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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.

How to Blow a Cool Million

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Perhaps a primer on the dynamics of voter awareness is in order.  In a recent PolitickerNJ story where I was quoted, some commenters seem to think that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono’s reported million dollar ad buy was money well spent – or at the very least was something she needed to do.

I disagree.  While $1 million may sound like a lot, it will result in very little penetration among New Jersey voters.  For one, advertising on broadcast television in either the New York City or Philadelphia markets means that more than two-thirds of your audience cannot even vote for you.

More importantly, a single shot weeklong to ten day media buy – which is what $1 million will get you on broadcast TV – will not increase voter awareness when your statewide name recognition is below 30%. It takes about three weeks of repeated airings to start moving that needle.  And then you have to maintain the ad presence or your gains in awareness will evaporate once you pull your ads.

Think I’m wrong?  Then tell me what you had for dinner last Thursday night?  The same principle applies here.  Voters who do not know Senator Buono have not tuned into the campaign and will not tune in until the fall.  They are simply not paying attention yet.  That’s the reality.

Now, some say Buono had to go up with an ad because incumbent Chris Christie’s campaign already went negative on her.  [Ironically, these attacks may be doing more to raise Buono’s name recognition than anything she’s been able to do.]

The political adage is don’t let an attack go unchallenged.  However, her opening spot is not a response to the Christie attack on her as a “Corzine Democrat.”  It’s an introductory piece.

As a biographical ad, it’s actually pretty good (as is the web ad about the pronunciation of her last name).  But, as I already mentioned, a $1 million dollar broadcast buy in May will not move her poll numbers.

[Of course, one possibility is that we are being misled by the Buono camp about actual amount of the buy as a way to get some free media coverage.  If so, then kudos to them!]

Another point that has been raised to defend the ad buy is that Buono has a pot of money that must be spent on her primary race – such that it is.  This is true, but it does not have to be spent on advertising.  For example, she can spend her primary money building a GOTV infrastructure.

As we just saw in the presidential race, a coordinated micro-targeting effort can confound the polls.  Buono’s camp can be using her resources to identify Democratic and unaffiliated voters who can be motivated to turn up at the polls or to switch their support to her.  This effort can ostensibly be done for the June primary, but the real target would be the general election in November.

[UPDATE: Thanks to a party chair for emailing me on a point of law.  While New Jersey’s public financing law allows you to use matching funds to buy lists, you can’t use those funds to “mine” the data.  Still, in a media environment like New Jersey direct mail and radio may give you more lasting impact.  Still, I acknowledge the money has to be spent by June 4 and TV is certainly the best way to go through it quickly.  But then, we have to question whether Buono can “afford” an introductory ad, or whether she needs to attack right out of the box.  Campaign operatives do not like to mix those messages, but when you’re down by 30 points is “traditional” the best approach?]

One question is whether Buono will have the kind of money she needs to increase her name recognition in the fall.  Democratic donors and operatives got spoiled by the last governor and aren’t used to having to support gubernatorial campaigns.

Her best bet has always been to get that money from a national donor base. It is one of the reasons she has been talking about guns, marriage equality, and women‘s health care.  These issues are not on New Jersey voters’ radar screens, but they are for national Democrats.

However, very little of Buono’s campaign pot has come from donors in other states.  This is partly due to poor message framing during the free national media opportunities she has been given (mainly MSNBC).

Buono has gotten a little sharper on the stump recently, e.g. saying Christie is taking positions on issues like guns to appeal to voters in Midwestern cornfields rather than New Jersey suburbs.  But the message lacks clarity and coherence.

The problem is confounded by the fact that Buono will need to pivot to a New Jersey-based message after the primary.  While she still needs to court the national money with social issue messages, New Jersey voters are concerned about bread and butter matters.

Buono has been talking about New Jersey’s economic picture not being as rosy as Christie claims.  But she hasn’t developed a clear statement about one thing she would do to make the state more affordable.

The conventional wisdom says that laying out a specific policy can be dangerous.  But that only applies if you have a realistic shot of winning.  The goal for Buono is not to win but to lose well.  And that requires being bold.  Otherwise, she just spent $1 million to spit into the wind.

And if you think I’m wrong, here’s a challenge:  I’ll provide pre and post polling services to anyone out there who wants to spend $1 million on TV advertising to boost his or her own name recognition.  I guarantee the needle won’t move for you either.

Winning Big Could Hurt Chris Christie

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

A big win in November is exactly what Chris Christie wants, right?  It will increase his leverage with the legislature and bolster his 2016 selling point as the one Republican who can win over Blue State voters.  A really big win, though, could lead to unintended consequences that would undercut both of those objectives.

Let’s go back to the legislative map drawn up in 2011 – the one that seemingly ensured Democrats a decade-long majority in both chambers. Of course, that assumed it would be business as usual at the top of the ticket.  A Republican could certainly win the governor’s race, but getting a vote share far north of 50% would be nearly impossible.

Well, we now have a GOP governor who is realistically flirting with a 60% vote share.  If that pans out in November, his coattails will make a lot of legislative races much closer than anyone expects, especially in the Senate.

Gov. Christie has been successful in Trenton largely by working with Senate President Steve Sweeney and his coalition of Democrats. While Christie hasn’t got everything he’s asked for – like confirmation of his Supreme Court nominees for instance – he has been able to claim victory on some key high-profile initiatives such as budget cuts and pension reform.

The bottom line is stability in legislative leadership is the best outcome for Chris Christie’s national ambitions.

If he wins big there is an outside chance that Republicans could pick up the five seats necessary to take control of the Senate.  While this outcome is still improbable, it is not the impossibility it was just six months ago.  In this scenario, Democrats in the Assembly, who have taken a back seat to the Senate when negotiating with the Governor, would likely be emboldened to hobble Christie’s second term agenda.  However, his appointments – such as the aforementioned court nominations – would sail through the Senate.  So the impact would balance out.

The more perilous outcome in the event of a Christie electoral blowout is that Republicans are able to pick off two or three key Senate incumbents, leaving Democrats with a reduced majority of 21 to 22 seats. This will be especially dangerous if those gains come from the southern portion of the state.

In 2010, Steve Sweeney knocked Dick Codey out of the Senate President’s chair.  That coup was made possible by a coalition of six South Jersey Democrats (Sweeney, Jeff Van Drew, Jim Whelan, Fred Madden, Dana Redd, and Jim Beach), two each from Essex (Teresa Ruiz and Nia Gill), Union (Ray Lesniak and Nick Scutari), and Middlesex (Bob Smith and Barbara Buono), and one each from Hudson (Brian Stack) and Bergen (Paul Sarlo).  These 14 legislators declared their intention to side with Sweeney in October 2009 which sealed Codey’s fate before the legislative elections even took place.

Of the five Senate seats targeted by the GOP this year, three are part of this coalition, all from the incumbent Senate President’s South Jersey base – including Sweeney’s own seat.  A loss of two seats (i.e. Whelan and Van Drew) would reduce that coalition.

That original coalition also included Barbara Buono who won’t be in the Senate next year – and wouldn’t support Sweeney anyway if she were.  Another member of that coalition, Nia Gill, is facing a serious primary challenge from former Obama advisor, Mark Alexander.  So Sweeney’s core band could be down to ten.

The question is whether Sweeney can hold on to at least two others – such as Loretta Weinberg, Bob Gordon, and Sandra Cunningham – in order to maintain majority support within his caucus.  Maybe, but a depleted South Jersey bloc could be like chum in the water to some of these more progressive Democrats, leading to a wholesale realignment of the caucus.

That realignment that could be more obstructionist toward Gov. Christie’s agenda.  That could mean no key policy successes to bolster his 2016 campaign and a continued hold on major appointments.

There is another potential election outcome that could throw a wrench into Gov. Christie’s second term.  That would be if Republicans pick up one only seat, but it happens to be Sweeney’s.  That outcome is not outside the realm of possibility.  Then things would get really interesting.

Now What?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

The “uncertainty” of New Jersey’s Democratic gubernatorial contest is over.  I use quotes because this is pretty much where most people thought we would end up after Cory Booker declined to run.  State Senator Barbara Buono is the presumptive nominee with the public support of every major Democratic player in New Jersey.  Now what?

My unsolicited advice to Sen. Buono is to run a losing campaign.

Before I get to that, let’s review what’s at stake for Garden State Democrats.  Last year, we saw that a 20 point Democratic victory at the top of the ticket could take out Republican incumbents at the county and local level.   A 10, or even 15, point win probably would not have had that effect.

Remember that no state Republican has broken 50% since Gov. Tom Kean’s reelection landslide in 1985 (George H.W. Bush’s 56% presidential showing in 1988 notwithstanding).  Chris Christie’s 3.5 percentage point win in 2009 is the best a Republican has performed statewide since then.  Christie Whitman won by about 1 percentage point in both of her gubernatorial runs.

