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Republican Disenfranchisement reaches the House: Paul Ryan Fails to Endorse Trump

by Ashley MedinaMonmouth University Polling Institute graduate assistant

Recently, the political divide within the Republican Party became even more evident when Speaker of the House Paul Ryan issued a statement expressing that he is “not ready” to endorse Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.  However, the Speaker’s unwillingness to endorse the billionaire may hurt his own political career as opposed to that of the presidential candidate.

Trump and some of his supporters have voiced strong positions concerning the issue of Ryan’s statement but what does the greater electorate think?  Results from a recent (5/6-9) YouGov/Economist Poll cite that two out of three voters who participated (or plan to participate) in the GOP primaries and caucuses believe that Ryan should endorse Trump.

Personal differences aside, Ryan now has to measure how the general Republican base’s attitudes and allegiances will affect his standing.  Keeping in mind the tremendous popular support the billionaire has been able to cultivate, it may be in Ryan’s best interest to officially support the candidate if he would like to maintain favor among the Republican electorate.

As the political climate stands now, Republican voters are actually more likely to side with Trump who among all American voters, is viewed favorably by only 30% and unfavorably by 64%. By comparison, Ryan is viewed somewhat more positively, with 34% of US voters viewing him favorably and 38% unfavorably.

Ryan may be better liked than Trump among all voters, but among Republicans only, two out of three actually have positive views of Trump.  Should Trump mobilize his supporters against the Speaker, Ryan is likely to face political ramifications for his recent statements.  This, along with the fact 49% of GOP voters disapprove of what Ryan has done as Speaker of the House, may motivate him to “get ready” sooner rather than later to support the presumptive presidential nominee.

West Virginia’s Trump Supporting Sanders Voters

What is up with West Virginia Democrats? Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton won every single county on the way to a 2-to-1 victory over Barack Obama. This year she lost every single county and got trounced by Bernie Sanders.

Well, here’s the thing. Many of those voters aren’t really Democrats at all – at least not by any standards we would call a Democrat in the rest of the country. While Democrats are still competitive for statewide office there, West Virginia has been solidly red in presidential elections for more than a decade.

In fact, the exit poll included two questions about the November election pitting Donald Trump against either Clinton or Sanders. According to results shown on MSNBC’s primary night coverage, nearly 3-in-10 of these Democratic primary voters actually said they will vote for Trump in either match-up.

Let that sink in. Three-in-ten voters who just cast a ballot in the Democratic primary said they would be voting for Trump in November regardless of “their” party’s nominee. For the record, most of these Trump supporters voted for Sanders over Clinton – 60% to 12%, with another 28% of these mischief-makers voting for one of the largely unknown other names on the ballot.

These Trump supporters who took part in the Democratic primary are more likely than others to be from coal mining households (53%), more likely to be very worried about the nation’s economy (81%), and more likely to want the next president to be less liberal than Obama (69%). The latter question has been asked in every exit poll this season and this is the only place where that many voters in a Democratic primary said they want to move in a less liberal direction!

These voters are most likely “legacy” Democrat. They belong to the party as it exists in West Virginia, but they disdain the Democratic brand on the national stage. It’s not that they like Bernie Sanders, but it’s more likely that they really detest Hillary Clinton. If these voters did not participate in the presidential primary, we would have likely seen an extremely close margin between Sanders and Clinton rather than Sanders’s 15 point win.

And this may not be the strangest West Virginia outcome in the past few cycles. Remember that four years ago, a convicted felon who was incarcerated in Texas at the time got 41% of the Democratic primary vote against Obama.

So, let’s just mark the West Virginia primary down as one strange footnote to a very strange primary season.

Cruz Zigged While the GOP Electorate Zagged

The Cruz campaign’s attempt to coalesce the #NeverTrump movement around their candidate #NeverHappened. In hindsight, the attempt to position him as the establishment alternative may not have been the wisest move.

Ted Cruz entered the 2016 presidential race with a reputation as the Senate Republican conference’s enfant terrible. He ended his campaign as the establishment’s last hope to deny Donald Trump the party’s nomination. The problem is that GOP voters’ desire for a political outsider intensified just as he was making this pivot.

Exit polls conducted by the national media’s National Election Pool asked voters in 24 different contests this year whether the next president should have experience in politics or be from outside the political establishment.

In the first four contests held in February, Republican voters were divided – 49 percent wanted an outsider while 45 percent favored someone with political experience. The preference for an insider fell off in early March’s Super Tuesday primaries – with 49 percent still wanting an outsider but only 41 percent looking for political experience.

By the mid-March primaries, a 52 percent majority of GOP voters preferred a political outsider compared to 41 percent who still wanted an experienced politician. The gap widened in the April contests, with nearly 6-in-10 Republicans (59 percent) wanting an outsider and just 37 percent favoring an insider. In yesterday’s Indiana primary, the results for this question stood at 59 percent outsider and 35 percent insider.

The Cruz recasting gambit worked to the extent that he was ultimately seen as the establishment candidate – 68 percent of Indiana Republicans who want an insider voted for him. In the very first contest of 2016 – the Iowa caucuses – Marco Rubio was actually the preferred candidate of voters wanting someone with political experience, even though Cruz was the overall winner on the night.

However, Donald Trump has been the favored choice of GOP voters looking for a true outsider since the very beginning of the primary season. He won 46 percent of this group’s vote in Iowa, culminating with a 78 percent showing in Indiana three months later.

“In retrospect, Cruz’s pivot to being the face of the establishment was a mistake. Cruz ceded the outsider mantle to Trump at the very same time the Republican base’s desire for an outsider grew,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Super Tuesday Polling: How Did Monmouth Do?

To say the 2016 primary season has been surprising would be an understatement. A presumed Democratic nominee who was supposed to coast to victory has faced a tough challenge. The GOP race is now coalescing around a front runner who practically everyone would have laughed off less than a year ago.

This topsy-turvy situation has amplified the already significant challenges that pollsters face when trying to take the pulse of voters in presidential primaries and caucuses. Super Tuesday presented the first large-scale polling test of the nomination contest. Interestingly, only a few national polling organizations devoted significant resources to polling these races (more on that below).

Monmouth University conducted polls in four of the nine primary states in the weeks leading up to Super Tuesday – Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia. We had a significant miss in the Oklahoma Republican primary where, like every other poll in the state, we forecast a Donald Trump victory when Ted Cruz was the actual winner. On the other hand, Monmouth was the only poll to accurately forecast a Bernie Sanders victory in the Democratic contest in that very same state. Monmouth’s forecasts were accurate in the other three states we polled.

Monmouth’s Democratic primary polls were closest – or second closest in the case of Texas – to the actual margin of victory of all the polls taken in those four states over the past month. Our Democratic primary results compared to the actual margin of victory:

TX : Vote – Clinton +32 / Monmouth Poll – Clinton +34

AL : Vote – Clinton +59 / Monmouth Poll – Clinton +48

VA : Vote – Clinton +29 / Monmouth Poll – Clinton +27

OK : Vote – Sanders +10 / Monmouth Poll – Sanders +5

On the GOP side, Monmouth came closest to the actual margin of victory in Texas and Alabama:

TX : Vote – Cruz +17 / Monmouth Poll – Cruz +15

AL: Vote – Trump +22 / Monmouth Poll – Trump +23

Monmouth had the correct winner in the Virginia GOP primary, but the margin was tighter than our poll: Vote – Trump +3 / Monmouth Poll – Trump +14. It’s worth noting that our Virginia poll was conducted a week prior to Super Tuesday, specifically before the crucial debate when Rubio decided to take on Trump. That performance appeared to help Rubio’s performance in Virginia, although not enough to change the overall outcome.

As mentioned, we had the wrong winner in Oklahoma GOP primary: Vote – Cruz +6 / Monmouth Poll – Trump +12. Every poll in Oklahoma had Trump ahead by a significant margin. Examining all the state exit polls from Super Tuesday shows that Oklahoma actually had the highest number of Republican voters (33%) who said they made up their mind in the last few days. These voters broke significantly for Cruz (37%) and Rubio (38%) over Trump (15%).

Despite the stakes involved in Tuesday’s races, only four national polling organizations polled in at least three of the nine primary states during the month of February. In addition to Monmouth, CBS/YouGov and NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist polled in three states and PPP conducted Democratic-only primary polls in all nine states.

In Texas, the one state where all four organizations polled the Democratic primary, Monmouth’s 32 point margin for Hillary Clinton was the closest to the actual result. CBS/YouGov had the margin at 24 points, PPP had 23 points, and NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist had 21 points. In the Texas Republican primary, Monmouth’s 15 point margin for Cruz was also closer to the actual result. NBC/Wall Street Journal had a 13 point margin and CBS/YouGov had an 11 point margin.

This primary season has been particularly tough to poll, so it is understandable why more national polling operations did not dip their toes in the water. Despite the one missed call, Monmouth is pleased with its Super Tuesday polling results.

Full information on Super Tuesday polling can be found here:

Democrats: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/march1dem.html

Republicans: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/march1GOP.html

After the Messaging, it’s Time for the Ground Game.

The final Monmouth University Poll (Feb. 7, 2016) in New Hampshire found Donald Trump with a sizable lead over his competition in the Republican race, while Bernie Sanders held a ten point lead over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic contest.

The big question on the GOP side is who will come in second place, with at least four candidates realistically vying for the spot.  On the Democratic side, the question is whether Clinton can reduce her deficit to the single digits.

In the retail-heavy political environment of New Hampshire, it may all come down to the ground game – how many voters can each campaign personally contact.  Monmouth asked its poll respondents whether they had been contacted, and if so, on behalf of whom.

Interestingly, since registered independents can – and do – vote in either party’s primary, a significant number of likely voters in each contest say they were contacted by both Republican and Democratic campaigns.  The numbers below give a relative sense of how intense that outreach has been – and which candidates are excelling in their field operations.

Candidates are listed in rank order of total voter contacts, assuming about the same number of voters will turn out in each party’s primary.  The first number in parenthesis is the percentage of likely Republican voters who report being contacted by someone promoting that candidate.  The second number is the percentage of likely Democratic voters who say the same.

New Hampshire Voter Contacts

1. Hillary Clinton (13 / 39)
2. Bernie Sanders (13 / 35)
3. Jeb Bush (31 / 8)
4. John Kasich (26 / 8)
5. Ted Cruz (22 / 10)
6. Marco Rubio (22 / 8)
7. Donald Trump (19 / 9)
8. Chris Christie (17 / 7)
9. Carly Fiorina (16 / 4)
10. Ben Carson (11 / 5)
11. Rand Paul (10 / 5)
12. Martin O’Malley (0 / 6)

Testimony on Proposed Changes to New Jersey legislative Reapportionment Process

Testimony of

Patrick Murray

Monmouth University Polling Institute

New Jersey Senate

Committee on State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation

January 7, 2016

Re SCR188 (proposed constitutional changes to legislative apportionment process)

Mr. Chairman, Madame Vice-Chairwoman and members of the committee:

I am Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.  Although I have been known, from time to time, to comment on the efficacy and responsiveness of the internal workings of state government in New Jersey, I rarely take a public position on a piece of legislation.  When I do it is largely because the process by which the legislation was drawn up does not adhere to principles of good government.

It is for this reason that I appear before you today to express my strong opposition to SCR 188.

This proposed Constitutional amendment will not achieve its stated aim of designing a fair legislative map with at least ten competitive districts.

Furthermore, the wording of the ballot question and interpretive statement seems to be deliberately designed to fool New Jersey voters into supporting a Constitutional change against their own interests.

First, let me say that I endorse the provisions that call for the immediate appointment of the public member or the Apportionment Commission and that codify a public access process while still giving the commission the flexibility for negotiating in private.  I also agree with the wisdom of granting legislative leaders the power to appoint commission members in return for barring current legislators from serving on the commission.

However, I must object to the entire amendment because of the language in paragraphs 2.c. and especially 2.d.

Let me start with the “fair representation” provision in paragraph 2.c.  According to the Judiciary Committee statement, this provision utilizes the standards established by Dr. Donald Stokes, who served as the commission’s public member in both 1981 and 1991.

On close examination, it does not.

