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Exit Poll: Candidate Favorability

The following analysis of the National Election Pool/Edison Research exit poll was provided for NJN News and the Gannett New Jersey Newspapers:

Which gubernatorial candidate did New Jersey voters like best? The exit polls indicate that none was an overwhelming darling.

Overall, Chris Christie had a 50% favorable to 48% unfavorable view. The incumbent Jon Corzine had a 45% favorable to 54% unfavorable. Chris Daggett had a 36% favorable to 52% unfavorable rating, with 12% who chose not to give him a rating in the exit poll.

“The exit polls indicate that many voters held their noses and cast ballots for candidates they didn’t particularly like, perhaps because they disliked the other candidates more,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and exit polling analyst for NJN News and Gannett New Jersey.

In fact, 43% of Christie voters specifically said that their choice was a vote against the other candidates, compared to 57% who said that it was a positive endorsement of the Republican. Among Corzine voters, though, most – 78% – said that their vote was mainly for the Democrat compared to 22% who said it was against the others.

Exit Poll: Negative Ads

The following analysis of the National Election Pool/Edison Research exit poll was provided for NJN News and the Gannett New Jersey Newspapers:

While the election outcome was decided by a few percentage points, Jon Corzine clearly lost the contest for Miss Congeniality. Nearly 3-in-4 (73%) New Jersey voters leaving the polls said the incumbent had unfairly attacked his main opponent during the campaign. By comparison, 62% of voters said Chris Christie launched unfair attacks against his chief rival. These results take into account the fact that 52% of voters felt that both candidates launched unfair attacks. Only 11% said that neither candidate was unfair in their attacks.

“New Jersey voters have grown accustomed to negative campaigns, but this certainly ranks among the worst,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and exit polling analyst for NJN News and Gannett New Jersey. “It’s rare that with so much at stake for voters, the candidates avoided any real policy debate and decided to take this campaign so deep into the mud.”

Corzine voters were more likely than Christie supporters to say that their own chosen candidate was unfair in his attacks. Specifically, 78% of Corzine voters said that Christie unfairly attacked their man, but 62% also said that their candidate launched his share of unjust assaults. This is a markedly different opinion from Christie voters, nearly all of whom – 90% – said that Corzine was unfair to the Republican, but just 51% felt that their candidate also participated in the mudslinging.

Among those voters who felt that both major party candidates were unfair in their attacks, 47% eventually went for Corzine, 44% for Christie, and 8% voted for Daggett.

While tens of millions of dollars was spent on advertising – negative or otherwise – in this campaign, few voters say that such ads figured heavily into their vote. Just 23% said that the content of campaign ads was an important factor in their vote for governor, 24% said it was a minor factor, and 47% said the ads were not a factor at all in how they voted.

Among those who said campaign advertising was important to their vote choice, 50% went for Corzine, 43% chose Christie, and 5% voted for Daggett.

“While most New Jersey voters told us that they tuned out the campaign ads, there is no way of knowing exactly how much of those negative messages seeped into their consciousness and affected their votes,” said Murray.

Exit Poll: Daggett Factor

The following analysis of the National Election Pool/Edison Research exit poll was provided for NJN News and the Gannett New Jersey Newspapers:

What was Chris Daggett’s impact on the election today? According to the New Jersey exit poll, he didn’t seem to develop a broad appeal with any particular constituency. Among independent voters, he garnered just 9% of the vote, and fared somewhat worse among partisan voters. His support was fairly similar among both men and women, all age groups, and across all regions of the state.

The independent candidate’s bigger impact may be in where his support would have gone if he had not run for governor. If their candidate’s name was not on the ballot, 34% of Daggett supporters said they would have voted for Democrat Jon Corzine, while just 22% would have voted for Republican Chris Christie. The remaining 43% claimed they would have stayed home if Daggett was not in the race.

“Daggett’s presence in this campaign gave disgruntled voters another option, but few took it. Most pre-election polls showed him in the double digits. It turns out he didn’t perform nearly as well and had little impact on the eventual outcome,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and exit polling analyst for NJN News and Gannett New Jersey.