Now, imagine that Chris Christie can win re-election by a similar 20 point spread.  Democratic seats in the legislature and at the county and local levels would suddenly be in jeopardy.

Democratic office holders could probably survive a 5 or even 10 point Christie win without breaking a sweat. That outcome looked probable before Superstorm Sandy hit.  Now we have a whole new ball game.

Down ballot races rely on a minimal showing at the top of the ticket.  Garden State voting patterns have certainly become more Democratic.  It is unlikely that Christie can replicate Tom Kean’s 21 county wipeout.  But Buono will still have to run a flawless campaign to get the margin within single digits.

If it ends up a 20 point victory for Christie, then down ballot Democrats could fall like dominoes.  This is coming from a guy who said the legislative map locked in Democratic control of the legislature even before Alan Rosenthal cast the deciding vote.  But I – and every other observer of state politics – never really entertained the possibility that a Democratic gubernatorial candidate could be fighting just to reach 40% of the vote.

[By the way, if you want to know how New Jersey Democrats got to this point, Steve Kornacki wrote an insightful, if a little gushy about Dick Codey, history of the party’s last 15 years.]

Some Democratic leaders have been vocally supportive of Buono., while others have been tepid.  It’s the latter group that holds the power in Trenton.  There is an outside – but very real – possibility that the Democrats could lose control of one or both chambers of the legislature.  The real irony, though, is that the Democrats could retain control, but the South Jersey bloc could lose its power within the leadership if two or three of these legislators go down to defeat.

In the event of a Christie landslide, most of the vulnerable seats will be in South Jersey.  Not only in districts 1 and 2, but even Senate President Steve Sweeney’s seat in district 3.  His winning margin in 2011 was not overwhelming and Christie performed especially well in Gloucester County in 2009.

This means that George Norcross will direct all his resources to his own backyard.  Rather than help his party’s gubernatorial nominee, he will run a 7-district localized campaign that treats the legislature as the top of the ticket.

This is why Barbara Buono has to run to lose.  Her political future depends on it.  So here is my completely unsolicited advice.

Candidates with a chance of winning have a tendency to pull their punches.  They are afraid of offending one group of voters or another – or of hurting future political opportunities if they do lose.

This penchant towards timidity can water down a candidate’s message and brand.   In a race where voters are predisposed to go with the incumbent, this trait gets translated as a lack of leadership.

If Sen. Buono tries too hard to be seen as a viable candidate – particular in order to set herself up for a future run in 2017, for instance – she is likely to fail.  It’s not as if she’s a favorite of the party bosses now.  A 10 to 15 point loss is unlikely to improve her standing on that front.

The best way for Sen. Buono to make something of this quixotic effort is to treat it that way – to tilt at the political windmills.

So far the Buono for Governor campaign has not set the world on fire.   There have been some missteps with the press.  For example, there was a lack of press availability after Gov. Christie’s State of the State address and scheduling an official campaign kick-off on Saturday – the day before the Super Bowl no less.

That strategy may have worked in 1993, but this is a completely different media environment.  Weekday radio and TV coverage is more valuable as is the Internet news feed that most people will see at the office but not on the weekend.  The Saturday kickoff is an old-fashioned approach to the media, which also suggests a staid approach to the campaign in general.

So, Sen. Buono, let ‘er rip.  You’ve got nothing to lose – except the election of course.  But at least it will make the campaign more interesting for those of us who have to cover it.

[Disclaimer: All advice given with tongue firmly planted in cheek.]

Chris Christie = New Jersey

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

The anatomy of a reelection strategy that Democrats will have a hard time countering.

Gov. Christie’s speech on Tuesday was one of the most unique State of the State addresses on record.  In a year when he is up for reelection, he did not feel the need to offer one single proposal as a hook on which to campaign.  His record over the past three years and his indispensability to the Sandy recovery effort are more than enough to earn him a second term.  And the opinion polls support that view.

First, let’s look at his record.  A number of observers – mainly Democrats – argue that Chris Christie needed Sandy to win reelection.  The polls don’t bear that out.  Certainly, Sandy has made his case for a second term much easier, but he was in a strong position before the storm hit.

This is no more evident than in public reaction to the biggest policy failure of his first term – the Legislature’s refusal to give him the income tax cut he campaigned on in 2009.

The governor started 2012 with a 53% job approval rating.  In January, he proposed what was supposed to be his crowning achievement – and the main plank in his reelection campaign – a 10% income tax cut.  His subsequent job rating clocked in at 55%, even though 69% of state residents said that property taxes should be the higher priority.  Just 19% wanted the focus on income taxes.

It was not to be.  By May, Christie was forced to endorse Senate Pres. Steve Sweeney’s property tax credit after polls showed that state taxpayers preferred a property tax credit to an income tax cut by a 2 to 1 margin.  And still, the governor’s job rating sailed north of 50%.

By June, the property tax deal fell apart when Dems used state revenue shortfalls to put the kibosh on it.  Christie even called a special legislative session in July to enact the plan, but the Democrats said they wouldn’t act on it until the state had the money to pay for it – a sentiment which 54% of Garden State residents endorsed.  And still the governor’s approval rating stood at a solid 53%.

Add to this the unprecedented defeat of not just one, but two, of his Supreme Court nominees and you would think that Gov. Christie should have been hobbled.  Instead, he wasn’t even dented.  Not even a scratch.

Let’s look at it another way.  The top two issues in the state remain jobs and property taxes, even after Hurricane Sandy.   Neither issue has had much of an impact on Gov. Christie’s public standing.

The jobs situation is fairly easy to explain.  As much as the Democrats attack Christie for the lack of a jobs stimulus package, most governors would be able to escape bearing the brunt of the blame.  Voters tend to view the state’s jobs outlook as a symptom of the national economy and mainly Washington’s responsibility.

The state’s property tax issue is another matter.  If anything lands on the governor’s doorstep, it should be this problem.  The state’s property tax is one of the main factors driving people out of the state – or at least considering whether to leave New Jersey.  When Christie took office, 71% of his constituents said they would be very upset if their property taxes didn’t go down during his term.

While the governor touts his 2% cap on property tax growth, the public is still upset that their taxes have not gone down.  When asked to grade the governor on his handling of the issue, only 30% give him an A or a B.  Another 31% say he only deserves a C and 32% saddle him with a D or an F.  And in that very same poll, he still earned a 69% overall job approval rating from New Jersey voters!

As I stated elsewhere, by all rights this issue should be the governor’s Achille’s Heel.  But it isn’t.  When asked who is most responsible for the lack of property tax relief, 32% blame the legislature, 33% blame either their local government or school board, and just 17% blame the governor.  This also explains why it is difficult for the legislature – which has spent nearly all of the past three years with a negative job rating – to get anything to stick to Christie.

So knocking him out this November was going to be a tough proposition to begin with.  Then along came Sandy.

Gov. Christie did not need Sandy to seal his reelection prospects.  But it certainly has made it a heckuva lot easier.  For one, it is the main reason why Christie didn’t need to even consider throwing in a minor policy proposal in his State of the State address.

On Saturday Night Live, the governor quipped that the ubiquitous fleece jacket he wore during the storm’s aftermath was permanently attached to his skin.  That was no joke.  Metaphorically at least, that fleece is now his permanent campaign raiment.  There is no questioning that Gov. Christie sincerely feels the impact of Sandy on his state.  But he is also aware of its political value.

Before Sandy, Gov. Christie embodied the spirit and personality of New Jersey (whether or not we were willing to admit it).  After Sandy, he became New Jersey personified.

The governor ended his speech Tuesday by challenging the state’s political class to “put aside destructive politics in an election year.”  Take out the word “destructive” and you have a pretty good idea of just how bold Christie’s speech was.  He is daring his opponents bring politics into this election!

The message is: defeating Chris Christie is the equivalent of defeating New Jersey.  Brilliant!

Hurricane Sandy and the Election in New Jersey

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

An unknown number of provisional ballots remain to be counted in New Jersey, but a few threads are emerging on the presidential election.  Turnout in the Garden State was down by a lot.  Currently, the number of people who casts votes in the presidential election about 500,000 less than in 2008 – about a 14% drop.

That gap will certainly shrink as provisional ballots are tallied, but it will still mark the biggest drop in turnout of all the states.  Nationwide estimates provided by Edison Research of Somerville – the firm that conducts the TV networks’ exit poll – suggest that turnout will only have dropped by about 2% nationally compared to 2008.  New Jersey’s turnout is far behind that figure.

Let’s assume that total turnout in New Jersey ends up being nearly 3.5 million.  This represents about 63% of registered voters, which would be the lowest percentage on record since 1972, when 18-year olds were given the right to vote.  But the voter rolls may not be the best base for comparison.  Registration numbers took a big jump in 2008 because of concerted registration efforts and in 1996 because of the Motor Voter law. Prior to that, fewer eligible voters were actually registered.