Stokes’ fairness doctrine states that the number of seats a party holds in the legislature after each election should correlate to its share of the vote in that election.  For example, if the statewide vote splits 50-50 split between the Democratic and Republican candidates for office, then the share of legislative seats should be evenly divided.  However, according to projections Stokes included in his 1993 monograph, if a party wins 60 percent of the vote, it would be reasonable to see that party take as many as 75 percent of the seats.

Fair enough, but Stokes’ fairness test must to be applied to the map as a whole after the fact.  You cannot a priori set aside 30 evenly-divided safe districts and then work on 10 so-called competitive districts and guarantee that you will come up with a fair correlation of seats to the statewide vote share.

More importantly, though, the crucial metric used by Stokes is whether seats in the legislature correlate to the total vote for the legislature.  Not how those seats correlate to the vote for a variety of unrelated offices such as President, Governor, or U.S. Senate as set forth in that paragraph.

This linkage is truly bizarre.  As we know, voters use a different set of criteria when evaluating who to support in elections for federal offices versus state offices as well as for executive positions versus legislative ones.

If gubernatorial elections told us what type of representation New Jersey voters want in their legislature, I would be directing my remarks today to the Republican Chairman of this committee.  By the same token, if presidential elections told us what New Jersey voters want in a legislature, there would be only one Republican sitting on this committee today.

However, even if Stokes’ fairness doctrine was applied correctly, it would still be unfair in practice.  In determining the legislative vote share of the two parties, Stokes did not employ a straight tally of the statewide vote, but used a district-based vote share average.  In other words, instead of using millions of data points – i.e. individual votes – to determine the New Jersey electorate’s intent, Stokes used only 40 data points – the two-party percentage margin in each district.

Stokes claimed that, due to widely varying voter registration and turnout rates in each district, this formula would be more representative of the will of all constituents – assuming that non-voters have the same preferences as those who actually showed up to vote.

This may be true in theory, but it is not supported by the data.  I examined election results from the past five legislative cycles – which is exactly what Stokes would do.  I found 19 instances where one party or the other did not field a full slate of candidates for either the Senate or the Assembly, which represents a not insignificant 6 percent of all races during that period.  Moreover, 14 of those 19 cases – or nearly three-quarters of these uncontested races – were instances where the Republican Party did not field a full slate.  That means that 14 of the data points used in the Stokes fairness test would produce a result at or near a 100 percent vote share for the Democrats compared to only 5 data points that would produce the same result for Republicans.

This would falsely skew the overall vote share result toward the Democrats, unless you actually believe that there were no minority party voters living in any of those 19 uncontested districts.

On the one hand, using non-legislative elections to determine the legislative maps fairness relies on a false metric.  But using the legislative election results as Stokes would have done would produce a skewed metric.

Even if the proposed formula did not face these problems, trying to codify this fairness doctrine in Constitutional language is akin to making the ghost of Donald Stokes the commission’s public member in perpetuity.  This is simply not something that should be written into the Constitution.

In fact, recent changes to Ohio’s legislative redistricting process which were approved by voters there last year, includes a fairness provision that provides sufficient leeway for the members of their commission.  It says simply that: “the statewide proportion of districts whose voters, based on […] election results during the last ten years, favor each political party shall correspond closely to the statewide preferences of the voters.”

While, the full provision does use what I believe to be a false metric by including non-legislative elections, the language is broad enough that it allows for each decennial commission to negotiate its meaning while incorporating emerging standards, such as the principle of “communities of interest” which has been largely ignored in New Jersey’s process.

More importantly, the Ohio standard also states quite clearly, and I quote, “[n]o general assembly district plan shall be drawn primarily to favor or disfavor a political party.”

And it is on this standard that SCR 188 fails miserably.

Because this resolution was introduced less than four weeks ago, I have not had the same opportunity to run vote simulations on potential outcomes, as I am sure its supporters have been doing for the past few years.  However, I have been crunching numbers in New Jersey for long enough to know when something smells fishy.

The process in paragraph 2.d. claims to create competitive districts, but actually entrenches a permanent Democratic majority by using a tortured definition of the word “competitive.”

In reality, competitive districts drawn using this provision in the 2021 process would almost certainly range from a smaller but definite Democratic advantage to an absolutely solid Democratic advantage.

While this outcome might be in line with the fairness doctrine, it defies any common sense meaning of the word “competitive.”

For most voters, the word “competitive” means that either party has a decent shot of winning the seat.  It does not mean that one party simply won’t lose as badly in a certain district as it will elsewhere in the state.

Over the past two decades, I have had the privilege of hearing the opinions of hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans.  And I can say with certainty that our state’s residents want a truly competitive legislative map.  Indeed, you need to look no further than election returns which consistently show that competitive elections produce higher turnout.

So I am left to wonder why the drafters of this resolution would use the word “competitive” to describe an outcome that is not competitive according to voters’ vernacular?

I am left with only one conclusion.  This is a bald-faced attempt to pull the wool over voters’ eyes; making them complicit in a process that will only serve to increase their cynicism about politics.

Anyone reading the ballot question and interpretive statement about creating competitive districts would come away with a far different interpretation of what that means than what the proposed Constitutional language will actually produce.

I fully endorse revisiting how our Legislative Redistricting Commission operates.  But if a fuller process for public input is a good idea for the commission, then it should also be a good idea for the legislative process by which these constitutional changes are proposed.

Therefore, I urge you to table this resolution.

Thank you.

Carson Up, Trump Down

by Anthony Alaimo

Monmouth University Poll Institute graduate assistant

Despite many pundits painting his campaign as a sideshow earlier this summer, Donald Trump has managed to stay atop the pack of Republican hopefuls in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination. However, ahead of Wednesday night’s third Republican debate, recently released polls, both nationally and in some important primary races, seem to indicate a Donald Trump slide. Dr. Ben Carson, who has had consistently high favorability ratings among Republican voters since he announced his candidacy in May, looks to be the prime beneficiary of Trump’s decline. Has Carson overtaken Trump as the favorite? If so, why has he been able to despite a lack of any recent major stumbles for Trump? As always, we need only to look at the numbers to find out.

In Monmouth University’s August Poll of Republicans in the crucial first caucus state of Iowa, the two political outsiders were locked in a dead heat at 23%. In Monmouth’s poll taken this past week, Carson (32%) has begun to pull away from Trump (18%). Similar polling in the month of October in Iowa can be seen from Quinnipiac (Carson 28% to Trump 20%) and Bloomberg/Des Moines Register (Carson 28% to Trump 19%). Trump led Carson by 6 points and 5 points respectively, in each outlet’s late August/early September Iowa polling of Republican voters.

Unfortunately for Trump, the downward trend continues when we look at recent national polling. A CBS/New York Times Poll, taken October 21-25, shows Carson (26%) now leading Trump (22%) nationally for the first time since Trump entered the fray in June. In a previous CBS News/New York Times national poll, taken September 9-13, Trump led Carson 27% to 23%. While Carson has not pulled ahead in any other major national poll, he continues to close the gap with Trump. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken October 15-18 had Trump (25%) holding on to a small lead over Carson (22%). CNN/ORC polling done October 14-17 show Trump clinging to a 5 point lead over Carson after leading him by 10 points in their September poll. Additionally, polls released this week in both Texas and North Carolina tell a similar story. A KTVT-CBS 11/Dixie Strategies Poll in Texas, taken October 23-24, shows Carson with a slim 1 point lead over Trump, while a Public Policy Polling survey taken October 23-25 in North Carolina has Carson leading Trump 23% to 11%.

So, why the sudden shuffle at the top of the GOP totem pole? Simply put, voters may simply be tiring of The Donald Show. After his announcement in June, to the surprise of many pollsters and pundits alike, Trump’s low favorability rocketed up as he took on the role of frontrunner while drawing huge crowds everywhere he went. However, after his performance in the second GOP debate in September, those ratings flattened and began to trend downward. Conversely, Dr. Ben Carson’s favorability ratings among Republican voters have consistently been at or near the top when compared to his fellow candidates, both nationally and in the early voting states. In fact, in a Loras College Iowa poll taken just this past week, when asked if they would absolutely not vote for Dr. Ben Carson, only 3% of Iowa Republicans would refuse to vote for the famed neurosurgeon, while 28% said they would absolutely not vote for Trump.

Trump is clearly no longer running away with the 2016 Republican nomination. However, besides his consistently high marks with Republican voters, why has Carson been the one to pose a significant challenge to the frontrunner? Essentially, Republican voters are still clamoring for an outsider candidate who has not been sullied by the partisan stalemate in Washington. A recent Associated Press-GfK poll, taken October 15-19, made this preference very clear. An overwhelming number of Republican voters (77%) prefer an outsider candidate who will change how things are done, instead of a candidate with Washington experience (22%). Similarly, they prefer a candidate with private-sector leadership (76%) over someone with experience holding political office (22%). With Carly Fiorina failing to gain any real momentum after her impressive debate performances, that leaves Trump, who Republican voters are clearly tiring of, and Dr. Ben Carson, who in the same AP-GfK poll pulled the highest favorability rating of any GOP candidate (65% favorable to just 13% unfavorable).

Trump recently said, “I don’t quite get it,” when he was asked about these troubling polls. Unfortunately for The Donald, unless he delivers a quality performance at Wednesday’s third GOP debate, he really might not get it.

Sanders’s Defense of Clinton Politically Savvy

by Anthony Alaimo

Monmouth University Poll Institute graduate assistant

The loudest applause during last week’s Democratic debate occurred when Senator Bernie Sanders actually came to Hillary Clinton’s defense when she was asked about her handling of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. Sanders, instead of attacking Clinton on an issue that Republicans and the media have turned into a point of contention in her campaign, warned the Las Vegas audience that he was about to say something that may not be great politics.

Shockingly, at least at first glance, Sanders said he agreed with Secretary Clinton and complained that the American people were sick and tired of hearing about her damn emails. What could Sanders have been thinking? Why wouldn’t he attack his main rival on an issue that has been covered so intensely by the media? Was this a lapse in judgment or was it premeditated?

Millions of viewers, many of whom have only been casual followers of this prolonged 2016 race, as well as some die-hard political junkies, probably had similar questions after Sanders seemingly missed an opportunity to distinguish himself from his rival.

The obvious explanation is Sanders was trying to make himself look above the fray as a candidate that cares more about the issues than about piling on. But we can find a political answer in the polls.

While the Republican Congress and numerous 2016 presidential candidates continue to attack Clinton about her alleged improper use of a private email server, Democratic voters have been largely consistent when pollsters have asked them about her emails. They are just not all that concerned about it.

A recent CBS News poll, taken October 4-8, examined Democratic voter opinion regarding Clinton’s email server and reflected similar polling trends over the past few months. When asked if it was appropriate for Secretary Clinton to exclusively use a personal email address and server for work, 48% of Democrats viewed her actions as inappropriate, while 41% viewed them as appropriate. But this is nowhere near as negative as when the same question was asked of Republican voters – 93% said her actions were not appropriate, while only 7% said they were appropriate.

When delving deeper into the issue, though, 62% of Democratic voters said they are satisfied with Clinton’s explanation of why she used a private email server, while only 28% were dissatisfied. On the question of whether the email controversy would be important to their 2016 vote, only 14% of Democratic voters said the email server issue would be very important and just another 15% said it is somewhat important. A combined 70% said the email issue would not be important when they cast their votes.

Finally, a post-debate poll from Monmouth University found that 69% of Americans – including 79% of Democrats – agree with Sanders.  They are tired of hearing about the emails.  Only 14% of Democrats would like the media to continue to cover this issue.

Looking into the poll numbers, it seems clear that Sanders’ phone-a-friend moment wasn’t so much a gaffe as it was a calculated, pre-planned line that he was probably eagerly waiting to deliver. And, it worked. Sanders looked chivalrous, while knowing it would not be politically smart to launch a useless attack on an issue that has failed to gain traction among the Democratic base.  In fact, the Sanders campaign sent out a fundraising email based on his “damn emails” statement as they immediately looked to capitalize on the publicity from the best line of the night.