Graph Shows Results of NJ Gubernatorial Exit Poll Asking Daggett Voters About Their Second Choice

Exit Poll: Obama Factor

The following analysis of the National Election Pool/Edison Research exit poll was provided for NJN News and the Gannett New Jersey Newspapers:

President Barack Obama made three campaign trips to the Garden State to stump for Governor Corzine. So did he have any impact on the vote? Well, he probably didn’t change many New Jerseyans’ vote choice, according to the exit poll.

While 19% of voters say that one of the reasons for their gubernatorial vote was to express support for Obama, a similar 19% said that opposition to Obama was among the reasons they made their vote choice. Another 60% said that Obama was not a factor in their choice for governor.

Among those who said the president did not figure into their vote choice, 48% went for Chris Christie, 44% went for Jon Corzine, and 8% voted for Chris Daggett.

The President earns a 57% approve to 42% disapprove job performance rating. Among those who approve of how Obama has been handling his job, 73% supported Democrat Corzine and 19% voted for Republican Christie. Among those who disapprove of the president’s job performance, 89% supported Christie and just 7% cast their vote for Corzine.

“Barack Obama’s biggest impact on the New Jersey race may not be captured in the exit poll. Apparently he did not get enough die-hard Democrats out to vote who didn’t want to support Jon Corzine,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and exit polling analyst for NJN News and Gannett New Jersey.

Image Shows 2009 NJ Gubernatorial Voter Exit Poll Asking Whether or Not Obama Was a Factor in Decision

Exit Poll: Independent Voters

The following analysis of the National Election Pool/Edison Research exit poll was provided for NJN News and the Gannett New Jersey Newspapers:

Independent voters are said to be the lynchpin to electoral success in the Garden State. This is especially true for a Republican fighting a significant Democratic advantage in party registration, who needs a nearly 2 to 1 margin to overcome that partisan split. So, how well did Chris Christie do among independent voters in the race for New Jersey governor today?

The GOP nominee claimed 60% of the independent vote, outpacing Democrat Jon Corzine at 30% and independent Chris Daggett at 9%. These vote shares were nearly identical for both women and men independents.

The top issues for independent voters in their vote choice today were the economy and jobs (31%), property taxes (29%), corruption (27%), and health care (13%).

“That fact that independent voters rated corruption as such an important issue in their vote today indicates that they are really upset with the current political system,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and exit polling analyst for NJN News and Gannett New Jersey.
Image Shows 2009 New Jersey Gubernatorial Exit Poll Results Regarding Independents and Their Vote Choice

Exit Poll: Top Issues

The following analysis of the National Election Pool/Edison Research exit poll was provided for NJN News and the Gannett New Jersey Newspapers:

The early exit poll results indicate that financial concerns weighed most heavily on voters’ minds as they went to the polls today.

Leading the list of issues in vote for governor today was the economy and jobs at 32% and property taxes at 26%. They were followed by corruption at 20% and healthcare at 17%. But voters’ top issue depended on who they supported today. Among Christie voters, 38% named property taxes and 29% focused on corruption. But among Corzine voters, the economy and jobs was the number one concern of 44%, followed by health care at 30%.

“One of the reasons why property taxes is polling lower now than pre-election polls is that the pre-election polls asked what issues the voters most wanted to hear about. The exit poll asked which issue factored most in your vote. Since the two main contenders avoided this issue like the plague, many voters had to search for another issue on which to base their decision,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and exit polling analyst for NJN News and Gannett New Jersey.

Among those who named property taxes as their top issue, 67% voted for Chris Christie, 25% voted for Jon Corzine, and 8% voted for Chris Daggett. The Republican did similarly well among corruption voters.

It’s a different story, though, for voters who were most concerned with the economy and jobs. This group went decidedly for Jon Corzine by 58% to 36% for Chris Christie and 5% for Chris Daggett. Corzine also took the overwhelming majority of health care voters.

Editorial note: I have heard some questions about why education, the budget, and others issues did not come up as voters concerns in the exit poll. Especially since they made the list in pre-election polls. Well, there was a difference in how the questions were asked. Most pre-election polls, including Monmouth/Gannett, asked the issue question in open-ended fashion, i.e. “Name your top issue.” The exit poll however made voters choose from among only four: property taxes, economy & jobs, health care, and corruption.