If we consider turnout as a percentage of the total voting age population (VAP) or of the voting eligible population (VEP), this year’s numbers hold up against past elections.  Using about 3.5 million voters as a final estimate, New Jersey turnout may wind up being 51% of VAP or 59% of VEP.  Those results either match or exceed statewide turnout in both 1996 and 2000.

Given what the state has gone through over the past two weeks, these turnout numbers don’t look all that bad.

Now let’s look at how New Jersey voted in the presidential contest.  Nationwide, Barack Obama’s winning margin was smaller than it was in 2008.  This trend was true in nearly every state.  In fact, only four states showed Obama improve on his margin from four years ago.

These four states include Alaska, where he narrowed his losing gap by 8 points, and the Gulf States of Louisiana and Mississippi, where he lost by about a point and a half less than in 2008.

And this group also includes one blue state where Obama actually increased his winning margin.  That would be New Jersey, where the president’s margin went from about 15.5 points in 2008 to 17 points this year.

It’s worth noting that polls conducted before Hurricane Sandy hit the state showed Obama with only a 12 point lead on average.  It’s also worth noting that those same polls showed U.S. Senate incumbent Bob Menendez with an average 19 point lead – which is what he actually got on Election Day.

There is no doubt that Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy had an impact on how New Jersey voted in the presidential race — 54% of New Jersey voters told exit pollsters that Obama’s response to the disaster was an important factor in their vote.  Some observers, though, put Obama’s winning margin down to a lower turnout in the harder hit Republican shore towns.  This certainly happened, but Democratic urban areas were also affected.

Using the preliminary vote counts, turnout in Ocean County was down about 19% compared to 2008.  But it was also down 19% in Essex County and 17% in Hudson County.

The difference is who turned out in those counties.  Obama cut his losing margin in Ocean County from about 18.5 points in 2008 to 17.5 points in 2012.  And he improved his winning margins in Essex by 3 points and Hudson by 9 points.

In Gloucester County, an area of the state spared most of Sandy’s wrath, turnout was down by just 4%.  Obama’s winning margin there went from 12 points in 2008 to just under 11 points this year.  Based on this result, even if more voters could have made it out to vote, Obama’s statewide margin may have dropped by only a couple of points.  This is still better than how he was doing in Garden State polls prior to Sandy.

A note on national polling:

It appears that nearly all national polls performed well within their individual margins of error, but most – including Monmouth’s – had a slight Republican skew in the nominal horse race.  So all those folks who claimed that we needed to “unskew” the polls were partially right.  They just had it in the wrong direction – which they would never admit, of course.  As Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly asked Karl Rove, “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is this real?”  As we now know, it’s definitely not the latter.

My first-read suggests that the pollsters who came closest to the mark – which may end up being as much as a 3 point win for Obama when all the votes are counted – employed samples with more voters who are contactable by cell phone only.  This gibes with the exit poll findings that showed an increase in the proportion of the electorate who were under the age 30 or not Caucasian (i.e. Black, Latino, and Asian).  Young voters made up 19% of the electorate – compared to 18% in 2008 – and non-white voters comprised 28% of the electorate – up from a then-record 26% in 2008.

These groups are emerging as solid Democratic voting blocs.  As recently as eight years ago, young voters and Asians, and to a lesser extent Latinos, were much more up for grabs to the GOP.  Now they are solidly Democratic – and they are reachable only by cell phone or other electronic device.

Will the Sun Shine for Mitt Romney?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Which state is the must-watch harbinger for this year’s election?  Is it Ohio, or Iowa, or even Wisconsin?  All of those states are keys to victory in one way or another.  But the make or break state this year is Florida.

This is not the same situation as the nail-biter in 2000.  It is unlikely that Florida’s 29 electoral votes will ultimately be responsible for putting either candidate over the top in this year’s Electoral College count.  Florida, though, will determine whether Mitt Romney can win.

Political pundits of the bean counter ilk have come up with a variety of Electoral College scenarios that would put Mitt Romney in the White House (a good one is here).  But it’s important to note that all of these scenarios hinge on the assumption that Romney takes Florida.

A win in Florida does not guarantee a Mitt Romney victory, but a Sunshine State loss almost certainly hands Barack Obama another term.

With little more than three weeks to go before Election Day, eight states are currently considered to be the battlegrounds based on polling and where the candidates are spending their resources.  These are New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada.  Among this group, Florida is probably the most likely to go for Romney based on recent electoral performance.

In 2008, John McCain lost Florida by less than 3 percentage points.  He lost Ohio by 4, Virginia by 6 and each of the remaining 2012 toss-up states by 9 points or more.  In 2004, George W. Bush won Florida by 5 points, second only to his 8 point margin in Virginia among these eight states.  Bush won Colorado by just under 5 points, Ohio and Nevada by about 2 points each, and Iowa by 1 point.  He narrowly lost Wisconsin and New Hampshire to John Kerry.

In other words, if Mitt Romney loses Florida, he is unlikely to have an edge in any other battleground state.  In fact, if he loses Florida, he would have to run the table in those seven other states in order to be elected.  Highly improbable.

On the other hand, if Romney does take Florida, his path to victory is a little easier than it appeared just two weeks ago.  For instance, he could sweep the five smallest states (NH, WI, IA, CO, and NV).  Or swap out Iowa and Nevada for Virginia and Romney would still win.  All without Ohio!  Based on recent polling, this is not outside the realm of possibility.

We’ll find out – hopefully – on November 6th.  As Bette Davis once said, “Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Veep Debate has Consequences

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Joe Biden mugged, laughed and interrupted.  Paul Ryan was more composed, but perhaps a little geeky.  Both sides firmly believe their candidate won.  And that could be bad news for the Republican ticket.

There is little doubt that Mitt Romney won the first presidential debate last week.  Even Barack Obama’s most ardent supporters had to concede this fact.  Some – read Chris Matthews – reacted as if their team’s ace closer gave up a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.

What caught many less partisan observers by surprise, though, is the extent to which that debate changed the election’s dynamic.  Usually, it takes an outright gaffe to move the needle on horse race numbers.  However, Mitt Romney’s solid and workmanlike performance coupled with Barack Obama’s lack of game revealed just how volatile this electorate is.

In the national Monmouth University Poll released yesterday, 9% of likely voters claim that they changed their vote intention as a result of the debate.  Taking into account this group’s current support, this accounts for up to a 4 or 5 point swing in intended vote over the past week.  That is precisely the size of the shift most poll aggregators have shown since the debate.

It’s worth noting that Pres. Obama’s poll lead peaked at 4 points the week before the debate on both the RealClearPolitics and HuffPost Pollster trackers.  It was already on a downward trend leading into the debate and stood at 3 points on October 3.  However, that downward trajectory accelerated immediately following the debate.

So why won’t the VP debate help the Romney-Ryan ticket or at least maintain the status quo for the Republicans?  Because Thursday’s face-off reinstated the highly charged partisan rhetoric that had dominated this race and was turning off those independent voters who were positively impressed by Romney in the first debate.

During the past week, voters have enjoyed a bit of a hiatus – at least on the national level if not in swing states – of the partisan flame-throwing that has characterized this campaign.  Starting with last week’s presidential debate through to Mitt Romney’s recent stump speeches, we have seen a more moderate campaign theme from the Republican side while the Democrats have been forced into a defensive posture.

The VP debate now gives both sides’ supporters permission to re-engage in the “My guy is right, your guy sucks” line of attacks that only serve to turn off voters in the middle.  These are the voters whom Romney tentatively won over last week.  But they are not fully committed to him.

If the campaign returns to 24/7 partisan bickering – as I sense it will – those voters will likely desert Romney.  They will either stick with the devil they know or choose not to vote at all.  In this scenario, the incumbent benefits.

Paul Ryan may have held his own and Joe Biden may have been off-putting.  But the end result is that we are likely back to the campaign we saw before the first presidential debate.

What Chris Christie Really Said

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

The reaction to Chris Christie’s speech in a nutshell?  Hard core Republicans are disappointed he didn’t call Barack Obama an “idiot” and hard core Democrats are disappointed he did not say he was “tired of dealing with the crazies” in his own party.  If you look past these unrealistic expectations, though, you will find a speech that is a throwback to loftier days of partisan battles.  Chris Christie  engaged in the kind of rhetoric that politicians should use more often.

Yes, you read that correctly!  Let me explain.

First we need to acknowledge that this speech was more about Chris Christie than anything else.  I think the Romney camp would have been happier if he delivered only the middle part of the speech, where he laid out the differences between Republican and Democratic ideas and gave a rousing call for Mitt Romney’s leadership.

If you read between the lines, though, he laid out a clear and compelling vision of where he wants the Republican Party to position itself.  He told us what he feels the Republican Party – and by extension, American politics – should be about.

Keep in mind, I am not judging his speech on its accuracy.  Certainly, when he talked about balancing the budget with “lower taxes,” a typical New Jerseyan’s income and property tax statements may tell a different story.  Moreover, claims that his brand of “bipartisanship” is transferable are debatable.