However, looking even deeper into the numbers and ahead to November 2016, the Clinton campaign cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that independents do not share Democrats’ view. In that same CBS News poll, 72% of independent voters said Clinton’s use of a private email server was not appropriate and 62% said they were mostly dissatisfied with Clinton’s explanation. Unfortunately for Secretary Clinton, there will be no Sanders lifeline next year.

New Jersey 2014 Primary Day Recap

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Here’s a look at yesterday’s vote by the numbers.  It’s long, but worth the read for those interested in GOTV targeting and ballot position logistics.

House District 3 – Republicans

Let’s start with the least surprising outcome.  Tom MacArthur won by a lot, as expected, because the county chairs – George Gilmore in Ocean and Bill Layton in Burlington – didn’t want their local candidates hobbled in November by sharing a ticket with Steve Lonegan.

MacArthur’s 20 point margin was also fed by the low turnout.  The normal base electorate in CD03 is moderate senior citizens.  Lonegan needed to expand the base by turning out younger libertarian types who do not normally vote in primaries.  His vitriolic personal attacks on MacArthur did the opposite and only 25,000 Republicans showed up to vote – a normal turnout in a less competitive race.

House District 12 – Democrats

I was fairly certain all along that the underlying fundamentals of this district would result in a Bonnie Watson Coleman victory.  But I never foresaw by how much.  This “neck-and-neck” race turned into a 15 point rout! And on very high turnout – over 35,000 voters – to boot.

Here’s how it happened by the numbers.  Each candidate had a certain threshold they needed to achieve.  In order to squeak out a win, Linda Greenstein needed a minimum of 6,000 to 7,000 votes out of her home county of Middlesex, about 2,700 out of Mercer, 700 out of Union, and 400 out of Somerset.  She just reached those minimum levels.

The problem was that Watson Coleman exceeded her needed vote counts – by a mile! Her minimum target in Mercer was 7,000 votes based on expected turnout.  She got nearly 11,000! She was pegged to get 2,000 votes out of Union.  She took away 3,000.  And she met her needs in Middlesex (800) and Somerset (500).

The urban vote from Trenton and Plainfield were her anchors.  Despite Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp’s professed concern that the local contest there would hurt Watson Coleman, she came away more than 8-in-10 votes there.  The ballot set-up made it easy for voters to find their way to her despite who they chose in the local council race.

In Trenton, the concern was turnout.  Yesterday’s primary was sandwiched between the Trenton mayor’s race and its subsequent run-off.  Certainly turnout was slightly lower than the Watson Coleman camp would have liked, but still respectable.  And she won nearly 9-in-10 of the 5,000 Trenton voters who showed up.

The real story here wasn’t in the cities, though, but in the suburbs.  The suburban Mercer portion of this district turned out an astounding 12,000 voters yesterday.  Watson Coleman won a solid majority of these suburban voters despite the fact that Greenstein also represents some of those towns in the legislature.

To put it another way, my voter model assumed that about 11,000 voters would show up in Mercer and 8,000 in Middlesex.   It was actually 17,000 in Mercer – 55% over expectations – and 10,700 in Middlesex – 33% over expectations.

The over performance in Middlesex was not too surprising.  Many figured that a solid effort by Grenstein and county chair Kevin McCabe could get out a certain number of atypical primary voters.  However, very few observers believed that the Watson Coleman team could match, let alone exceed, any elevated GOTV numbers Greenstein might produce.

In the other parts of the district, Union’s turnout of 4,000 votes was within expectations, but Somerset’s 4,300 vote turnout exceeded expectations there.  That’s another part of the story that bears mentioning.

Upendra Chivukula ran a solid campaign for someone who had the deck stacked against him.  He took nearly 3,000 votes out of his home county of Somerset.  His 68% majority there was actually better than Watson Coleman in Mercer (64%) and Greenstein in Middlesex (60%).  He also garnered nearly 2,800 votes in Middlesex and 1,700 in Mercer.

In fact, he won South Brunswick 43% to 38% – a town that was part of Greenstein’s core base before redistricting in 2011.  He also won quite a few precincts throughout Middlesex and in the Windsors that have sizable Asian populations.

These numbers should give pause to anyone in Middlesex looking to throw Chivukula off the line in next year’s legislative elections.  [Chivukula’s hometown of Franklin Twp is the only Somerset municipality in the 17th district.]

Chivukula was not the spoiler.  Throwing his vote total in Middlesex County to Greenstein still would not have changed the outcome.  One wildcard is whether Greenstein would have been able to nab the Somerset line if Chivukula had not run.  But even then, she would have gotten only maybe another 1,000 to 1,500 votes because turnout there would have been lower.

Chivukula performed as well as he did not just by taking votes away from Greenstein.  He certainly did that to some degree, but he also expanded his own base by getting out the vote in the Asian community.  That’s the kind of candidate you want on your ticket in a place like Middlesex County.

In the end, Bonnie Watson Coleman won this race in suburban Mercer.  I don’t think the video of Greenstein calling Mercer Dems her enemies had much impact on voters.  But I bet it put a spur in the saddle of local party leaders, giving them even more impetus to put their GOTV efforts into hyperdrive.

House District 7 – Republicans

I really didn’t expect this race to be on my recap list.  Movement conservative David Larsen has run against Leonard Lance twice before.  The first time was for an open seat in 2010.  Lance beat Larsen by 24 points in a field of four candidates.  Two years ago, incumbent Lance fended off Larsen by a healthy 61% to 39% margin.

This year, Lance’s victory was a much slimmer 54% to 46%.  Turnout played a major role.  In 2012, Lance got 23,400 votes in the primary.  This year, he took only 15,700.  Larsen, on the other, hand nearly matched his vote total from two years ago.  He had 15,200 votes in 2012 and 13,100 votes in 2014.  Larsen supporters are stalwarts.  Unlike in CD03, these core primary voters veer to the right ideologically.

While Lance is safe for another two years, this primary actually had up-ballot implications and may have helped determine the winner of the GOP’s US Senate nomination.

U.S. Senate – Republicans

Anybody, including me, who tried to predict this outcome ended up getting burned.  I also lost my bet to Paul Mulshine.  No candidate reached 30% of the vote.  The prior record for a low primary victory plurality was Brendan Byrne’s 30.3% in 1977, in a much more crowded field.

How did we get to this result since none of the candidates spent much, if any, money on their campaigns?  For one, fewer than 143,000 New Jersey Republicans showed up.  I’m not even going to bother to look this one up.  It has to be a modern day low for a contested statewide primary!

This low turnout race came down to county lines and ballot positions.  If you never believed either factor matters much, read on and be amazed!

Fourteen of New Jersey’s 21 county GOP organizations endorsed a candidate in the US Senate race.  That chosen candidate won 11 of those 14 counties.  But that is not the whole story.

There is a good deal of research on the value of nabbing the first ballot position in low-information races.  Yesterday’s primary proved that.  Among counties with no organizational endorsement, the candidate who landed in the first ballot position won 5 of those 7 counties!  In fact, the person who lucked out with the first ballot position came in either first or second place in 18 of New Jersey’s 21 counties.

I anticipated this pattern, which is why I thought Goldberg had the best shot of securing the nomination.  He had the party line and the first position in 4 counties, the party line but not first position in 6 counties, and first position without the line in 2 counties.  By contrast, Murray Sabrin had one line and 7 first positions.  Rich Pezzullo had only three county lines and two first positions.  Jeff Bell had no lines and 5 first positions.

Given this distribution of lines and prime ballot position how did Jeff Bell win?

Bell won 4 of the 5 counties where he had the first ballot position.  He won Burlington, where Goldberg had the “line” (more on that below), and Morris County where he had the last ballot spot in a county with no endorsed candidate.  He also took second place in 8 other counties.  That translates to 14 “top two” showings.

Goldberg, on the other hand, won 7 of the 10 counties where held the line.  Unfortunately for him, he tanked in those counties where he didn’t have organizational support.  It is an amazing juxtaposition.  He came in dead last in 10 of the 11 counties where he did not have party support, usually failing to get out of the single digits in those counties!

Goldberg also came in last in Burlington County, where he had the county endorsement.  However, the ballot wasn’t structured in lines – Goldberg was not visually linked with MacArthur running in CD03 and the local favorites.  The names were actually stacked, with Sabrin atop Goldberg and Pezzullo in the first column and Bell all by himself in the second column.  In practical terms, Sabrin and Bell both had “first position” on the ballot and consequently ended up tying for first in Burlington with 32% of the vote each.

The lack of a visible “line” rendered the party endorsement meaningless for Goldberg.  If nothing proves the importance of “lines” and ballot positions, this one result should.

The places where Goldberg had an actual line but lost were Hunterdon and Somerset.  This is where the Lance-Larsen CD07 race comes into play.  Conservative Rich Pezzullo won Hunterdon.  While he wasn’t bracketed with Larsen, he likely won the support of Larsen voters – who would not support any part of the organizational ticket – by virtue of being listed first on the ballot.  A similar phenomenon occurred in Somerset, although in this case Bell was the beneficiary of drawing the first position and sopping up support from the anti-organization Larsen contingent.

It’s entirely possible that Pezzullo would have won the nomination if he was lucky enough to draw first ballot position in more than just two counties.  That’s how important this factor was in New Jersey’s Senate primary.  However, there may have been another issue at play here.

Bell, the eventual winner, never bothered to go to any of the state’s county parties to ask for their support.  He won on the basis of being lucky enough to draw the first position in counties where no party line was awarded and by being the top choice of GOP voters who rejected their county organizations’ favored candidate.  Why him over the others?

Barring ideology or other issue positions, people tend to vote for candidates who they feel are like them.  Yesterday’s election featured a low turnout base of core GOP primary stalwarts.  Let’s see, you got MURRAY Sabrin, Rich PEZZULLO, and Brian GOLDBERG on one hand.  And then there is “Jeff Bell.”

You get just 4,000 or so GOP primary voters who make their pick based on a name they feel comfortable with, and voila – there’s your nominee.

New Jersey 2014 Primary Day Outlook

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

New Jersey has a few interesting primary contests in federal races tomorrow, some with greater consequences than others.  Here’s my take on the few competitive ones.

House District 12 – Democrats

Monmouth University’s poll two weeks ago showed a very tight race between State Senator Linda Greenstein and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman.  This race will come down to geography.  Each leading candidate has the full-throated support of the party organization in her home county – Greenstein in Middlesex and Watson Coleman in Mercer. The presence of Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula effectively took Somerset County off the table for either, although Watson Coleman was able to nab the Union County line amidst a very convoluted local election in Plainfield.

This race really boils down to voter turnout, particular county-by-county.  Keep in mind that turnout for this primary is likely to be in the 20,000 to 25,000 range.

Greenstein should win the Middlesex portion with about 70% of the vote, with Chivukula, who represents two towns there, coming in second with about 15%.  Watson Coleman will split the remainder of the vote with a fourth candidate, South Brunswick resident Andrew Zwicker.

Watson Coleman will win the Mercer vote, but the question is whether her majority will be closer to 55% or closer to 65%.  Greenstein, who represents a number of towns in the county, will come in second with at least 20% of the vote.

Somerset will go handily to Chivukula – he’ll take at least two-thirds of the vote – with Watson Coleman and Greenstein vying for second.  Thus, this county should have limited impact on determining the victor unless the overall margin is less than 100 votes.

Union County is the wildcard in this race.  Watson Coleman has the line and her name will appear on the ballot just below Cory Booker and above county chair Jerry Green’s endorsed slate.  Most of this is in Plainfield which is facing a pitched battle for city council, with Green’s slate under Watson Coleman in column A and Mayor Adrian Mapp’s slate all by itself in column E.  Although Watson Coleman is supported by both sides in Plainfield, the local battle has cost her resources in the form of shared literature drops and get out the vote efforts.  In addition, Chivukula appears at the top of an off-the-line county freeholder slate.  Although those candidates are not campaigning – the slate is a byproduct of the local race in Elizabeth – the presence of an alternative ticket may attract some hardcore supporters of the Mapp team in a town where none of the Congressional candidates have any real name recognition.

Despite the potential confusion, Watson Coleman will win the Union County vote.  The question is by how much.  This is just one of the multiple moving parts in this race which, if adjusted ever so slightly in certain combinations, will determine the eventual outcome.

