ.com 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.