However, to judge his speech solely on its accuracy is an unfair test.  All political speeches bend the truth.  The question is how much confidence in our political system was evident in this speech.

An odd question, to be sure.  But if you listen to the partisan din coming from both the left and the right, our country’s political dialogue has degenerated.  Political debate has boiled down to competing assertions that Armageddon is imminent if the other side wins.

Hard-core partisans of both stripes give lip service to the “genius” of our system of government, but their words tell a much different story.  Their fire and brimstone rhetoric reveals a deep-seated lack of faith that our republic can survive four years of being governed under a political philosophy other than their own.

It’s not that they simply disagree with the other party’s agenda – it’s that the other party’s agenda by definition, is the handiwork of Satan.  And unfortunately, when these hard core ideologues gain power, they create the kind of gridlock that proves them right.  Perhaps our system of government is in peril – not because either side is completely wrong, but because neither side is completely right and isn’t humble enough to admit it.

It’s on this measure that I judge Chris Christie’s speech a success.

The governor talked about the Republican Party being the party that is willing to talk in hard truths and hard choices.  And how Republican leadership leads to success.  He also drew clear distinctions between the two parties – about who they stand with and what they believe.  He attacked Democrats to be sure – as the party afraid to face hard truths and make tough choices; the party that believes people are not willing to make sacrifices; and the party that stands more with unions than workers.  He even got in a dig against the incumbent president being overly concerned with opinion polls.

He summed up his view of the Republican brand by saying “Our ideas are right for America and their ideas have failed America.”  He could have easily said that the Democrats’ ideas have “destroyed” America, as others in his party have.  So, it is commendable that he did not engage in, literally, destructive rhetoric.

What he avoided talking about at all is also revealing.  Earlier in the convention, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell summed up much of the day by boiling down the GOP platform to “the sanctity of life, the 2nd amendment, and a balanced budget” – apparently in that order.

That’s why it was glaringly obvious that priorities number 1 and 2 were completely absent from Christie’s speech. He was saying regardless of what we personally believe on social issues they should not dominate our political discourse.  Christie’s ability to separate his views on social issues from his governing agenda has brought him success in New Jersey.  Of course, the question remains whether he can become a national contender without taking on those issues, but his speech indicated that he’s going to try.

In the end, hardcore partisans – those who reside in their respective echo chambers – emerged with strongly divergent views of Christie’s performance.  But I was most intrigued by the feedback I heard from some longtime Democratic voters who watched the speech.

They are not fans of Chris Christie and don’t agree with his policies here in New Jersey.  As may be expected, they didn’t think he gave a great speech.  However, the most telling commentary from these Democrats was that the speech “didn’t bother” them.  They would never vote Republican, but they weren’t fearful of the vision Christie laid out.

So, I judge Chris Christie’s speech a success because he was able to be partisan without demonizing the other side.  And that is a major step in the right direction.

Of course, we’ll have to see if this kindler, gentler Christie is still evident at his next Jersey Shore boardwalk confrontation.  For one night, though, Chris Christie gave us a glimpse of what a respectful, partisan campaign can look like.

Paul Ryan’s Impact on Undecided Voters

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Looking at it from a number of ways, it’s difficult to see how the selection of Paul Ryan as vice presidential nominee makes Mitt Romney’s path to 270 Electoral College votes any easier.

This has nothing to do with Congressman Ryan’s qualifications to be Vice President.  He’s smart, thoughtful and policy driven.  He clearly passes the primary hurdle:  Can this person step in if something happens to the President.  By that measure, Mitt Romney made a solid pick that reflects well on his decision-making ability as a potential Chief Executive – which is after all how voters really assess the meaning of the VP selection.

Moreover, Paul Ryan has the potential – albeit untested – to be good on the stump.  His personable demeanor and command of the issues should serve him well in that capacity.

The primary reason for rating this pick as a net negative is how it changes the narrative in a way that likely makes it easier for Barack Obama’s campaign to pick up voters who matter most.

As with other recent presidential contests, this race comes down to just 20% of the potential electorate in about a dozen swing states.  Most states are too “red” or “blue” to be in play. And even in the few competitive states, about 4-in-5 voters have already locked in their choice.

Many proponents of the choice point out that Paul Ryan should play well among voters in those states.  And I fully expect that polls from now through the Tampa convention will give Romney a bounce.  But it’s important to look past the ephemeral horse race numbers and examine the underlying dynamic on the issue that may now drive this race – namely, who is better positioned to use Medicare to their advantage.

While polls show that voters tend to side with Ryan on debt reduction, past history shows that national debt and federal budget deficits take a back seat to other issues for undecided voters.

Here’s my initial take on why the pick was made and why it may be a net negative.

Some say Romney needed to energize his base.  That’s baloney.  As the GOP primary exit polls indicated – supporters of Romney’s more conservative opponents would eventually get in line.  He might have some trouble with the Ron Paul crowd, but they lack an alternative in November.

By election day, antipathy toward Obama would make the GOP electorate a sure bet to turn out.  Furthermore, Romney’s stellar fundraising numbers suggest that any lack of enthusiasm his campaign is hearing from conservative activists is out of proportion to its practical impact.

Some also say a “boring” pick would have dragged down the ticket.  Wrong.  That news “story” would have lasted a week.  It would have taken a back seat by Tampa specifically because of its lack of controversy.

Some say Romney needed to take control of the narrative.  This part is true.  But the Ryan pick doesn’t do that.  And here’s where the risk lies.

Up until now the election was about jobs and the economy.  Paul Ryan charged in his first appearance as the putative nominee that Pres. Obama was able to get every item on his agenda passed in his first two years and things still didn’t get better.  The Romney campaign has not been able to focus undecided voters fully on this message.

However, rather than changing the narrative, the Ryan pick actually amplifies the trajectory of the current one.

To date, the Obama camp has nullified the Romney attacks by basically making a tacit admission that they haven’t been successful in sparking job growth, but they have tried. The underlying message is that at least they care about it, whereas Mitt Romney is, at best out of touch and at worst contemptuous of the middle class.

Mitt Romney now has to answer for the Ryan budget plan, despite his claim that he has his own plan.  And that doesn’t change the narrative, but amplifies the current one.  The Obama line now will be:  “Not only does Romney want to kill jobs, he wants to take away your safety net too.”

Those attacks can be characterized as distortions and perhaps outright lies.  But it doesn’t matter when you understand what best motivates the 20% of voters up for grabs in those swing states.  And that is fear.

These are people who, for the most part, have been able to hold on to their jobs and muddle through the economic doldrums.  But they aren’t enthused about the incumbent’s performance.

A good number of these potential voters were Obama supporters in 2008.  They won’t vote for a Republican, but were likely to sit this one out.  They are doing okay and don’t see Romney as a threat to their current well-being.  However, they are counting on Medicare coverage because they won’t have enough money to pay for private health care when they retire.  These are the sleeping dogs that the Ryan pick now threatens to waken.

Other voters in that 20% block are typical undecided voters.  They don’t pay close attention to policy and tend to vote with their gut.  It’s much easier to make someone afraid of the unknown than the known.  And that probably means that Florida, where the current polling average has the race at 1 or 2 point margin, is probably now off the table.

On the face of it, the Ryan pick should have been a boon to voters.  It took an esoteric debate about management style and potentially raises it to a dialogue about clearly different visions on government’s role in society.

Unfortunately, that conversation will be drowned out by what will probably be the nastiest presidential campaign of the media age.

Don’t Forget the Guys!

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

While her husband John spent the sweltering summer of 1776 pushing for a new American government, Abigail Adams famously reminded him: “Don’t forget the ladies.” That certainly seems to be a rallying cry for the current U.S. Senate race in New Jersey.

The bottom line, as described in more detail here, is that GOP challenger Joe Kyrillos took a week in August to make a public push for the “women’s vote.”  The campaign of Democratic Senator Bob Menendez immediately pushed back, saying that Kyrillos’ legislative voting record was poor on “women’s issues.”

The partisan gender gap in voting has been well established. While the Republican nominee doesn’t expect to win New Jersey women outright, he is probably hoping to lose by a narrow margin, similar to what Chris Christie accomplished in his successful 2009 run for governor.

It’s worth taking a look at how the exit poll that year broke down the vote by gender.

2009 Christie Corzine Net
Women 45% 50% -5
Men 53% 40% +13

Christie lost the female vote by just 5 points on the strength of questioning whether Corzine’s policies benefited New Jersey families. But gubernatorial elections are not the same as campaigns for national office, where a different set of issues are at play.

So it’s also worth looking at the vote by gender for the last two U.S. Senate races, both won by Democrats

2008 Zimmer  Lautenberg    Net
 Women      41%        58%    -17
 Men      45%        54%      -9
2006  Kean     Menendez     Net
 Women      41%           57%     -16
 Men      48%           49%       -1

In each of those two races, the Republican candidate lost the vote of women by 16 to 17 points. So, how does the current race look when it comes to voting by gender?