Some have noted that corruption came up somewhat higher in the exit poll than in the pre-election polls. My personal view is that some “government spending/budget” voters chose “corruption” as the choice among the four that came closest to their own concern (i.e. “waste fraud, and abuse”). In fact, I had strongly suggested to the Exit Poll group that they should add a fifth category (“government spending”) to their list. So, we’ll have to live with the supposition that the “corruption” number in the exit poll also includes voters most concerned with government waste in general.

Image Shows 2009 NJ Gubernatorial Election Voter Exit Poll Results Asking the Most Important Issue

What to Look for in the New Jersey Election

The race for New Jersey governor has been one of the most volatile I have witnessed. Where some observers see momentum, I see unpredictability. Here’s my breakdown of the key factors in the race.

Undecided Voters
In an incumbent election, the undecided vote will break for the challenger, or so the theory goes. The question in this race is which challenger. A focus group I conducted with undecided voters last week indicates that their willingness to vote for Chris Daggett rests upon his viability.

One participant even said that he would look at the polls on Monday and if Daggett was polling in the 20s, he would vote for him. Well, if he saw the latest Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll (Nov. 2, 2009) today, he probably will decide to go with Christie.

There are certainly enough voters still undecided in the final days – between 6 and 8 percent – to determine the outcome.

Who’s Got the Big Mo?
Here are the comparisons for each candidate’s share of the vote among seven polling organizations who issued at least three polls between the beginning of October and today:
Monmouth/Gannett:
Christie – 43, 39, 43, 41 (variance=4); Corzine – 40, 39, 42, 43 (variance=4); Daggett – 8, 14, 8, 8 (variance=6)
Quinnipiac:
Christie – 43, 41, 38, 42 (variance=5); Corzine – 39, 40, 43, 40 (variance=4); Daggett – 12, 14, 13, 12 (variance=2)
FDU/Public Mind:
Christie – 43, 43, 41 (variance=2); Corzine – 44, 44, 43 (variance=1); Daggett – 4, 6, 8 (variance=4)
Survey USA:
Christie – 40, 41, 43, 45 (variance=5); Corzine – 39, 39, 43, 42 (variance=4); Daggett – 18, 19, 11, 10 (variance=9)
Rasmussen:
Christie – 47, 45, 41, 46, 46 (variance=6); Corzine – 44, 41, 39, 43, 43 (variance=5); Daggett – 6, 9, 11, 7, 8 (variance=5)
Democracy Corps:
Christie – 38, 39, 38, 36 (variance=3); Corzine – 41, 42, 43, 41 (variance=2); Daggett – 14, 13, 12, 14 (variance=2)
PPP:
Christie – 40, 42, 47 (variance=7); Corzine – 39, 38, 41 (variance=3); Daggett – 13, 13, 11 (variance=2)

For those who claim any candidate has momentum, these apples-to-apples results indicate there is no clear trend. If you look at the differences between each of these organization’s initial October results and their final numbers you find that Christie’s vote share actually went down among 5 pollsters and up for 2; Corzine’s vote share went up for 4, down for 2, and stayed the same for one; and Daggett’s vote share went up for 2, down for 3, and stayed the same for 4.

There seems to be more churning in this electorate than momentum (as I discussed here). That is, some voters seem to be moving from one position to another almost daily, but never in the same direction. It’s kind of like a game of three dimensional chess.

Vote by Mail
Another wild card in this race is the state’s new vote by mail option. It didn’t matter much in last year’s presidential race when Obama won the state by 15 points. It could matter in a tight race like this one.

According to our last poll, about 6% of New Jersey voters have already cast their ballot by mail, similar to the percentage of mail ballots received in last year’s presidential race. Among these early voters, Jon Corzine looks to have the decided advantage. A majority of 53% of mail voters say they voted for the incumbent, compared to just 31% for Christie, 11% for Daggett and 5% for other candidates.

Assuming turnout will be about 48% of all registered voters, we should count on about 150,000 mail ballots in the final total. Assuming the vote share we found in our poll holds up (these results had a +/-8% margin of error), that could mean a 30,000 vote plurality for Corzine on the mail ballots alone.