Looking at Democratic primary voting trends over the past couple of election cycles, Mercer has a history of contributing the largest share of the vote in the towns that currently constitute the 12th Congressional District – specifically, more than 4-in-10 of the total votes.  Middlesex usually contributes less than one-third, Union about 15% and Somerset just over 10%.  The local race in Plainfield may spur turnout in that city while the fact that tomorrow’s primary is sandwiched between a Trenton mayoral election and its subsequent runoff may reduce turnout there.

What Greenstein needs to do to win: turn out enough voters in her base so that Middlesex voters comprise more than one-third of the total district vote and take at least 25% of the vote in both Mercer and Union.

What Watson Coleman needs to do to win: turn out at least 6,000 voters in Trenton and earn 60% majorities in both Mercer and Union.

The difference between Middlesex making up 32% versus 33% of the total turnout and Greenstein winning 24% versus 25% in Mercer County – or some similar combination of moving parts – could be the deciding factor in this race.

Having said that, I’m going out on a limb and predicting that Watson Coleman will win by 2 points.  But I won’t be the least bit surprised if this forecast turns out to be wrong.

House District 3 – Republicans

This race has gone from nasty to unseemly.  Steve Lonegan violated a cardinal rule – it is one thing to say that your opponent ran a horrible company that hurt people.  That can be used to show a lack of judgment, competence, etc.  It is quite another, though, to accuse your opponent of being a horrible person – unless you have a secretly recorded video to back you up.  Voters don’t react kindly to unsupported assaults on a person’s character.  They view this strategy as a sign of desperation.

Moreover, these type of ad hominem attacks only serve to depress turnout.  That’s good for Steve Lonegan, you say?  The conventional wisdom is that the most conservative candidate will win a low turnout primary, you say?

That may be true in Mississippi, but not in the middle of New Jersey.  Monmouth University’s poll from last month showed that while Lonegan was winning the strongest conservatives among likely voters in CD03, Tom MacArthur was winning most other conservatives as well as moderates – who make up a larger share of the electorate.

Lonegan’s support actually relies on younger libertarian-oriented voters who are generally turned off by politics and infrequently vote in primaries.  The typical CD03 GOP primary voter is a middle-of-the-road senior citizen.  Lonegan would have done even worse in our poll if we had tightened the likely voter model.  And low turnout is the direction this race is likely to go.

Prediction: MacArthur by 16 points.

U.S. Senate – Republicans

In case you were wondering, four candidates are vying for the GOP nomination to face incumbent Cory Booker in November.  Three of them have run statewide races before.  One has never run for elected office.  Can you guess which one has, at least nominally, the most support from the Republican establishment?

Even though three of the candidates have faced the voters before, New Jerseyans have short memories and none have any name recognition to speak of, as we found out in a February Monmouth/Asbury Park Press Poll.

We have little hard evidence on how this race is shaping up.  There has been almost no campaign activity and there has been no polling – either internally or independently.  For my own part, I can’t justify spending more money to field a poll than most of the candidates have raised for their own campaigns.

We will know soon enough who gets the honor of losing to Booker in November. But that shouldn’t stop us from making predictions, right?  In lieu of actual polling I arbitrarily assigned weights to party endorsements and ballot positions to forecast potential vote share in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties.  Putting all that data through the Vote-O-Matic processor turned up this entirely feasible – or totally bogus – outcome:

Brian Goldberg 35%, Jeff Bell 23%, Rich Pezzullo 22%, and Murray Sabrin 20%.

As a side note, I have a bet with Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine on the outcome of this race.  Not on who will win, but on whether the winning candidate will be able to break 30%.  Historical context: Gov. Brendan Byrne barely broke 30% in a crowded primary when he ran for a second term in 1977.  Who knows how this will turn out – but with a six-pack of Flying Fish riding on the outcome, I certainly hope I’m right.

When it comes to profiling Christie, facts are for wussies

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

In the movie Love & Death, the main character impersonates a Spanish ambassador and is asked how much progress he’s made on a pending treaty.  The ersatz diplomat replies, “I’ve come up with all the little details.  If I can just think of the main points, we got something.”

A recent New Yorker profile of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie turned this quote on its head.  It got all the main points right, but it misfired on the details.

Ryan Lizza’s article was geared toward a national audience that has recently turned its attention to the Garden State’s chief executive.  It was not aimed at me, but the number of errors in material fact and other arguable characterizations of history were off-putting to anyone with a modicum of knowledge of recent history.

Let’s take a look at a few blunders that jumped off the page.

The 2006 U.S. Senate race was not contested by Congressman Robert Menendez as the article claims.  Menendez was actually a U.S. Senator during the time period discussed.  He was appointed by Jon Corzine to fill the newly elected governor’s vacant seat in January of that year.  That means Menendez was already in the Senate before Solomon Dwek was arrested and turned government informant.  It would be pretty difficult for Christie to turn his attention on “Menendez, then a Jersey City congressman” unless he had a WABAC machine.  And for the record, Menendez is known as either a “Union City” or “Hudson County” politician.

The article also asserts that top Democrats were considering a run for governor later in Christie’s first term because “Christie’s popularity began to dip in 2012.”  While some politicos may have thought Christie was beatable, his poll numbers were fairly stable in 2012 until Superstorm Sandy hit, at which point they skyrocketed.  According to three independent polls that regularly track the governor – Monmouth University, Quinnipiac University, and FDU-Public Mind – Christie’s voter approval rating never went lower than 50% or higher than 59% from January to October that year.

While there were some minor fluctuations in the 16 poll readings taken during that ten month period, there is no point where a “dip” is evident.  In fact, Christie’s job approval ratings in 2012 were consistently higher than they had been during his first two years in office.  His average job approval rating for 2010 was 46%, in 2011 it was 50%, and for the first ten months of 2012 it was 54%.  I’m pretty sure if I plot that on a graph, we won’t find any dip.

Another material error in the article is that the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy is not, in fact, a charter school under New Jersey law, but a specially legislated “Renaissance School.”  This distinction is noteworthy because the special designation was created in part to help George Norcross’s foundation avoid the onerous charter school application process.  The irony here is that reporting the more accurate designation would have strengthened the author’s argument about Christie’s style.

Other statements stand out not because they are technically incorrect but because they are somewhat misleading.  For example, saying “Christie and his prosecutors gave Dwek a second assignment” to ensnare politicians makes it sound like it was thrust upon the Dwek rather than coming at Dwek’s prompting, as has been reported elsewhere.

The article also contends that George Norcross and former Gov. Jim Florio are both “from Camden” with the context suggesting that they grew up in the city.  While both were Camden County politicians, neither hails from Camden City.  Norcross grew up in neighboring Pennsauken and Florio was raised in not-so-neighboring Brooklyn.  Florio did move to Camden as an adult to attend law school before settling in a suburban community.

Oh. And one more. New Jersey has 565 municipalities, not 566 as the article claims.  Although perhaps the New Yorker would have us believe that Staten Island is part of the Garden State rather than the Empire State.  I hear that’s a pretty popular idea among its readership.

These errors and mischaracterizations are minor you might say.  True.  It doesn’t necessarily undermine the overall theme of Christie’s personality and governing approach the article attempts to portray.  But in a time when mainstream journalism is under attack for both lack of relevancy and declining standards, you’ve got to wonder…

It is only fitting then to end by misappropriating another movie line that is itself an erroneous quote.  To wit: “Facts? We don’t need no stinkin’ facts!”

The Race is On!

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

It appears that I have unilaterally announced the gubernatorial candidacies of both Senate President Steve Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.  Well, somebody had to do it…

But seriously, an explanation may be in order.

This “revelation” stemmed from an interview with the Star-Ledger’s Matt Friedman on Sweeney’s elevated profile in recent months.  As I said to Matt, you can’t talk about whether Sweeney is “in campaign mode” without considering Fulop’s recent activities as well.  Both Democrats are positioning themselves for a run at Drumthwacket.

In fact, the next gubernatorial campaign kicked off almost immediately after Chris Christie’s re-election in November.  Two weeks later to be precise.

At the annual League of Municipalities Convention in Atlantic City, Sweeney hosted a well-attended reception.  That’s not unusual for a legislative leader.  The incoming Assembly Speaker, Vincent Prieto, held another well-attended event that week.

What was unusual was the high profile reception hosted by the brand new mayor of Jersey City the next evening.  The 5th floor of the Chelsea Hotel was jam-packed with Democratic movers and shakers jockeying to rub shoulders with a rising star.  Fulop made an unmistakable statement that night – he fully intends to be a major player in state politics.

I do not doubt that Sweeney’s interest in statewide issues, such as the Sandy Victim’s Bill of Rights, is genuinely part of his role as New Jersey’s legislative leader.  I also believe that Fulop’s active participation in the Newark mayor’s race is to help foster a united front on urban issues.

You cannot ignore, though, that these moves are equally about shoring up support, and supporters, in counties that will be crucial in a contested Democratic priority.  While neither has actually declared his candidacy, both are engaging in behavior that can only be read as the intent to run if the opportunity presents itself.

I have never seen this level of activity four years ahead of a scheduled election.  The key word there being “scheduled.”  There’s a decent possibility that the next gubernatorial election will occur earlier than scheduled.

Back in November, some observers believed that Gov. Christie may end up resigning early in order to run for president; a resignation necessitated by federal campaign funding rules.  This would result in a special election one or even two years early.  While Christie’s presidential prospects may have dimmed, there are still some who believe the state may be facing an early election, albeit for distinctly different reasons.

The bottom line is that potential candidates for New Jersey’s next governor have to be prepared to run at any time.  They cannot count on a four year timeline to undertake the groundwork for launching a campaign.

Under normal circumstances, a mayor would not want to be seen as actively looking to move up the ladder after just a few months on the job.  If Fulop followed the normal course of a rising prospect by quietly building support, though, he could be on left out in the cold when it comes time to claim county lines in an early primary.

Thus, the mayor of Jersey City has decided to up the ante.  The Newark mayor’s race is as much about who will control the Essex County party during the next gubernatorial primary as it is about who will run Newark.  It also doesn’t escape notice that the candidate Fulop is hoping to defeat could be another gubernatorial contender with urban credentials to rival Fulop’s if he won.

If he wants to position himself for the governorship, Steve Fulop cannot afford to cede the field to Steve Sweeney.  But this also means that the Senate President has been forced to up his game as well.

One danger in an overly protracted campaign is that either or both candidates could flame out.  It’s also possible that either or both candidates may choose not to run when the time comes.  But with an uncertain horizon for the next election, both need to be ready.

Some may see Steve Sweeney’s current statewide tour as a gubernatorial gavotte, but in this case it takes two to tango.

Sandy aid requires serious oversight

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on February 7, 2014.

A legislative investigation into George Washington Bridge lane closures has become inextricably linked to the distribution of Hurricane Sandy recovery aid. No one has tied the Fort Lee incident to Sandy funds. However, the roles of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and individuals inside the agency, in development projects both in Fort Lee and the storm-hit community of Hoboken, have raised questions about whether Sandy aid has been properly distributed.

The media have uncovered a few instances where federal recovery dollars were used to support development outside Sandy’s hardest-hit communities. This is the first time the public is learning about how these funds have been used.

To date, most New Jerseyans approve of how Gov. Chris Christie’s administration has handled Sandy recovery. In December, a Monmouth University poll found 66 percent of residents statewide were satisfied with the pace of recovery, although that number was down from 76 percent in September.

It’s a different story among residents who suffered the most from the storm. On Sandy’s one-year anniversary, Monmouth released a survey specifically of victims displaced from their homes. This poll found that only 38 percent of hardest-hit New Jerseyans were satisfied with recovery efforts.

The biggest issue we uncovered is that most victims don’t know where they stand in the aid process. As one Toms River applicant for ReNew Jersey Stronger assistance stated, “We were informed that we were wait-listed, (but) do not know how or why.” Imagine how these victims feel when they learn about millions in Sandy funds underwriting senior housing in Belleville or an apartment tower in New Brunswick.

Now the Sandy recovery is mixed in with the scandals surrounding the governor’s office. That means everyone involved in investigating these issues must exercise restraint, while implementing full transparency when it comes to Sandy aid.