2012 Women Kyrillos  Menendez   Net
Quinnipiac 7/18      30%       52%   -22
Monmouth/APP 7/26      29%       43%   -14
FDU Public Mind 8/2      30%       44%   -14

According to the last three polls covering this race, Joe Kyrillos is trailing among women by anywhere from 14 to 22 points. This is much more in line with recent senate elections than it is with the most recent gubernatorial contest.

The polls also reveal another interesting dynamic of this race. Currently, Joe Kyrillos trails among men in the polls, by anywhere from 4 to 10 points.

2012 Men Kyrillos   Menendez   Net
Quinnipiac 7/18      38%       43%     -5
Monmouth/APP 7/26      36%       40%     -4
FDU Public Mind 8/2      36%       46%   -10

Chris Christie may have lost the female vote in 2009, but he won the male vote by 13 points, accounting for his more than 3 point win that year. The two GOP Senate candidates lost the male vote – Dick Zimmer by 9 points in 2008 and Tom Kean, Jr. by 1 point in 2006.

In other words, Christie did not win in 2009 by closing the gender gap. In fact the gap was even wider than the two prior senate contests. He won men by 13 points and lost women by 5 points – an 18 point net gender gap. This compares to a net gap of 8 points in the 2008 senate race and 15 points in 2006.

If Joe Kyrillos wants to close in on Bob Menendez, does he need to do better among women or among men? The answer is both.

Random Thoughts on this Month in NJ Politics

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Voter Enthusiasm

No one really thinks that Barack Obama is going to win New Jersey by the 15 point margin he commanded in 2008.  But his current lead among registered voters – 11 points in last week’s Quinnipiac Poll and 13 points in this week’s Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll suggests he might not be far from that mark.

Those results are among registered voters, though.  Among likely voters it will be closer.  Monmouth’s model has the lead narrowing to 8 points.  Voters who cast their ballots in any given election tend to be slightly more Republican than the total registered voter pool.  GOP voters are simply more consistent.  This difference is usually very small in presidential elections when the vast majority of registered voters show up.

It’s important to keep in mind that summer polls are still subject to the whims of an unsettled electorate.  Wide variations from poll to poll, and from registered voter samples to likely voter samples, are not unusual.  Two recent national polls using registered voter samples showed either Barack Obama up by 6 points (NBC/Wall Street Journal) or the race as a tie (Gallup).  Another poll, using a likely voter sample, showed Mitt Romney ahead by 4 points (Rasmussen, which tends to be Republican-leaning).

Where the summer polls are really useful is understanding the dynamics behind voter attitudes.  A big difference between this year and 2008 is the shifting partisan enthusiasm gap.  Four years ago, a national Gallup poll showed that 61% of Democrats reported feeling more enthusiastic than usual about voting, while only 35% of Republicans felt the same.  The voters in New Jersey mirrored that sentiment, with 66% of Democrats and 39% of Republicans feeling more enthusiastic.

That sentiment has reversed this year.  Gallup reports that 51% of Republicans are now more enthusiastic than usual, while only 39% of Democrats feel the same.   Here in New Jersey, we’ve also seen a shift, with 53% of Republicans and 51% of Democrats feeling more enthused.  While the Garden State numbers have moved, they haven’t moved as far as the national numbers.  This is why Mitt Romney will look elsewhere for a 2008 Obama state to flip into his column.

Endless Summer Tax Cut Tour

An across-the-board tax cut was supposed to be Gov. Chris Christie’s major accomplishment in his 2013 re-election bid.  Some sort of tax cut, for which he would have received most of the credit, looked to be in the offing.  That was until negative revenue projections gave Democrats an opening to put the kibosh on it.

The governor believes that he can move recalcitrant legislators by rallying the public to his side.  The polling indicates that he should be able to shift opinion on this.  The question is by how much.

This week’s Monmouth poll found that 54% of New Jerseyans feel it is better to hold any tax cuts until revenues improve.  Just 37% say it would be better to go ahead with a cut now.  These numbers are slightly different from last week’s Quinnipiac poll, which found 49% support for the wait-and-see approach and 43% who wanted to forge ahead.

The main difference between the two polls is that Quinnipiac ‘s poll question attached these options to the Democrats and Gov. Christie, respectively.  The Monmouth poll question did not anchor these positions to any elected official.  This suggests that the governor’s support leads some residents to overcome their initial reluctance on moving ahead with a cut.

This interpretation is supported by another Monmouth poll finding that those less tuned in to the tax cut debate are more likely to prefer the wait and see approach than those who have been keeping track of where the major players stand on the issue.

The more people hear where the governor stands, the more people he can sway to his side.  Hence, the Endless Summer Tax Cut Tour.  The question is whether Gov. Christie can break above the 43% mark set by the Quinnipiac Poll.  Stay tuned.

Judicial Pensions

In addition to the tax cut, Democrats have handed Gov. Christie a few tough losses this year.  Topping the list is the unprecedented rejection of not just one, but two, Supreme Court nominees.

When the Supreme Court – or at least two justices and a fill-in – decided that increasing judges’ benefits contributions is unconstitutional, I expected legislators to talk a good game but drag their heals on any real action.

I have to admit my surprise that the State Senate moved so quickly to put a constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot.  Of course, the Senate resolution had already cleared committee.  So it wasn’t a heavy lift to hold the required public hearing this week – bet you missed that – and schedule a vote next week.

The resolution needs to be approved next week, because the Constitutions stipulates a three month timeline for public notification. Which means the amendment needs to be printed in local newspapers by August 6.

The Constitution also requires that proposed amendments “shall be printed and placed on the desks of the members of each house” at least 20 days before being voted upon.  Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

While the resolution was placed on senators’ desks on June 21st, there has been no such action with the companion resolution in the Assembly.  Apparently, the legislature is able to move this through the Assembly using “emergency procedures” to replace the Assembly resolution with the Senate version as read.

I am fully aware that the Constitution allows the legislature to suspend requirements for 2nd and 3rd readings of a resolution.   But I did not realize they could also suspend other Constitutional provisions pertaining to amendments.  In other words, the legislature can deem that a “virtual reality” resolution had been placed on Assembly members’ desks.

As one observer remarked to me, “It’s the magic of Trenton.”

Update 7/30 — The Legislature now reports that the Senate version of the concurrent resolution was in fact placed on Assembly members’ desks on June 21, in accordance with Assembly rule 20:1.

New Jersey Elections: The View from June

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

If June’s Garden State polls are any indication, 2012 is shaping up a lot like 1996 – at least as far as the Presidential contest is concerned.  And maybe the U.S. Senate race, too… maybe.

The latest Eagleton-Rutgers Poll gives President Barack Obama a 55% favorable to 33% unfavorable rating from Garden State voters.  Sixteen years ago, then-incumbent Bill Clinton held a nearly identical 53% to 35% June rating in New Jersey.

The 1996 poll also gave Clinton a 46% “excellent+good” to 52% “fair+poor” rating.  We don’t have a comparable job rating question this time around.  Nowadays, polls tend to ask a straight “approve/disapprove” question.  However, Eagleton did ask New Jersey voters whether Bill Clinton deserved to be re-elected – to which 51% said yes.  A Quinnipiac Poll last month put Obama’s re-elect number at a nearly identical 52%.

What does this mean? Anything can happen, but given that incumbent elections tend to be referenda on their first terms, Obama is doing as well as Clinton on these underlying benchmark measures.

The 1996 also asked about vote intention.  I am wary of making a direct comparison to current polls because that question was the 17th asked, after a series of questions about familiarity with the candidates.  Current polls tend to ask the vote preference question much sooner in the interview – which has a differential impact on the results.

For what it’s worth, though, the 1996 Eagleton Poll showed Clinton leading Bob Dole by 19 points (53% to 34%).  He won the state by a nearly identical 18 points that November.  Recent New Jersey polls have Obama over Mitt Romney by anywhere from 10 points (Quinnipiac, May 16) to 14 points (Eagleton, June 16).

There’s another interesting factor shared by these two elections – a U.S. Senate seat is also at stake.  The June 1996 Eagleton Poll showed Democrat Bob Torricelli leading Republican Dick Zimmer by 8 points (39% to 31%) in that contest – about half the incumbent President’s poll margin.  Torricelli eventually won that race by 10 points – again, about half the incumbent President’s winning margin.

Recent polls on this year’s New Jersey Senate race put the gap at about the same as the Presidential contest.  A Quinnipiac Poll released last month had incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez leading GOP challenger Joe Kyrillos by 10 points – the same as their Obama-Romney margin.

Of course, GOP boosters point to the 2000 anomaly, where Al Gore bested George W. Bush by 16 points in the Garden State, but had no coattails.  Jon Corzine squeaked past Bob Franks by 3 points, despite spending an astronomical $60 million on the effort.