It’s All About County Level Turnout
By now, we all know that President Obama’s repeated trips to New Jersey have not been to sway undecided voters. They have been made to buck up a Democratic base that is not too keen on the incumbent governor. Given his admitted admiration for Ronald Reagan’s political skills, I’m almost surprised that Obama did not refer to himself as the Gipper in his Garden State stump speeches. His message to core Democrats is that regardless of what you think of the governor, it’s going to hurt the president’s agenda if Corzine loses. So go to the polls, close your eyes and pretend the ballot says Barack Obama rather than Jon Corzine.

And here’s why that is important. In 2005, Jon Corzine beat Doug Forrester with a 239,000 vote plurality, and just three counties – Essex, Hudson, and Camden – accounted for 75% (or 179,000 votes) of the Democrat’s winning margin. When Jim Florio narrowly lost his re-election bid to Christie Whitman in 1993, he only mustered a 105,000 vote plurality from those three counties. [That’s just in case you were wondering why Obama’s two stops yesterday were in Camden and Newark].

Bergen County is considered critical for Chris Christie. No Republican has won statewide without taking New Jersey’s most populous county. Whitman averaged a 23,000 vote plurality here in her two runs for governor. But the Democratic nominee has taken it by about 50,000 votes in the last two gubernatorial races. Corzine was taking no chances when he chose Bergen’s Loretta Weinberg as his running mate.

Even if Christie can edge Corzine in Bergen, he still needs to perform well in his base – and that means northwest Jersey (Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, Warren) and the northern shore (Monmouth, Ocean). Whitman averaged a 103,000 plurality in the northwest in her two runs, but that GOP advantage dropped to an average 53,000 votes in the last two gubernatorial elections.

The northern shore has been even less predictable. These voters gave Whitman a 34,000 plurality in her 1993 run and increased it to 58,000 for her re-election. In 2001, they actually went for Democrat Jim McGreevey by 9,000 votes, before returning to form in 2005 with a 38,000 vote plurality for Doug Forrester. The pick of Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno for lieutenant governor was made in part to shore up (pun intended) Christie’s support in this region.

Another area worth watching is the Route 1 corridor counties (Mercer, Middlesex, Union), especially Middlesex. Corzine won Middlesex by 32,000 votes in 2005. Florio only won it by 1,300 votes in 1993. Voters in this region tend to be independent minded but vote Democratic in most elections. Polling indicates that Corzine is performing nowhere near as well in this region as he did four years ago. [In the past month, both Joe Biden and Bill Clinton have held rallies in Middlesex County.] While all regions of the state have their part to play in this race, this is the one I’m keeping my eye on to tell which way the wind is blowing.

The Open Space Bond
The key unknown for this public question is whether voters pick up on the word ‘debt” buried in the ballot’s question text. (It’s in there somewhere.) Our poll found that only one-third of voters know that “bond” means “borrowing.” And when they find that out – we told them in the poll – support plummets from a bare majority of 51% down to 30%. How closely voters read the ballot may determine the outcome of this question. If defeated, it will be the first time an open space bond has gone down in New Jersey. Garden State voters have approved 12 such bond measures since 1961.

Home-Grown Exit Poll Analysis
I’ll be spending Election Day at NJN studios in Trenton. The Monmouth University Polling Institute has joined together with NJN News and the Gannett New Jersey newspaper group to provide our own analysis of the official National Election Pool exit poll conducted by Edison Research.

This year, you’ll be able to find out who voted, how they voted, and why they voted from a distinctly New Jersey point of view. I will be posting exit poll updates on this blog, so check back frequently during the night.

NJN’s live television coverage begins at 8 p.m. (I’ll also do an exit poll preview on the evening newscast). Stories about the exit poll results will also appear on Gannett New Jersey Web sites Tuesday evening and in print Wednesday (Asbury Park Press, Courier-Post, Courier News, Daily Journal, Daily Record, and Home News Tribune).

Understanding Unaffiliated Voters

It’s time to clear up some confusion about unaffiliated and independent voters. If you are a member of the media who reports on New Jersey election polls or turnout, you should read this.