To this end, I propose the following:

1. Get off TV. Lawmakers must refrain from discussing Bridgegate, Hobokengate or any other element of the investigation in the media. The rush for the national spotlight, especially among Democrats, is undermining the credibility of an inquiry that poses significant consequences for both Christie and the state. The only time members of the special investigations committee should face the cameras is during a public hearing.

2. Greater bipartisanship. The special investigations committee should add two Republican members to increase the partisan balance and ensure that those in the minority fully participate in deliberations about evidence and procedures.

3. Compel immediate transparency on Sandy aid. All Sandy-related community block grants awarded to date should be posted on the state’s website. The governor vetoed legislation that would have required this as “redundant.” His decision now looks like it had ulterior motives. If first lady Mary Pat Christie’s charity can post all of its Sandy awards online, so can her husband’s administration.

4. Let Sandy victims know where they stand. A proposed “Bill of Rights” should allow residents who applied for ReNew Jersey Stronger aid to track the status of their application online, including for which programs they are considered eligible, the potential amounts they may receive, how many other applicants are ahead of them, and when their name is expected to reach the top of the list.

5. Launch a truly independent investigation into Sandy aid disbursements. Given the governor’s foot-dragging and questionable appointment of his own “integrity monitor,” the Legislature should recommend a short list of independent special investigators specifically to oversee and report on the distribution of all Sandy aid to communities and individual residents. The governor should appoint an investigator from that list. If he doesn’t do so within 30 days, the appointment should be made by Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

Considering the damage inflicted on the state by Hurricane Sandy and the potential damage posed by the Bridgegate investigation, New Jersey deserves a full and fair hearing and complete transparency. Anything less is unacceptable.

True or Not, Wildstein Letter Hurts “Christie 2016”

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Former NY/NJ Port Authority exec David Wildstein claims to know of “evidence” that contradicts Chris Christie’s statements about when he knew of Bridgegate. If true, the governor’s political career is all but over. If false, the governor’s political ambitions have still suffered a serious, and potentially permanent, setback. It all hinges on his effectiveness as RGA chair.

In a letter to the Port Authority, Wildstein’s lawyer states that “evidence exists …. tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference [January 9].”

A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll conducted in the days after that press conference found that most New Jerseyans did not believe that the governor was being completely honest about when he found out about the George Washington Bridge toll lane closures. In other words, they were willing to cut him some slack if he actually found out about his staff’s involvement earlier than he has told us. However, they did not believe he was involved in the closure decision itself.

In its initial reaction to the latest charges, the Christie administration parsed the text of the letter and their own response very carefully.  Rather than refer to the governor’s January 9th statements they went back to an earlier press conference, saying that “[a]s the governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press.”

In fact, the first press report on the lane closures was in a traffic column in The Record published on September 13 – the last day of the lane closures.  Thus the governor can claim that he never said he did not know about the incident at all “during the period when the lanes were closed.”  In so doing, Christie’s camp asserts that “Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along – he had absolutely no prior knowledge.”

The governor has proven to be a very accomplished word parser in extracting himself from apparent contradictions.  However, this one is skating very close to the Bill Clinton “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” territory.  It’s not clear how much more parsing the public will accept.

Are the charges true?  We really don’t know.  It’s clear that Wildstein has ulterior motives, the most obvious of which is he needs to be able to pay for his defense.  There is an oblique and intriguing reference to Port Authority Commissioner David Samson being copied on prior correspondence but not later correspondence after Samson was implicated in the potential misuse of Sandy recovery funds. Is there an implicit threat to the Port Authority in this letter as well?

While Wildstein enjoyed having a position of power in the Christie administration he was never the Christie loyalist that some in the media have made him out to be.  He is a person who relishes being at the center of the political action, which is what makes him so dangerous to Christie.

The Christie circle realizes that. Otherwise the administration would not have sent out a scathing email on Friday eviscerating David Wildstein’s veracity. The fact that this email came from one of the administration’s press officers, and not from the campaign or an outside group, is an indication that the Christie camp is more than a little scared.  As well they should be, because true or not, the damage has been done.

Let’s assume that none of the allegations in the letter are true; that no such “evidence” that Christie lied about what he knew ever surfaces. If this investigation peters out in the next few months, Chris Christie has more than enough time to rebuild his reputation before the 2016 campaign gets underway in earnest.

Christie may even garner some sympathy from conservative Republicans nationwide who are skeptical of his ideology.  Christie can paint this whole episode as a political witch-hunt designed to undermine the GOP’s best hope of winning the White House.  In the long term, Christie can regain his reputation.  But he will suffer short-term hits that will undercut his strategy for 2016.

First is the Christie persona that he can get things done, even with a legislature controlled by the opposite party.  Even before the Bridgegate scandal hit, there was no expectation that Christie’s second term agenda would be particularly ambitious.  He needed to propose a big idea or two – that didn’t need to go anywhere – and focus on balancing a budget without any tax increases.

He still had some ability to provide some direct benefits to legislative leaders and their allies in the forms of funneling grant money their way, greenlighting charter schools in favored areas, etc.  This would have been enough for him to still hold a strong hand in the budgeting process this year.

Months ago, the Democratic National Committee began to run web ads on attacking Christie on the lane closures before there was any direct link to his administration.  Powerful Democratic boss George Norcross basically told them to lay off Christie.

That was then.  Last week, before the Wildstein attorney letter was published, the state Democratic chair issued a scathing letter encouraging his fellow Democrats to hold Christie’s feet to the fire on this.  That letter wouldn’t have been issued without the tacit approval of all factions of the party, including the Norcross wing.

Why?  The political risks to Democrats own futures now outweigh any of the transactional benefits they may have got from working with Christie.  They can’t afford to be seen as having Christie’s back – particularly with a contested Democratic primary for governor looming in the near future.   And that is going to make life tough for Christie the leader.

The other problem for Chris Christie is how these new revelations impact his effectiveness as chair of the Republican Governor’s Association.  There are more than 30 contested gubernatorial contests this year, including key states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Gov. Christie was going to be spending a lot of time in these states campaigning with and – most importantly – raising money for the GOP candidates in these races.

There is no question that Christie would have been the biggest fundraising draw any of the candidates will have this year.  And that would mean a lot when it comes time to call in chits for support in 2016 primaries and caucuses.

This was all part of the Christie team’s grand plan to squeeze out all other “establishment” contenders for the GOP presidential nomination.  It would leave him alone among a gaggle of conservative true-believers who would split voter support.  This would provide Christie the opening to galvanize moderate support and navigate through the crucial early contests until he became the inevitable nominee.

The lynchpin in all this was earning the early endorsements of party leaders, both nationally and in the early battleground states.  Christie’s RGA chairmanship would be the vehicle to make this happen.

As of this now, Republican leaders have not publicly abandoned him.  But these latest charges have made them nervous.  The danger is whether GOP candidates begin to feel that the political risk of being associated with Christie outweighs his fundraising power?  Their elections are this November.  They don’t have time to wait and see if Christie can get clear of these accusations.

Without a way to earn those chits as the party’s fundraiser-in-chief, Chris Christie will be just one of the pack in 2016.  And these charges, even if they are ultimately proven false, will have done permanent damage to Christie’s presidential aspirations.

Jersey Leg Inquiries Need to Proceed Cautiously

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

The accusations are flying fast and furious in New Jersey.  It’s time to take a deep breath.

By now we have all heard Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s bombshell this weekend that Christie administration officials pressured her to approve a development in her town or Sandy-related aid would be withheld.  The most stunning allegation involved Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno making the quid pro quo very clear in a private conversation.

Guadagno denied that she made any such statement.  I am not going to rehash all the exact claims, but there is enough doubt on all sides that New Jersey legislators investigating this in a public forum need to proceed with caution for the good of the state.

Mayor Zimmer’s account of her conversation with LG Guadagno was recorded in her diary four days after it happened.  Here is how Zimmer reports it: “…at the end of a big tour of Shoprite meeting she pulls me aside with no one else around and says that I need to move forward with the Rockefeller project. It is very important to the Gov.  The word is that you are against it and you need to move forward or we are not going to be able to help you.  Are other towns being required to develop in exchange for the help with the flooding I asked?  [In margins:] ‘I know that’s not right – these things should not be connected – they r.’ She says – if u tell anyone that I will deny it.”

Here is part of LG Guadagno’s response today: “Mayor Zimmer’s version of our conversation in May of 2013 is not only false, but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all of the facts are examined. Any suggestion – any suggestion – that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false.”

But she also said this: “Frankly, I’m surprised that Mayor Zimmer has chosen to mischaracterize the conversation I had with her about development and job creation in Hoboken.”

Apparently, there was a conversation about development.  The problem is that the only two people who have access to “the facts” of that conversation disagree on exactly what was said or at least what was meant.

One of the most interesting aspects of LG Guadagno’s short statement to the press today was how much it reminded me of an attorney addressing a jury during closing arguments.  Her inflection changed, she lowered her voice to a near whisper at one point and raised it again with the next point.

Those years as a prosecutor were on display.  But in this case, she was on the receiving side of the accusations.  And so she did what any good defense lawyer does.  She tried to poke holes in the “logic” of the accusation by pointing out that the mayor had asked for the LG’s help with another development and that the LG visited Hoboken with the mayor months after the alleged quid pro quo conversation.

Indeed, LG Guadagno was addressing a jury.  But in this case it was in the court of public opinion.  Mayor Zimmer says that she did not speak out sooner because she felt she would not be believed.  She is probably correct.  While the media would certainly have paid attention to these accusations, at the end of the day they are simply “she said, she said.”

Most observers of New Jersey politics would not be surprised to hear that any gubernatorial administration put pressure on a local official to approve a development.  This is New Jersey after all.  But the blatant quid pro quo tied to disaster aid, and coming from such a high official, may be too much to believe.

Within the context of Bridgegate, though, the public may have become more willing to suspend their disbelief about any charges.  And right now the only thing that seems to matter – at least for Gov. Christie’s political future – is whose version of events is more believable.

Of course, these recent charges are more likely to cause Republicans to redouble their own belief that Democrats and the media are on a witch hunt and are similarly more likely to be taken by Democrats as proof positive that the Christie administration is corrupt.  It’s the folks in the middle who have been willing to give Christie the benefit of the doubt so far, as shown in last week’s Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll.  And more importantly, how does this impacts the national Republican establishment’s assessments of Christie’s prospects as a fundraiser now and a contender in 2016?

The problem for New Jersey is that this just got a lot more serious over the weekend.  Speculation about Christie’s political future because of the actions of his staff is now overshadowed by a significant allegation – key word being “allegation” – that has been linked to the governor himself.  LG Guadagno’s focus on undercutting the “logic” of Mayor Zimmer’s claims shows that the Christie administration understands that it is fighting this battle in the court of public opinion as much as in any official inquiry.

The legislature’s investigation into Bridgegate has been based on a pretty clear-cut chain of evidence that some officials did something wrong.  The Sandy recovery aid charges are based on the allegations of one person, albeit a known public official, without any obvious way to corroborate those charges.

The Senate committee investigating the bridge situation is scheduled to meet on Wednesday and is likely to fold these new charges into their inquiry.  The public deserves to have a full and fair hearing on both Bridgegate and these new accusations.  However, the new charges lack a clear chain of evidence at this point for any official investigation to suggest where they may lead.  The committee – both Democrats and Republicans – need to tread carefully.

It will not serve justice or the people of New Jersey for legislators to grandstand – regardless of what side they take – on these new charges.

Christie’s Credibility: A Bridge Too Far?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

What happened with the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee is nowhere near the most atrocious abuse of power we have ever witnessed.  It certainly is not as consequential as widespread NSA wiretapping or Iran-Contra.  And the action itself doesn’t have direct gubernatorial fingerprints like the McGreevey-Cipel or Corzine-Katz affairs.

It is a story that has legs, though, because regardless of the explanation you accept for how it happened, the story undercuts Gov. Christie’s brand image.  That image has been built on two pillars: strong leader and straight shooter.  Bridgegate forced Chris Christie to admit that at least one of those pillars was not what he has claimed and there may be future negative consequences for the other.