In June 2000, both Eagleton and Quinnipiac gave Gore a narrow 4 point polling edge in New Jersey, while Corzine held a much wider lead – 10 points in the Eagleton poll and 20 points according to Quinnipiac.  Obviously, these trends flipped by Election Day.

On the other hand, 2012 may be more like 1996 than 2000 since the top-of-ticket coattails belong to an incumbent President.  There is also a difference between 2012 and 1996 that shouldn’t be overlooked.  The current race involves an incumbent Senator while the 1996 contest was for an open seat.

Sixteen years ago, only 1-in-5 voters had formed an opinion of either Senate nominee by this point in the race.  In the current cycle, that 1-in-5 number holds true for Kyrillos – 12% favorable to 8% unfavorable according to Eagleton.  As may be expected, voters are much more familiar with the sitting incumbent, giving Menendez a 33% positive to 20% negative rating in the same poll.  It is worth noting, though, that this six year officeholder is still largely unknown to 4 out of 10 of his constituents.

One factor that could make this race interesting is that the low level of familiarity means that only 26% of voters in an April Monmouth University Poll would definitively state that Menendez deserves to be re-elected.  Another 32% said he did not and 41% couldn’t make a determination either way.

That leaves a lot to ponder.  If these presidential ratings track as they did in 1996, does Obama win by 10 points in November?  And if so, does Menendez hold on to his current lead as well?  Or does the other 1996 dynamic emerge, with Menendez claiming only half the margin that the President gets – thus making it a close race with Kyrillos?

Or does Obama’s vote share start to climb and Menendez’s start to drop over the next few months, a la 2000?

These are just a few potential scenarios based on past performance.  Something to ponder this summer while you are down the shore enjoying a Windmill hot dog or Kohr’s custard.

NJ Primary Takeaway

Well, not everything turned out as I expected, but I’ll fall back on the fact that I called the winner in every raced involving someone who will actually serve in Congress next year.  (How’s that for spin?)

Turnout was a little higher than I expected.  When all the votes are counted it looks like it might be about 11%.  Specifically, GOP turnout was about 40,000 voters greater than in a typical primary, driven by the novelty of an already-decided Presidential nomination.  But it was Democratic turnout in just two Congressional Districts that put the statewide turnout figure over the 10% mark.  Approximately 110,000 Democrats voted in those two districts alone.  That’s about 60-70,000 more than we would expect in a typical primary!

On the headline event of the night, I was right on the winner, Bill Pascrell, but no one – including the victor’s camp – ever dreamed of the numbers he would put up in Passaic County.  Steve Rothman’s negative campaign led to the expected low turnout in Bergen, but not in Passaic, where Pascrell’s ground game – aided by Bill Clinton’s endorsement – contributed to the stunner of the night.

In the 10th district, the race wasn’t as close as I thought it would be – not anywhere close to where I thought it would be. Ron Rice, Jr. intended to challenge the incumbent Congressman, Donald Payne, Sr. before he died, and so had been preparing for a battle.  The Essex County machine had a point to prove against this rabble rouser and turned out monster numbers in the Oranges and elsewhere. Moreover, they were able to produce the same margins in Union County.  Rice may be a tenacious campaigner in Newark, but he go his hat handed to him, barely edging out Nia Gill for a dismal second place finish, 40 percentage points behind the winner, Donald Payne, Jr.

I also, thought that the Monmouth County GOP organizational pick in CD6 would take the nomination over 2010 upstart, Anna Little.  While Little had the Middlesex line, there seemed to be less overall enthusiasm for her grass-roots candidacy this time around.  Moreover, I thought – foolish me – that the Monmouth GOP would make sure it did not suffer a repeat of their candidate’s loss two years ago.

I guess I gave them too much credit.  In 2010, only 14,000 Republicans showed up to vote in the CD6 primary.  In the newly expanded district, that number actually dropped to less than 11,000.  Monmouth party pick, Ernesto Cullari claimed only 2,400 votes in the Monmouth portion of the district! District-wide, he got his clock cleaned, losing the nomination by 40 points.  The Monmouth County GOP has a history of anemic GOTV operations and I know there was little real enthusiasm for Cullari.

But really?! Only 2,400 votes? In some cultures, the Monmouth GOP would be compelled to light itself on fire in the village square from the shame of it all.

Alright, that’s enough ragging.  So what’s the big takeaway for New Jersey from yesterday’s primary?

Nothing.

The few competitive races hinged on settling personal scores more than articulating differing visions of government or the future of the party.

With that behind us, it’s on to November.  And to save us all some time, I’ll just make most of my picks right now, thanks to the New Jersey redistricting commission:

President: Obama wins the state’s 14 electoral votes

US Senate: Too early to call

CD1: Andrews
CD2: LoBiondo
CD3: Too early too call
CD4: Smith
CD5: Garrett
CD6: Pallone
CD7: Lance
CD8: Sires
CD9: Pascrell
CD10: Payne
CD11: Frelinghuysen
CD12: Holt

LD4: Mosquera
LD16: Too early to call
LD26: DeCroce

NJ Primary Day Outlook

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

New Jersey primary day is upon us.  There is no significant, over-arching story here.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is just making up things.

Expect a little over 400,000 voters to show up.  That’s less than 10% of eligible voters.  Or about 15% if you just count registered Democrats and Republicans.  This turnout level has been typical for the past decade or so.  [One exception: the February 2008 Presidential primary turnout of more than a third of New Jersey’s electorate.]

So with nothing driving a statewide narrative, let’s go to the play-by-play.

CD9 DEM

The Bergen-Passaic Smackdown.  Early money gave the edge to Steve Rothman because more voters in this newly-redrawn district knew him as their incumbent Congressman.  But the tide has shifted over the past couple of weeks.  Rothman launched an attack on Bill Pascrell’s “progressive” credentials.  And then kept piling on.  Democratic primary voters predisposed to identify with Rothman’s strident ideology grew a little uneasy with his relentless assault against a fellow Democrat.  That tinge of doubt was enough to provide Pascrell an opening.  And he was handed the golden ticket of a Bill Clinton endorsement.  There are only two people who could possibly sway on-the-fence Democratic primary voters and they are Presidents # 42 and 44.  Bottom line: a photo op in the White House with the incumbent (or the endorsement of a surrogate) is no match for the full-throated support of a Democratic Party Goliath.  Winner:  Pascrell

CD10 DEM

What could have, and perhaps should have, been a wide open race to fill the seat of deceased Congressman Donald Payne ended up being an endorsement of his legacy – in the form of Donald Payne, Jr. – by most of the party faithful in Essex County.  Most, but not all.  Newark Councilman Ron Rice is a tenacious campaigner.  Importantly, he claims support from the CWA and the SEIU – two unions who can be counted on to actually put feet on the street for GOTV.  If it were just a race between these two, I might give the edge to Rice.  However, the presence of State Senator Nia Gill (who has the line in a divided Hudson County) and Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith, along with two other candidates, will serve to split the “anti-legacy” vote.  Rice will take a fair share of the Newark vote and do well in the Union County portion of the district, but will come up short. Winner:  Payne (in a close contest)

CD6 GOP

2010 nominee Anna Little hopes lightning strikes twice and she knocks off the Monmouth County organization’s preferred candidate – this time, Ernesto Cullari.  But it just ain’t gonna happen.  It’s not because the party has gotten any better at GOTV.  Fewer than 14,000 Republicans voted in the last primary – and the only reason more will vote this year is that native son Joe Kyrillos is running for Senate.  The bigger issue is that some of Little’s key supporters have fallen out with her since the last race.  Winner:  Cullari

CD7 GOP

Conservative David Larsen is taking another crack at incumbent Leonard Lance.  Larsen has positioned himself as a true Reagan conservative.  Lance counters that Larsen didn’t even vote in the 1980 and 1984 Presidential elections.  Larsen fell 8,000 votes short two years ago and will do the same this time around.  Winner:  Lance

Other Races

Incumbents Rob Andrews (D1), Frank LoBiondo (R2), Chris Smith (R4), Scott Garrett (R5), and Albio Sires (D8) have token opposition.  State legislator Joe Kyrillos is facing three un-funded opponents in his bid for the GOP nomination to take on incumbent U.S. Senator Bob Menendez.  The party line picks will win easily in all those contests.

There are also battles to tilt at windmills – I mean, take on the incumbent from 3 Democrats in CD2, 3 Democrats in CD5, and 3 Republicans in CD9.  I don’t have any picks in those races, but it’s worth noting that one of the candidates is running under the slogan, “My Shelter Dog’s Name is Roscoe.”

There are also state legislative primaries in two seats.  Assemblywoman Betty DeCroce  (R26), who was appointed to fill her late husband’s seat, faces a challenge from Anthony Pio Costa.  DeCroce should win easily on name recognition alone.