Party Registration is Not the Same as Party Identification
At this time of year, many reporters, pundits, and other commentators talk about the importance of the independent vote in New Jersey by stating something along the lines of: “At 46% of all registered New Jersey voters, unaffiliated voters outnumber both Democrats and Republicans.” And then go on to describe how the “independent vote” breaks down in the polls, as if these two groups are the same.

How I can put this? Um. They are not.

I’ve written about this before, but it obviously bears repeating. When polls refer to party identification, they are talking about how voters consider themselves politically (e.g. “Regardless of how you will vote, do you usually think of yourself as…”). In many states, that aligns pretty well with how voters are registered. But not so much in New Jersey.

[A Suffolk University poll out this morning appears to have weighted party ID to party registration, a common mistake by pollsters unfamiliar with the New Jersey electorate.]

Being “unaffiliated” in one’s registration is not the same as being “independent” in one’s thinking. We consistently find that at least 1-in-5 unaffiliated New Jersey voters actually see themselves as partisan.

This is a byproduct of New Jersey’s semi-open primary system. Why bother registering with a party if you can wait until primary day and do it on the spot? And why bother to vote in primaries if they are rarely competitive? So, New Jersey ends up with a lot of “party-line” voters who never bother to register with their preferred party. They just see no need.

This is the major reason why the unaffiliated proportion on the voter registration rolls suddenly plummeted from 58% to 45% in just one day. When was that? The presidential primary in February 2008.

That unique event brought many covert partisans “out of the closet” (as I described here). I have yet to meet a voter who claims they were independent before the primary, only to wake up on February 5th with a sudden epiphany that they were Democrat or Republican in their political views.

The Unaffiliated Vote is Not as Sizable as it Appears
Even if most unaffiliated voters are actually independent in their thinking, there is another reason why focusing on the large size of “unaffiliateds” on the voter rolls is misleading. Most of them don’t vote! Or if they do, it’s only in presidential races.

Last year, unaffiliated voters made up 38% of the electorate even though they comprised 47% of registered voters. In other words, while more than 8-in-10 registered Republican and Democratic voters showed up last November, only 6-in-10 unaffiliated voters turned out.

This disparity is even larger in non-presidential years (i.e. like this year). In the 2006 election for U.S. Senate, about 7-in-10 registered partisans showed up, but only 1-in-3 unaffiliateds did. And that was when unaffiliated voters made up 58% of the voter rolls. My guess is that many of those folks probably voted in the 2008 presidential primary and are now registered with a party. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the unaffiliated turnout is even lower this year.

All things considered, the unaffiliated vote is important in an election that is as close as the current governor’s race appears to be. However, that has less to do with absolute size of their vote share and more to do with the volatility of their vote choice.

The Democratic Advantage
No matter how you slice it, Democrats have a natural advantage in recent New Jersey elections. In 2006, they had a 6 point advantage over Republicans in terms of party registration, but a 13 point advantage in party identification on election day based on that year’s exit poll.

In 2008, Democrats had a 13 point registration advantage and a 16 point identification advantage in the final analysis (further indicating that the bump in party registration after the presidential primary was more a corrective than anything else).

Currently, Democrats have a 14 point registration advantage. And that lines up with the 14 point identification advantage they hold in the most recent Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll (Oct. 29, 2009) of likely voters.

Voter Party Identification is Stable, but Not Immutable
Recently, former House speaker Newt Gingrich accused the ABC News/Washington Post Poll for cooking the books on its party identification numbers. Knowing and having worked with those pollsters, I can say without qualification that Gingrich’s charges are wholly without merit. I’ll also add they are petty, juvenile, and uninformed.

But this incident brings to light one of the realities of polling. Party identification is not a demographic “fact” like, age, education, race, gender. It is an attitude. And as such, it is vulnerable to change, although history indicates that such change is usually gradual (with the exception of lightening rod-type events like Watergate).

That phenomenon has been evident here in the Garden State. After falling somewhat during the summer, Democratic party identification has inched up a couple of points in the last two months.

Christie’s Message of Change Lacks Hope

This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.

Chris Christie put out a new web video in response to President Barack Obama’s campaign stop for Governor Jon Corzine Thursday. Christie has been trying to use Obama’s “Change” mantra to unseat the incumbent, but has been having limited success in getting it to resonate with voters.