In his marathon press conference Thursday, Christie basically admitted that he is not the leader whose moral authority compels people – both Democrats and Republicans – to do the right thing.  The question remains why those in his inner circle felt that they had the license to do these things on behalf of their boss.

And here is where we need to call it like it is.  The governor cannot plausibly express disappointment in the “tone” taken by his advisors, specifically the fact that his campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff, Bill Stepien, called someone an “idiot.”  Christie himself has used this term on more than one occasion, as well as jerk, stupid, numbnuts, and more.  The governor’s disappointment in this aspect of the story does not pass the smell test.

The next point is his shock that this staff would have acted this way.  Bill Stepien is very close to the governor and is well-known as a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners defender of the Christie image.  If those of us who follow this stuff closely know of Stepien’s reputation, why does Christie apparently think he is a choir boy?  I can only assume that Stepien must be the Eddie Haskell of Christie’s inner circle.

I can’t speak to Bridget Kelly’s behavior in all this because I have never encountered her.  Neither has pretty much anyone in the press corps.  And that calls into question the governor’s attempt to downplay the tight reins he keeps on his staff.  We don’t know Bridget Kelly because we weren’t supposed to have access to her.  That wasn’t part of her job description and Christie’s people do not stray from their job descriptions.

And that raises the question about why Kelly felt she had the authority to give David Wildstein the go ahead to create a “traffic problem” in Fort Lee.  At the very least, it must have fit into her own understanding of what her job responsibilities were.

I am in no way saying that Chris Christie ordered the toll booth closures or even knew about them.  I do not believe he did.  However, it’s hard to give credit to the view that he had no inkling that his people were, at the very least, twisting some arms during the 2013 campaign.

And this is where things get politically dangerous for Gov. Christie in the long term.  He spoke for nearly two hours in his press conference.  Lengthy press conferences are a Christie hallmark but this one was different.  It marked the first time in four years where Christie did not end a press conference in better standing than when he started it.  In fact, he ended it slightly worse.

For one, he felt compelled to say he is not a bully – on more than occasion.  Repeatedly denying a charge is never a good thing (cf. I am not a crook, I am not a witch, etc.).  It is especially true in this case since most of Christie’s constituents actually feel he is a “bully” in some regard.  They just haven’t cared about it because he was only bullying other politicians or the odd detractor – all fair game.  Denying something that most people believe to be true can cause the public to question your credibility.

He also contradicted himself in a number of places during those two hours.  For example, he said he wants to get to the bottom of this incident, but oddly he seems to have no interest in talking to the very people who were at the center of it.  It’s not clear whether everything he said will add up when the media starts parsing his responses.  And the possibility exists that Christie’s version of events may not be fully corroborated by others who could be implicated in the unfolding scandal.

It’s one thing for Christie to lose some of the sheen from his leadership mantel.  That can be rebuilt, especially if this incident blows over after a couple of months.  On the other hand, if at any point Chris Christie undercuts his reputation as a straight shooter, his presidential aspirations are in peril.

One lapse in leadership does not necessarily make you a bad leader.  But one lie will permanently brand you a liar.

NJ Election Bullet Points

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

2016 Outlook

Twenty point margin in a blue state?  Check.

Win the Latino vote?  Check.

Win women, perform well among union members and young voters?  Check.

Win these same voters in a hypothetical 2016 presidential match-up?  Oops.

Takeaway:  Issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, and minimum wage are not all that important to Democratic-leaning voters in New Jersey when they vote for governor.  [Something Barbara Buono never quite figured out.]  However, these issues become very relevant to these same “blue” voting blocs when they consider Christie as potential presidential timber.

Coattails

There were none.  Zip. Zero. Nada.  In the first district, Assemblyman Nelson Albano was hoisted on his own petard.  It looks like there may be one GOP pick-up in the 38th that could be attributed to coattails.  That’s it.

The Democrats saw the Christie tsunami coming and realized they needed to ride that wave to survive.  They used his own “bipartisanship” mantra to tout their cooperation with the governor on key points.  Their GOTV effort worked hard to get voters to split their tickets – voting Republican for governor and Democratic for legislature.

The South Jersey incumbent legislators were particularly adept at this.  Take a look at the vote totals from the state’s five southernmost counties (Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester).  According to the unofficial results, Christie won these five counties with 143,799 votes to 76,623 for Buono.  However, the Democratic candidates for state Senate in these counties took 117,316 votes to 97,696 for the GOP slate.

That means about 40,000 voters supported the Republican for governor and the Democrats for senate.  In other words, nearly 1-in-5 voters who went to the polls in those counties yesterday split their tickets – an amazing feat!

Turnout

Just 38% of registered voters showed up yesterday.  That compares to 47% in 2009 – which set a then-record low for a governor’s race in New Jersey. Yesterday’s turnout is now the absolute lowest turnout on record of any November election where a statewide office (Governor/US Senate) topped the ballot.  The special Senate election three weeks ago – at 24% turnout – set the all-time low for any general election regardless of which office topped the ballot.

Looked at another way, Gov. Christie won the support of 23% of registered voters to 15% for Buono, whereas 6-in-10 registered voters apparently cast their ballots for “meh!”

Bottom Line

Countervailing messages came out of yesterday’s election.  “The Governor” was a very powerful brand, but not much beyond that.  I fully expect that Team Christie will successfully highlight the positive and downplay the negative, as they have been doing for the past four years.

Check here for more details from yesterday’s exit polls.

2013 New Jersey Exit Poll Results

Please check back here throughout Election Night for updates on exit poll results from the 2013 New Jersey Governor election.

These polls stories were previously broadcast on NJTV.

The New Jersey exit poll was conducted for the National Election Pool (ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC) by Edison Research.

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Updated 11:09 p.m.

CHRISTIE 2016

Well, the 2013 New Jersey Governor’s race is in the books.  Take a deep breath.  The 2016 race for the White House starts …  now!

How do the voters who gave Christie a landslide re-election victory view him as presidential material.  Well, not quite as much as they like him in the State House.  A bare majority of 51% say that their governor would make a good president.  Among Christie voters today, that number stands at 79%.  In fact, 16% of the voters who supported him today said that they don’t see him as a good fit for the Oval Office.

In fact, if Christie winds up facing Hillary Clinton in a 2016 all-star match-up he would lose his home state by 4 points – 48% for Clinton to 44% for Christie.  That result is from the same voters who just gave him an overwhelming victory tonight.

One of the problems facing Christie is that the popularity of his personal brand is overshadowed by negative views of the Republican party on the national stage.  Just 4-in-10 (38%) of New Jersey voters hold a favorable view of the GOP.  This is significantly less than the majority of 51% who hold a favorable view of the Democratic party.

The Tea Party proves to be a particular drag on the Republican brand in New Jersey.  Just 1-in-5 voters (18%) support the Tea Party movement, 35% are neutral, and nearly half of Garden State voters (45%) hold a negative view.

Even among New Jersey Republicans, just 3-in-10 (31%) say they support the Tea Party.  Another 52% are neutral and 15% are opposed.   The question is whether Christie has the support to appeal to Republicans in other states.  Exit polls from the 2012 caucuses and primaries showed that 64% of GOP voters in Iowa supported the Tea Party as did 51% of New Hampshire Republicans.  That’s a much different Republican Party than the one Christie leads in New Jersey.

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Updated 11:01 p.m.

ISSUES THAT MATTERED TO NEW JERSEY VOTERS

What were New Jersey voters thinking about as they went to the polls today?  Of the four issues asked about in the exit poll, the economy was considered the most pressing concern.  Nearly half (49%) of Garden State voters say the economy is the most important issue in their vote for governor today.  Taxes come in second at 22% and education in third at 15%.  Only 6% of New Jersey voters said that same-sex marriage was the main issue driving their vote decision.

So let’s take a look at the issues on the top and bottom of that list.  First, the economy.  New Jersey voters gave Gov. Christie a big vote of confidence on that issue despite Sen. Buono’s charge that the state’s recovery lags behind the rest of the region.  Nearly 2-in-3 voters (64%) approve of Christie’s handling of the economy.  Only 35% disapprove.

The governor’s veto of same-sex marriage legislation is another issue highlighted by Buono in the hope of gaining traction on the incumbent.  Public opinion seemed to be on her side.  Fully 6-in-10 New Jersey voters (60%) support legalizing same-sex marriage.  Only 36% oppose it.

Buono performs well among same sex marriage supporters, pulling in 49% of this group’s vote today.  However, 49% still voted for Christie despite his veto of the legislation.

The recent New Jersey court decision to permit same sex marriage may have undercut the challenger’s ability to make this more of an issue, but pre-election polls suggested it was never going to be an issue that would motivate large swaths of voters.

The exit poll confirms that it was the economy rather than same sex marriage that ruled the day.

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Updated 11:00 p.m.

HOW CHRISTIE WON

This campaign was certainly a study in contrasts.

So what did voters think of the two candidates?  Fully 64% of voters who went to the polls today have a favorable opinion of Gov. Chris Christie.  Just 42% have a favorable opinion of Sen. Barbara Buono.  It’s worth noting that the pre-election polls found 4-in-10 voters said they never learned enough about the challenger to form an opinion of her.

The big question tonight is how the Republican was able to claim such a resounding victory in a Democratic leaning state.  Obviously, he was going to do well among more conservative voters.  He won 93% of his fellow Republicans, 70% of the white vote and 66% of seniors. He also won the all-important independent vote by a significant 66% to 32% margin.

Christie also performed well among traditionally Democratic groups.  He won a majority of women (57%) and Latino voters (51%).  He won nearly half of voter in union households (46%) and among young voters under the age of 30 (49%). He even got 21% of the African-American vote, which is a good showing for a Republican.  Support for Christie among these groups improved by 8 to 19 points over his showing in 2009.

This broad swath of support might have been unthinkable a year ago.  All that changed over a year ago when Superstorm Sandy reshaped the entire political landscape. More than 8 in 10 voters approve of how the governor handled the storm’s aftermath.  That number includes nearly half of all voters (48%) who strongly approve of his post-Sandy efforts and another 37% who approve somewhat.

One-in-four voters (23%) today told us that Sandy created a severe hardship for them.  There have been some rumblings that these hardest-hit New Jerseyans have not been happy with the pace of recovery.  This group supported Christie by a 57% to 41% margin.  This is a decisive win, but smaller than the margin he earned among New Jersey voters who were not significantly impacted by the storm.

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Updated 10:48 p.m.

ISSUES:  NEW JERSEY AND NATIONAL

The actual polls are still open, but the exit polls are already giving us a clue to what New Jersey voters are thinking.

Of the four issues asked about in the exit poll, the economy was considered the most pressing concern.  Nearly half (49%) of Garden State voters say the economy is the most important issue in their vote for governor today.  Taxes come in second at 22% and education in third at 15%.  Only 6% of New Jersey voters said that same-sex marriage was the main issue driving their vote decision.

With the economy being the top concern, there has been some debate in this race on the pace of New Jersey’s recovery.  But the economy is as much of a national issue as it is a state issue.  The national climate always looms large over New Jersey gubernatorial elections since they occur the year after presidential contests.  Many pundits try to read the tea leaves of New Jersey’s results as an indicator of the national political mood.

President Barack Obama won New Jersey last year by 17 points in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  He remains more popular in the Garden State than he is nationally, but not as popular as he was just one year ago. Voters are split – 51% approve of his job performance compared to 49% who disapprove.

The president’s hallmark policy, the Affordable Care Act, has received a great deal of criticism with its roll-out last month.  New Jersey voters are also divided on their opinion of the new health care law – 48% support to 50% oppose.

However, Obama comes out on top when New Jerseyans look at the political struggles in Washington.  More voters blame the Republicans in Congress (56%) than the president (39%) for the recent federal government shutdown.

The bottom line is that New Jersey remains friendlier to Obama than it is toward the Republican brand.  We will see how that translates into support for the president’s bipartisan post-Sandy B.F.F. when the votes start rolling in at 8:00 tonight.

Candidate Buono’s Legacy

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Sometimes you can win by losing.  The 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial election is not one of those times.