The more interesting – interesting being a relative term here – primary is in the 16th District.  Democrats Marie Corfield and Sue Nemeth are battling it out to take on incumbent Assemblywoman Donna Simon, who was picked to fill the late Peter Biondi’s seat when he died shortly after the 2011 election.  Corfield – a teacher whose prior claim to fame was as the foil in one of Gov. Christie’s ubiquitous You-Tube moments – ran in that prior election and made a tight race out of what was expected to be an easy Republican win.  Princeton Councilwoman Nemeth claims to have a good ground game, but it will be difficult to overcome the fact that Corfield has the party line in 3 out of the district’s 4 counties.

What the Harris Defeat Means for Christie

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney sent Gov. Chris Christie a very clear message yesterday.  It wasn’t about the defeated Supreme Court nominee Bruce Harris or even the Court itself.  It was about the balance of power within the State House.

Ever since the calendar turned to 2012, legislative Democrats – specifically the leadership who worked closely with the Republican governor in his first two years – have looked for every opportunity to make life uncomfortable for Chris Christie.

Part of this has to do with turning their attention to their own political ambitions – be it a run for Governor in 2013 or U.S. Senate in 2014.  Indeed, the governor himself has clearly switched to re-election mode, with Exhibit A being a tax cut proposal based on projected revenue growth that would have to outpace the Chinese economy.

While the next election is certainly a driving force in the Democrats’ increasing opposition to Christie, there is something more basic at work.  They’re ticked off at what they see as shabby treatment by the governor.

There are only so many times the governor can take the rhetorical bat out on you before it sticks.  Senator Sweeney’s final straw came last year when the governor caught his legislative compadre unawares on line-item vetoes.  The sense was that the governor understood the Democrats needed to pass their own alternative budget to save political face.  And that the leadership would be given the opportunity, behind closed doors, to protect specific items from the red pen, while the governor could still claim to have sliced the Democrats’ budget.  Christie was having none of that.

So this year, the Democrats embarked on a new tactic, forcing the governor to go on the record with a gay marriage veto and pushing for their own version(s) of a tax cut.  They made it clear that they would not approve Phillip Kwon’s nomination in March and let the governor know it.  That gave Christie the opportunity to rail that “the fix was in” before the process even started and that it was the Democrats, not him, who had politicized the process.

With the Harris nominations, the Democrats appear to have closed ranks and did not inform the governor beforehand.  They did not want to give him the same ammunition, even though it was clear to anyone at the hearing that the die had already been cast.  In fact, Senator Sweeney’s presence throughout the hearing sent the clear message that he was fully behind what transpired.

At the end of the hearing, a number of Democratic Judiciary Committee members said that their decision was about partisan balance – the unwritten tradition that no more than four members of the Supreme Court belong to the same party.

But it wasn’t really about partisan balance on the Court, it was about “Christie balance” between the executive and legislative branches.  Ever since the governor announced his choice of Kwon as the first Asian-American nominee and Harris as the first openly gay nominee, there was a palpable sense in Trenton that Christie was daring the legislature to shoot them down.  Well, they did.  Both sides played partisan politics.

By the way, if Governor Christie truly wants to challenge the Democrats, how about nominating two sitting judges with clear records of jurisprudence, who just happen to be Republicans?  I disagree with the Democrats’ view that Justice Jaynee LaVecchia should be “counted” as a Republican.  But putting up two known, well-qualified judges would make it clear that a refusal to approve would be purely partisan on the Democrats’ part.

During the hearing, Sen. Jen Beck remarked that Harris’s bond experience would bring some fresh perspective to the bench. Wouldn’t appointing Justices with a track record of appellate rulings bring an equally fresh perspective to the current Court?  Just a thought.

At the end of the day, all this intrigue is “inside Trenton” stuff.  The public doesn’t follow Supreme Court nominations and so it will have no direct impact on the governor’s positive approval rating.  However, the message that the Harris vote sends is that the Democratic leadership grows more and more willing to take on the Governor.  This could have a major public impact if this new approach continues throughout the budget process.

Gov. Christie still has very powerful tools on his side, namely the bully pulpit and the veto pen.  You still have to give him the edge in a battle of wills with the legislature.  But Sen. Sweeney and his fellow Democrats are finding ways to make life increasingly difficult.

Gov. Christie Poll Rating Differences

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

There have been a couple of queries about Gov. Christie’s poll ratings released by Monmouth University/NJ Press Media this week compared to the numbers put out by Quinnipiac University last week.  Among registered voters, Monmouth has the governor’s positive job rating at 50% while Quinnipiac put it at 59%.

Each organization’s prior polls put the governor’s approval at 55%.  In other words, Quinnipiac zigged (up 4 points) while Monmouth zagged (down 5 points).  Why?

There have been 17 occasions over the past six years where Monmouth and Quinnipiac released New Jersey governor ratings within two weeks of one another.  These most recent results mark the largest ever difference between the two.

Since Chris Christie took office, the two organizations released three polls prior to today that were conducted within two weeks of one another.  In each of those instances, the governor’s job approval rating differed by exactly 3 points – in two instances the Quinnipiac number was higher, while it was lower in the other.

It’s worth taking a dive into the two polls’ demographics to see if anything there accounts for the difference.  Overall, the polls have very similar racial compositions, but Monmouth includes more cell phone interviews (19% compared to 12.5% for Quinnipiac).  This probably leads to a somewhat younger voter group for Monmouth.  In our most recent poll, 24% of the voter sample was under the age of 30.  Quinnipiac did not release their age demographics, but past polls hovered between 18% and 20%.  Younger voters tend to be more Democratic in their political leaning, so this could have an impact.

In fact, there are notable differences in the partisan composition of the two samples.  Monmouth’s poll puts self-identified Democrats at 37% and Republicans at 23% – a 14 point difference.  Quinnipiac’s sample is 34% Democratic and 25% Republican – a smaller 9 point gap.

Over the last 9 months, Quinnipiac released 6 New Jersey polls and Monmouth released 4.  The Democratic advantage in Quinnipiac’s sample ranged from 6 to 12 points during that time.  Monmouth’s Democratic edge was larger, but more stable at 13 to 14 points. New Jersey’s voter rolls puts the registered partisan split at 33% Democratic to 20% Republican – a 13 point gap.

During the past few months, Monmouth’s voter sample ranged from 34% to 37% Democratic and 20% to 23% Republican.  Quinnipiac’s polls ranged from 32% to 35% Democratic and 23% to 27% Republican.  That means Monmouth’s sample tends to be 1 to 4 points more Democratic and a similar 0 to 3 points more Republican than the official voter rolls.  Quinnipiac’s partisan sample tends to range near the Democratic registration numbers – from 1 point below to 2 points above – but is consistently 3 to 7 points higher in its Republican share of registered voters.

All this explains why Quinnipiac’s gubernatorial ratings have been more “Republican” than Monmouth’s in 7 of the last 8 polls conducted in close proximity of one another.  However, it doesn’t explain why the job ratings diverged so much in their recent poll releases.

So, we turn our attention to another culprit: the questionnaire. Both Monmouth and Quinnipiac use consistent question wording when rating the governor.  Monmouth also makes sure the question appears in exactly the same spot on the questionnaire each time we conduct a non-election poll – for the record, that would be question number 2, after a general evaluation of the state of New Jersey.

Quinnipiac, on the other hand plays around with the order in which they ask the governor’s job rating question.  In 8 polls over the past year, they asked Gov. Christie’s job rating as the first question in 3 cases and the 3rd question in one case.  For the remaining four polls, the governor’s rating question was slotted from #10 and #13 in their questionnaire.

When it was the first question, the governor’s positive job rating was only 44% to 47%.  At the number 3 slot, it was 53%.  At #10 or later in the interview, it ranged from 55% to 59%.  It’s worth noting that the lower poll numbers came early last year, and were either closer to or even lower than other polls conducted at that time.  Hmmm.

In the most recent Quinnipiac poll, one of the questions preceding Gov. Christie’s rating presented him as a potential nominee for Vice President.  In other words, the survey framed the governor as a national figure before asking voters to rate his job performance.  Could this be why his rating among Republican voters in particular shot up to an astronomical 92%?

Pollsters know that job approval ratings can be impacted by the context of a poll interview.  That’s why most pollsters try to place these key trend questions in the same place in every questionnaire.  This increases our confidence that any changes in a politician’s ratings are due to real shifts in opinion and not an artifact of questionnaire inconsistencies.

I’m willing to venture that first naming Chris Christie as Mitt Romney’s potential running mate before asking New Jerseyans to rate their governor might have had a wee bit to do with the two polls’ divergent trends.

Other theories are most welcome.

Has New Jersey’s Gender Gap Really Closed?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

An article in the Star-Ledger today reports on a poll that gives President Barack Obama and Governor Chris Christie the same job approval rating among New Jersey women. This would be big news if true. But I’m not so sure I buy it.

The poll, only conducted among New Jersey women voters, reports that 59% approve of Obama and 57% approve of Christie. The article claims, “The poll confirms a recent trend for Christie who has, for months, been closing the gender gap. In October, a Monmouth University/NJ Press Media poll found women approved of the governor 53 percent to 40 percent.”