By all accounts, Barbara Buono will suffer a significant defeat on Tuesday.  The writing was on the cards from the very beginning.  For a whole host of reasons – the post-Sandy inevitability of Chris Christie’s re-election, Buono’s standing as an outsider in the state party, etc. – the Democratic establishment was never going to throw resources into this race.

With this in mind, Buono should have realized that her best shot was to run an “agenda” campaign.  This is not to be confused with what Buono actually did – try to tackle every issue under the sun.

Her approach to an agenda was encapsulated by her debate performances.  She spoke in shorthand and tried to cram multiple issues into each of her responses.  This left viewers – and voters – confused about what she would do as governor.

Her responses also gave Chris Christie a range of options on how to “rebut” her.  He invariably chose the fattest pitch offered up by Buono and slammed it out of the park.

In its endorsement of Christie’s reelection, the Star-Ledger editorial board summed up their decision by saying, “Buono simply did not make the case.”

Buono spent the past years highlighting at issues which independent swing voters – consider second or third tier priorities.  Or issues which are really non-issues (e.g. same-sex marriage has been decided by the courts and the minimum wage will be decided by the voters).

Knowing that she would lose, Buono could have done more in terms of leaving a legacy by putting an item that has been ignored onto the state’s political agenda.

Political leaders rarely, if ever, change the public’s mind on an issue.  But they can incite the public to demand action from their elected officials on important issues that have been percolating below the surface.

Other losing candidates have done this with varying degrees of success.  Jim McGreevey’s bid to unseat Christie Whitman in 1997 is one such example.  Regardless of the question he was asked by a reporter or voter during that campaign, McGreevey turned every answer into an unwavering call for auto insurance reform.  Suddenly, auto insurance was the top issue on voters’ minds.

Property tax reform is another issue put on the state agenda by a candidate in a losing effort.  Contrary to popular belief, “property taxes” has not always been at the top of voters’ minds as the state’s most pressing problem (as the chart here illustrates).

That didn’t happen until 2005.  During that year’s gubernatorial race, Republican Doug Forrester made “40 in 4” the centerpiece of his campaign.  In other words, he promised to cut property taxes by 40 percent in four years.  Democrat Jon Corzine was forced to respond with his own “30 in 3” plan.

Property taxes then jumped to the top of the list of issues that New Jerseyans said concerned them most.  And it stayed there.  Forrester put an important issue on the public agenda.

Once elected, Gov. Corzine called a special session of the legislature specifically to come up with bold ideas to bring down property taxes.  Unfortunately, he pulled the rug out from under the legislature and decided to put all his eggs into a toll road monetization basket instead.  And the rest, as MF Global investors know all too well, is history.

In 2009, independent candidate Chris Daggett tried to take the “win while losing” approach.  The unveiling of his bold property tax plan led to a momentary spike in the polls for Daggett.  However, his message got lost in the anti-Corzine sentiment that brought a new governor into office.  This allowed candidate Christie to avoid addressing the issue in his campaign, and the most we got in policy reform from Gov. Christie is a cap on annual growth.

Concerns about property taxes have not gone away though.  Even in the depths of the recent economic recession, it remained in the top spot or tied for number one among issues the public wanted to see addressed.  Even Superstorm Sandy couldn’t knock property taxes as the issue that most concerns New Jersey.

Polls have shown that Gov. Christie has been able to escape most of the blame for the ongoing property tax problem, but that it remains a potential Achilles’ heel for him.  The governor realizes this as well, as his ferocious reaction to a recent NJ League of Municipalities proposal demonstrates.

The right message and the right messenger could have put this issue – or indeed any other single priority issue – on the campaign’s front-burner.  This “agenda setting” approach could have changed the entire dynamic of this race and indeed the governing priorities of the next few years.

Unfortunately for New Jersey, 2013 lacked both the message and the messenger.

Unfortunately for Barbara Buono, who has served admirably as a public servant, this will be her campaign’s legacy.

Voter Turnout for a Wednesday in October

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

New Jersey has no precedent for modeling a likely electorate in a special statewide election.  Especially one that occurs just three weeks before the regular general election.  And doubly so for one that occurs on a Wednesday rather than a Tuesday.

This alone may account for the variations in U.S. Senate polls released over the past two days. The Monmouth University sample is different from other public pollsters because we decided to use a list sample of registered voters that includes information about gender, age, past voting history and party registration.

[Reminder: party registration is how voters are listed on the voter rolls and is a very stable characteristic.  Party identification is how people answer the question: “In politics today, do you consider yourself…” – it is not as stable and is subject to change based on the external political environment.]

Here’s an overview of some benchmarks from official New Jersey election records and voter list providers.

Overall turnout:

The last two general elections in New Jersey where the U.S. Senate topped the ballot saw turnouts of 46% (2002) and 48% (2006) of registered voters. By comparison, elections where Governor was the top office saw turnouts of 47% (2009) and 49% (2001 and 2005).  Turnouts where the House of Representatives tops the ballot has been 42% (1998 and 2010) and off-year elections where the legislature tops the ballots have seen turnouts ranging from 27% to 34% of registered voters.

[Note: Turnout figures for elections prior to 1998 are not comparable, because of the Motor Voter law which registered a lot of “unlikely” voters.  This increased the denominator of registered voters, but did not change the numerator of people who actually show up to vote.]

Of course, these turnout levels are all for regularly scheduled elections.  There is no precedent for a special election in New Jersey.

We can turn to Massachusetts, though, which held a special election this past June to fill the Senate seat of John Kerry after he was appointed Secretary of State.  That election saw a 27% turnout.  Although the Democrat won handily, this is the low turnout level that the Lonegan camp hopes to see tomorrow.

On the other hand, Massachusetts held another special election in January 2010 to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat.  This race, which was eventually won by a Republican, garnered a lot of national attention as a referendum on Obama – an issue the Lonegan camp hopes will factor into the New Jersey election.  This election had a high turnout of 54% of registered voters.  [Both Massachusetts special elections were held on Tuesdays.]

Demographic stability:

A review of voter list data indicates that the demographic composition of New Jersey’s electorate in non-presidential years is fairly stable, regardless of turnout.
For example, young voters age 18 to 34 made up just 8% of the electorate in 2009’s gubernatorial election, 9% in 2010 when the U.S. House topped the ballot, and 7% in 2011 when the state legislature was the marquee event. The proportion of voters age 65 and older was similarly stable at 34% in 2009 and 2010 and 38% in 2011.  [By contrast, young voters comprised 18% of New Jersey’s 2012 presidential electorate, while older voters accounted for just 24%.]

Gender is also relatively stable, with women voters making up 52% (2011) to 53% (2009 and 2010) of the electorate.  Gender by party [i.e. actual partisan registration status, not self-reported identification] is similarly stable.  For instance, among registered Democrats, 57% to 58% of those who voted in 2009, 2010, or 2011 were women.  The gender split is basically even among registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters.  Women made up 49% to 50% of Republican voters and 49% to 50% of unaffiliated voters in those same three election years.

Finally, the Democrat-Republican party registration spread for non-presidential years has been a very stable 9 to 11 points regardless of turnout or election type.  The only major variation is the proportion of unaffiliated (“U”) voters in the electorate, which decreases as overall turnout drops.  In 2009, the D-R-U split was 42-32-26.  In 2010, it was 43-32-25.  In 2011, it was 44-35-21.

[Note: The D-R-U registration split is significantly different in presidential election years. In 2012’s electorate, for instance, it was 37-24-39.]

Wildcard:

The historical turnout data presented above is based on New Jersey voters who show up to vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  We don’t know whether these patterns will hold for a Wednesday in October.  Monmouth’s internal likely voter model suggests that tomorrow’s turnout will be between 35% and 40% of registered voters.

But here’s one intriguing finding from the Monmouth University Poll to keep in mind.  Just last week, we talked to voters who are known to have voted in at least two of the last four general elections.  Fully 10% of these “regular voters” told us they had no idea that a special election was being held on October 16th!

Booker and Mail Voting Could be Golden Opportunity for Dems

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

He won’t be on the ballot in November, but if Cory Booker wins the US Senate nomination he could still boost turnout for vulnerable Democratic legislators in the regular general election. New Jersey’s automatic vote by mail provision provides the answer.

Tuesday was the deadline for mail ballot applications in the special primary election to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Frank Lautenberg’s death. There have been some rumblings that county organizations would make a special effort on behalf of Newark Mayor Cory Booker to increase his vote-by-mail total.  That didn’t seem likely.  The local parties backed Booker precisely because they don’t have to put any resources into his race. Their war chests are needed to protect Democratic legislators in the face of a Chris Christie tsunami in November.

The data available on mail ballot applications for next week’s primary bear out that no effort has been made to sign up voters on Booker’s behalf.  However, there is one fascinating blip on the radar screen that points to how local Democrats can use Cory Booker’s senate run to their advantage.

Some background.  New Jersey has had universal vote-by-mail access since 2009.  That is to say anyone can vote by mail prior to Election Day without needing to provide a “valid” absentee excuse.  In addition to signing up for a specific election, the application also allows voters to select automatic mail ballots for every remaining election in the current calendar year and/or for every general election in ensuing years.

New Jersey voters haven’t really taken advantage of this option.  In the 2012 general election, 7.7% of votes cast were submitted by mail ballot.  This is only slightly higher than the 6.3% of ballots that were cast absentee in 2008, before the universal mail ballot law went into effect.

It also appears that the vote-by-mail option is more likely to be exercised by Republican leaning voters.  In New Jersey last year, the highest mail proportions of the vote were reported by Hunterdon (12.4%), Cape May (12.0%), Somerset (10.8%), Ocean (10.6%), and Gloucester (10.3%) counties.  Trailing in the vote-by-mail effort were Essex (5.1%) and Hudson (3.5%) counties.  In fact, fewer than 2% of the total ballots cast in the cities of Newark and Jersey City were submitted by mail.

Past experience shows that if a voter requests a mail ballot, there is a 9-in-10 chance it will be returned.  In other words, if Democrats sign up some of the unlikeliest voters (e.g. urban residents, younger adults) to vote by mail, they can increase turnout among their base. A big push on early voting was a major component to Pres. Obama’s success in swing states last year.

New Jersey Democrats haven’t caught on to that – except in one place – Camden County. Consider the fact that the Camden County clerk received 16,525 mail ballots in the high turnout 2012 presidential election. That translated to 7.3% of the total county vote, which was on par with the statewide average. Fast forward to today – Camden County has nearly 13,000 ballot requests for next week’s primary!  In an election which will see only a fraction of last November’s turnout!

These voters, though, did not come out of the woodwork for Cory Booker. Even before Sen. Lautenberg’s death and the announcement of the special election, Camden County had 12,159 voters signed up to receive ballots for every remaining election this year.

Nearly 4% of registered Camden County voters are already slated to receive mail ballots in both the October and November elections.  The next highest totals are Cape May County and Ocean County at just over 1% each.  No other county tops 1%.  [Note: analysis based on preliminary mail ballot data as of July 26 for 17 New Jersey counties.]

There will almost certainly be a skew in partisan turnout between the two fall elections (see the June Monmouth University Poll (June 13, 2013) for more detail on anticipated turnout).  Some Democratic voters may vote in the Senate election but stay home for an apparent losing gubernatorial effort in November.

This has some legislative Democratic incumbents worried.  And rightly so.

Take Gloucester County for example.  It is home to Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, but the county will almost certainly produce a sizable gubernatorial majority for Republican Chris Christie.  Sweeney and his running mates will need to attract a lot of split-ticket voters or boost turnout among registered Democrats.

The Gloucester County clerk, though, has only received about 1,800 requests for mail ballots, with approximately 100 of them coming since the special election was announced.  Just over half (55%) of those ballots are being sent to Democratic voters while 37% are going to Republican voters.  That’s a tighter margin than in neighboring Camden County, where the ballot split is 57% Democrat and 21% Republican.  In fact, two-thirds of the Camden County mail voters who have signed up in just the past two months are registered Democrats.

By all accounts, the Booker campaign is generating a good deal of enthusiasm among young voters and urban voters. It doesn’t look like the county party organizations have taken advantage of that yet.  Even Camden County Democrats have yet to fully capitalize on the Booker effect.  Nearly 30% of their new mail voters have signed up only for next week’s primary. That means party operatives will have to go back to those voters to get them to re-up for the fall.