One problem with that statement is that since today’s poll only surveyed women, there is no way to assess whether there is a gender gap in the current data.

But a much bigger problem with that statement is that it is patently false – the result of selective, or just plain bad, research on the part of this reporter. Yes, the gender gap was closing in October, but it has since opened up again, as the more recent Monmouth poll in February showed.

In fact, every New Jersey poll released since last month showed a significant gender gap for both Governor Christie and President Obama.

Three recent Garden State polls conducted by Monmouth, Quinnipiac, and FDU show President Obama’s marginal approval rating at 54% to 58% among female voters in New Jersey. This is similar to the 59% result in the poll reported today. However, those same three polls set Governor Christie’s approval rating among women at 46% to 50%, lower than the 57% in today’s poll.

Christie Obama
Poll Men Women Men Women
Monmouth 2/7 *
Approve 59 50 46 56
Disapprove 32 40 47 38
Net +23 +10 -1 +18
Quinnipiac 2/29
Approve 62 49 46 54
Disapprove 32 44 50 41
Net +30 +5 -4 +13
FDU 3/13
Approve 62 46 43 58
Disapprove 27 40 49 34
Net +35 +6 -6 +24

* The Monmouth University Poll releases provide gender breakdowns for all residents. The numbers in this table are for registered voters, to be comparable with the other polls.

For background, among all New Jersey voters, all three polls found Governor Christie had higher net job approval ratings than President Obama – between +17 and +20 for Christie and between +6 and +9 for Obama.

On the gender gap, all three polls showed Christie with a whopping positive net rating among male voters – from +23 to +35 – and a smaller net positive rating among women – from +5 to +10. For Obama, his rating among male voters was in negative territory – from -1 to -6 – while it was decidedly positive among women – from +13 to +24.

And the trend for the three polls suggests that the gender gap for both politicians may have actually widened rather than narrowed over the past six weeks.

Today’s poll was conducted for Kean University. Kean started publishing polls last year, but the methodology (sample design, weighting and analysis) is farmed out to a private polling firm. In the past, they have used a Republican polling firm to conduct their surveys. It‘s unclear whether this was true of the current poll, because the article did not report this key methodological detail.

Unlike the three polls cited in the table above, Kean does not subscribe to the National Council on Public Polls principles of disclosure. In other words, it’s impossible from their press release – which is not available online – to assess how the poll was actually conducted. [Note: I emailed the poll director for methodological information, but have not yet received a response.] Aside from the sampling and weighting issues, it’s unknown whether this poll asked the same job rating question as the other three polls.

I am a strong proponent of having a variety of sound public opinion polls covering the same populations and topics. No one poll can be comprehensive. Having a number of pollsters attack different angles of the same policy issue gives us a richer picture of the state of public opinion on that issue.

And as we have seen with election polling, having a plethora of polls enables us to calculate an aggregate projection which tends to be pretty much on target. In terms of office holder job ratings, multiple polls provide an important validity check.

In this case, that validity check does not pan out. A combination of unknown polling techniques and poor reporting has given us a tantalizing front page story line, regardless of its veracity.

Super Tuesday Looking Good for Romney

A slew of polls were released on the eve of sorta-Super Tuesday.  It’s not quite the stellar lineup originally planned.  Texas pushed its primary back to May because of Congressional redistricting hiccups and Virginia is already in the Mitt Romney column because Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot there.  Regardless, the signs point to the inevitability of a Romney nomination if he does well on March 6.

The polling aggregators at both Real Clear Politics and Huffington Post show the closely watched state of Ohio as a dead heat.   However, the trend lines clearly show Romney gaining and Santorum dropping over the past week.  And as we saw last week in Michigan, that trend was predictive of the final outcome.

Importantly, the March 6 primaries feature the two most socially conservative states to hold contests thus far.  These are states where Santorum was expected to do well, but he now clings to a 2 to 3 point lead in Tennessee.  Even in Oklahoma, his poll lead has fallen from around 20 points to 10 in the few polls conducted over the past month.

In the 2008 Republican primaries, two-thirds of voters from Tennessee and Oklahoma called themselves Evangelical Christians, among the highest concentration in the country.  Furthermore, more than 4-in-10 GOP primary voters in these two states said it mattered a great deal to them that a candidate shares their religious beliefs.

These are the voters who have been reticent to back Romney.  Forget about the exit poll analysis you have seen claiming that Romney’s weakness is strong conservatives or strong Tea Party supporters.  Those groups are important, but when you strip away the political and demographic characteristics of these groups, the one thing that differentiates their vote choice is whether they are evangelicals.

It’s the Mormon thing.  Romney’s faith may be a sticking point with Protestants, but it doesn’t really bother Catholics.  It’s little surprise that Romney has won every state where Catholics (or Catholics plus Mormons) made up at least 30% of the electorate.

Other than Massachusetts and Vermont, Ohio is the only state in the Super Tuesday lineup where the Catholic vote is expected to top 25%.  [Idaho’s caucuses should have a sizable Mormon vote.]  This looks good for Romney.

It also helps that Santorum’s appeal to blue collar voters fell short in Michigan and looks to do so again in Ohio.  And Ohio, like Tennessee, has a significant number of voters who cast their ballots early.  The Romney campaign has proven itself effective at pumping up the early vote.  In the end, I think Romney will win Ohio by about 4 or 5 points.

But that’s still not enough to get the Romney inevitability train up to speed.  It’ll be what happens in Tennessee and Oklahoma that determines whether the storyline turns to WHEN rather than IF Romney will clinch.  I think Santorum will take Tennessee by 3 or 4 points and Oklahoma by 12.  But if Romney performs well among the large group of evangelical voters who turn out – picking up at least one-third of that vote – it will be a clear sign that this hold-out group has finally started to accept the idea of Mitt Romney as their standard bearer in November.

New Jersey’s 2012 Agenda

With Governor Chris Christie about to unveil his new budget, it’s a good time to reconcile the agenda items of various players in New Jersey’s policy process.  Unfortunately, it appears that very few ledger entries line up.

The governor’s State of the State address last month laid out his key agenda items for the year.  These include a 10% income tax cut, reform of drug sentencing laws, and education initiatives such as teacher tenure and charter school expansion.  He is also pushing the recommendations of the Barer Report to merge units of the state’s higher education system, including Rutgers, Rowan, and UMDNJ.

The legislature’s agenda can be found by examining what the Democratic leadership has put on the docket this session. As we all know, same sex marriage was Priority One. Legislative leaders have also been talking about a push for a minimum wage increase and bringing back the so-called millionaires’ tax.

Hmm.  There appears to be no commonality between the gubernatorial and legislative agendas.  But of course, they are doing this for the good of the New Jersey so some of these items must rank high with the public.  Right?

Not quite.  The recent Monmouth University/NJ Press Media Poll asked Garden State residents to name, in their own words, the most pressing issues facing the state.

Chart Shows What NJ Public Believes Are Key Agenda Items for 2012 Compared to the Governor and Legislature Let’s look at how some of the leaders’ agenda items stack up with the issues that occupy their constituents.

Same-sex marriage?  Only 2% of the public name this as one of the state’s most important concerns.

Higher education?  Just 3% say this needs to top the agenda.

Drugs and crime?  That’s a priority for only 5%.

How about an income tax cut or the millionaires’ tax – those have to be important, right?  Just 8% of New Jerseyans say changes to the state’s income tax needs to be on the front burner.

Public schools?  Well, this one is a little higher at 20%, although it’s not clear that the governor’s specific agenda items are what these concerned residents have in mind.

So, what does top the public agenda here in New Jersey?  What are the burning issues that Garden State residents want their elected leaders to tackle?

It’s no contest:  Property Taxes and Jobs.  Each was mentioned by a whopping 42% of those polled!  And this was off the top of their heads, mind you – the poll didn’t provide choices.

To be fair, both the governor and legislature claim they have introduced proposals meant to spur job growth, although the comprehensiveness of any jobs plan is not apparent.

The disappearance of property taxes from the leadership agenda, though, is truly curious.  After pushing for a toolkit of reforms in his first two years in office, the governor seems to have declared Mission Accomplished.

The Democrats have caught on to that and are trying to tag Governor Christie with dropping the ball.  But that is all they have done.  The legislature has a whole raft of property tax legislation from prior years – including from the ill-fated 2006 special session – that they appear to have absolutely no intention of moving through the legislature.

If you’ve paid close attention to the rhetoric out of Trenton over the past few weeks, you’ll notice that both Republicans and Democrats have ramped up the “Property Taxes & Jobs” mantra in their public statements.  At least they now recognize they can’t escape the public’s demand for action on these issues.

The question is whether they will put any meat on those bones by enacting an agenda in line with these goals.  Or will there continue to be a disconnect between Trenton’s agenda and the rest of New Jersey?