Cory Booker’s candidacy presents Democrats with a unique opportunity to offset Gov. Christie’s coattails in November.  That will only work, though, if they make an all-out effort to sign up mail voters before October.  And don’t forget to check the “all general elections” box on the application.

2016 Presidential Contender Word Clouds

A Monmouth University Poll, released on August 5, 2013, asked American voters to say the first word or phrase that came to mind when they heard the names of five potential candidates for president in 2016 — Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio.

The following word clouds (courtesy Wordle) were generated from those responses.  The full poll report with the data for these questions can be found here.Image Shows Word Cloud Generated by Voter Responses Regarding Hillary Clinton

Image Shows Word Cloud Generated by Voter Responses Regarding Joe Biden

Image Shows Word Cloud Generated by Voter Responses Regarding Chris Christie

Image Shows Word Cloud Generated by Voter Responses Regarding Jeb Bush

Image Shows Word Cloud Generated by Voter Responses Regarding Marco Rubio

Buono’s Pick

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

What’s a guy got to do to get a major party Lieutenant Governor nomination in this state?  Barbara Buono’s pick of labor leader Milly Silva as her running mate means that women have been tapped for this post 80% of the time.  Of course, there have only been five LG nominees in the state’s history, so …

The Silva pick, though, sends a message that is different from the other female LG nominations.  Mainly, Buono is not trying to “balance” anything.

Current governor Chris Christie’s selection of Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno in 2009 was made in part to appeal to women voters, a segment Republicans tend to lose.  It was widely expected that former governor Jon Corzine would pick a woman as a matter of progressive principles.  Ironically, his initial inclination was to select Buono until a corruption sting netted dozens of public officials, leading him to choose Loretta Weinberg, who was seen as a squeaky clean veteran legislator.

Buono, on the other hand, picked someone who is just like her.  Not just in gender, but in ideology and policy priorities – liberal on social issues, strong labor supporter, wary of education reform policies, etc.

The one thing Silva doesn’t have is political experience.  And therein lies a key reason for the pick.

Some observers say this pick will help excite the Democratic base and perhaps bring greater labor support – in terms of both money and voter turnout assistance.  This is true to some extent.

On the other hand, Silva’s lack of experience in elected or appointed office have led some – and not just Republicans – to call her “unqualified” for the position – whose main job requirement is to step in if anything happens to the governor.   And that’s the point Buono is trying to make.  There aren’t enough women who have been allowed to rise in the halls of power.

Buono already knew this, but this governor’s race reinforced her feelings about the party.  It’s almost impossible for a woman to get ahead in the New Jersey Democratic Party unless it serves some ulterior motive of the party bosses.

Those who point to Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver as evidence to the contrary should pay close attention to her run for U.S. Senate.  There have been rumblings for months that her speakership is not secure after this election.  Moreover, when she attacks Cory Booker’s “coronation” on the campaign trail, she is also attacking the party bosses – specifically her heretofore patron Joe DiVincenzo – who are willing to toss her aside when the mood strikes.

Compare Oliver’s relationship with Joe D to Senate President Steve Sweeney’s relationship with George Norcross.  The men taken under powerbroker’s wings are close friends and confidants.  The women seem to be expendable.

The Milly Silva selection is Barbara Buono’s way of playing “powerbroker.”  She’s instantly elevated a young, charismatic labor leader to become a statewide political player.  Buono hopes this selection will turn Silva into a force that the state party has no choice but to reckon with; that Silva will be able to build a solid base where other women have not been able to do.

There is one thing about the Buono’s choice that is not unusual, though.   Women tend to get nominated to higher office as sacrificial lambs – when everyone else has written off any chance of success.  This seems to be another of those instances.

Given the likely outcome of this election, it’s hard to escape comparisons to Thelma and Louise.  By all accounts, Buono and Silva seem to be heading off a 30-point cliff.

In this case, though, Buono hopes that Silva will survive the crash and be able to demand the political support that she feels she’s been denied in her career.

New Jersey Senate Survivor

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

This week’s Monmouth University poll showed Mayor Cory Booker with a daunting lead in the U.S. Senate Democratic nomination contest.  It also found few avenues of opportunity for his rivals to peel away that support.

Can this contest become more competitive?  Probably not by using traditional attack strategies, such as:

“Booker lacks the experience to be effective in Washington.”  Democratic primary voters disagree.

“Booker’s support of policies like school vouchers shows that he’s out of step with core Democratic values.”  Who says?  Many Democratic voters themselves support vouchers.

“Booker is more show horse than work horse.”  He may be a celebrity, but voters believe that he brings both style and substance to the table.

There is no question that Cory Booker’s national fame is key to his formidable lead in both the polls and fundraising.  This is unusual.  Candidates in a typical contested New Jersey primary do not start out with significant statewide name recognition.  Each candidate tries to increase support in his or her base and garner the endorsement of power brokers from other areas of the state without a horse in the race.

This contest has completely destroyed those rules of engagement.  Booker has almost universal statewide name recognition, due solely to the fact that he has national name recognition. None of the other candidates can compete with that.

It is perhaps a sad irony, then, that this happens to be one of the strongest fields of Democrats to run for statewide office in a long time.  In addition to the two term mayor of the state’s largest city, we have 24-year and 14-year congressional veterans and a 9-year state legislator who currently heads the lower chamber.

The last time New Jersey saw a Democratic field this wide and deep – i.e. with at least three seasoned officeholders – was the 1989 governor’s race, which featured Congressman Jim Florio (who was also the 1981 gubernatorial nominee), Princeton Mayor Barbara Boggs Sigmund (scion of a Louisiana political powerhouse), and former Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher (author of the much-read but unfortunately oft-ignored New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness).

In fact, the 1970s and 1980s frequently brought out a slew of established New Jersey office-holders in closely fought contests for statewide office.  In any other year, Frank Pallone, Rush Holt, and Sheila Oliver would be in a dogfight for this nomination.

It hardly seems fair that Cory Booker can waltz away with this thing based on name recognition.  There has to be a way to give all these candidates a decent shot at the nomination.

I pondered this as I watched all four candidates huddled together at a union-sponsored press conference to highlight the foreclosure crisis.  They were standing in front of the home of a Newark resident who has been dealing with a foreclosure nightmare.  Each of the candidates took their turn at the microphone to condemn the situation and point out that more needs to be done.  But there was very little in their rhetoric that differentiated how each candidate would tackle the matter as New Jersey’s next U.S. Senator.

Then it hit me.  Rather than decide this nomination based on what each candidate promises to do, let’s see them in action in a head-to-head set of tasks.  We can call it New Jersey Senate Survivor.

Task 1: Foreclosure Fever.  Each candidate is assigned a distressed homeowner currently in foreclosure proceedings.  Candidates must get the bank off the homeowner’s back and set up a revised mortgage repayment plan.  Whoever gets the best terms for their homeowner wins.

Task 2: Obamacare-O-Rama.  This one is simple.  The winner is the candidate who gets the most uninsured New Jerseyans to sign up for the Health Insurance Exchange Pool.

Task 3:  Raise the Roof.  Recognizing the singular impact of Superstorm Sandy on New Jersey, candidates must cobble together enough federal, state and insurance funding to elevate 10 homes at least 4 feet above flood stage in newly-designated FEMA V-zones.

We can even award extra points to candidates who pitch in on the physical labor of raising those homes.  You may think this gives Booker an edge – with the leaping of tall buildings in a single bound and all that.  I wouldn’t be so sure.

If you have ever seen Frank Pallone glad-handing constituents in 90 degree heat without breaking a sweat, you’d know he has the stamina of an ox.  Rush Holt can be counted on to devise some practical application of quantum mechanics to raise the homes with the most efficient expenditure of energy.  And since Sheila Oliver was able to declare her candidacy without being torpedoed by Joe DiVincenzo, you shouldn’t underestimate her grit and resolve.

The winner of these tasks earns the Democratic nomination.  For one, this ensures that the nominee is a proven problem-solver.  Perhaps more importantly, a significant number of Garden State residents who the candidates say they want to help once in office will be able to get that help even before the election.

If this proposal isn’t a “win-win,” I don’t know what is!

***********************

A note on Alan Rosenthal.  I was saddened to hear of the passing of Alan Rosenthal.  While he was never my professor, I certainly learned a lot from him during my days at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics.  I was honored to be asked to work with him, in a very small way, on the research for one of his state legislature books, Heavy Lifting.  Although we later disagreed, albeit amicably, about the 2011 redistricting map, I always knew that his decision was based on a clear set of principles about the efficient operation of state legislatures.  The thing I will remember most about Alan, though, is that he was simply a fun guy to be around.  He will be missed.

Why Gov. Christie Called a Special Election

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

“For all of you who were bored with the governor’s race, I have solved your problems.” – Gov. Chris Christie

New Jersey’s U.S. Senate campaign is on!  Every one of the alternatives Chris Christie considered to fill the vacancy posed a different set of risks and benefits.  True to his reputation as an astute strategist, he chose the option that maximized his own future political prospects.

Certainly, there will be fallout from this decision.  National Republicans are irked that they are not guaranteed a party vote in the Senate for the next 17 months.  They are joined by state GOP leaders in being annoyed that a Republican appointee won’t have time to raise visibility and money for an incumbent campaign in 2014.

Republicans wanted Christie to hold out for the 2014 option.  But that choice posed a serious risk.  It would most certainly have gone to the New Jersey Supreme Court.  The court could not only have determined that the Senate election needed to be held this year but also directed that it be held on the same day as the regular general election.

Despite his denials, Gov. Christie does not want to run on a ballot where the U.S. Senate race is at the top of the ticket.  Otherwise he could have saved the state an estimated $12 million and held the special election concurrently with the general election, rather than three weeks earlier on Oct. 16.

A Senate race on the same ballot would have certainly increased Democratic turnout – whether the nominee is Cory Booker or Frank Pallone – both of whom are running – or even Rush Holt or Bill Pascrell – who are considering a run.  Voters, especially Democrats, are more likely to turn out for competitive races.  This would almost certainly put any of the supposed five or six competitive legislative races out of Republicans’ reach.

Christie himself is unlikely to lose in this scenario, but he would suffer a significant loss to his presidential prospects.  His main campaign strategy has always been to stand on the stage with a half dozen more conservative Republicans seeking their party’s presidential nomination and announce: “Our main priority should be to back the White House.  Anyone on this stage who has won a blue state by 20 points, raise your hand!”

Winning by a 10 or 12 point margin or even – gasp – by the high single digits would be a major setback to Christie’s 2016 strategy.

At the end of the day, a quick special election was the one option where Christie knew he could maintain control over the process.  The conflicting state statutes on Congressional vacancies agree that the governor has this authority.

So yes, some GOP leaders and conservatives are annoyed at him right now.  But Christie’s banking this will blow over by the time the presidential process begins. Moreover, holding a special election shortly before the regularly scheduled general election may actually boost Christie’s victory margin.

Turnout in this special election will be very low – 35% of registered voters is my rough guess.  As a consequence, there are some voters who will only take part in one election, pushing turnout in the November general election down to about 50%.  It usually approaches 60% during gubernatorial years.

This turnout fatigue will affect partisans of both stripes.  However, it’s much more likely to affect Democratic voters than Republicans.  Many Democrats will show up for a Senate race that looks positive for their party and sit out the subsequent general election where their party’s candidate is likely to lose.

This special election has an added benefit for the state GOP. It is now more likely that they could pick off some Democratic incumbents in the state legislature.  Among all the possible alternatives, Christie’s decision to hold the special election in October was absolutely the worst possible outcome for New Jersey Democrats.

Yes, the Democrats will almost certainly win the U.S. Senate seat.  It’s unlikely that the Republican nominee will be able to raise the kind of cash that Booker or even Pallone can.  Moreover, Christie is unlikely to free up his GOTV resources to do double duty for the senate race.

Democratic power brokers won’t pour money into the senate race either.  They really care about state and local races.  That’s where their bread is buttered.  This special election poses a real threat to their control of at least one chamber of the legislature.  In other words, Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.’s supposed pipe dream of taking control of the State Senate now seems much more realistic.