As I watched that video, the penny finally dropped on why this message wasn’t working for Christie. But first, a quick note about why Obama was here to begin with.

The inevitable question – or at least the question most reporters are asking – is whether Obama can really help Corzine’s reelection chances. The answer for that is found in two numbers: 87 and 64.

The former is President Obama’s job approval rating among New Jersey Democratic voters. The latter is Governor Corzine’s job rating among his fellow Democrats. Obama’s visit is not meant to sway undecided voters. It’s to get reluctant Democrats in Corzine’s column and out to the polls.

As part of our research strategy for this election, we have been tracking a panel of nearly 1,000 voters. Among the many shifts evident in this churning electorate, we’ve seen a small shift from undecided and other candidates to Corzine.

One Democratic voter who was leaning to Daggett in late September, but switched to Corzine in mid-October, said he was worried that the media would paint a Corzine loss as a referendum on Obama. As unhappy as he is with Corzine’s first term, this voter was reluctant to see the president suffer because of it. I assume he is not alone.

And that brings us back to Chris Christie. From the very beginning, the Republican’s camp has claimed that the electorate is in a “change” mood. Americans were unhappy with the way things were going in Washington and so they kicked out the Republicans in 2006 and 2008. Since New Jersey voters are similarly unhappy with the way things are going in Trenton, the Christie thinking goes, they’ll be just as willing to kick out the Democrats this year.

There are two problems with this line of thought. First, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in Hades that the Democrats will lose control of the Assembly. In fact, if they lose more than two seats, the GOP can claim some sort of moral, albeit meaningless, victory.

The bigger problem, though, is that Christie’s campaign communications folks apparently read only half of the Obama playbook. His message in 2008 was not “Change.’ It was “Hope” and “Change.” Or more accurately “HopeandChange” – sometimes even shortened derisively to “Chope” by his critics. But it was effective. [A recent Jimmy Margulies cartoon about Corzine played off the hope theme.]

And that’s where Christie’s campaign has fumbled the message. His new web video starts out by using Obama’s voice over images of homeless men in Camden, figuratively depicting New Jersey as being on a one-way street presumably to nowhere.

Frankly, I found it depressing. That’s when it hit me. Chris Christie is offering a message of change without hope. And not just in this web video, but throughout his entire campaign.

The punditry and the media have focused on his lack of specifics, charging that he has not given voters a clear policy proposal that they can hang onto. I have said before that despite their discontent with the incumbent, voters still need to be able to say, “Here is something concrete that Chris Christie is going to do,” before they will vote for change. But the problem with lacking a specific message is larger than just the policy details.

A specific campaign promise is, in itself, a message of hope. And Christie’s campaign strategy has been lacking that element of hope from the very beginning.

Yes, I know that the Republican nominee has used phrases like “hope is on the way” and “New Jerseyans hope real change will come.” But listen closely to Christie’s rhetoric when he talks about state government. The tone lacks a sense of hope.

That doesn’t mean you can’t attack your opponent’s record. In fact, it still amazes me that Christie has not used every opportunity offered him, especially in the debates, to point out specific Corzine weaknesses – i.e. the governor’s failed toll hike plan and the fizzled-out special session to reform property taxes. These are the reasons why Jon Corzine’s job approval rating is so low and are fair game in this race.

Instead, Christie has chosen to speak in generalities about how Corzine has raised taxes. And rather than leave the blame at Corzine’s feet, he follows that up by saying that the mess in Trenton is due to chronic mismanagement by both parties over the years. A common refrain from Chris Christie is that New Jersey is broken.

And therein lies the problem. Attacking the incumbent is one thing, especially if done well (which it hasn’t been in this case). But who wants to vote for a guy whose underlying campaign theme is that we are all headed down the toilet? Maybe his delivery is just a byproduct of the prosecutorial personality. But it doesn’t resonate with independent voters who need a positive reason to go out and vote.

New Jersey voters already believe the state is broken. That doesn’t mean they want to be constantly reminded of it. They want someone who is going to lead them out of the wilderness. Not someone who is going to point out every dried-up stream and dead tree.

It’s all about hope and change, Mr. Christie. Change and Hope.

As the Voter Churns

The conventional wisdom in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race is the better that Chris Daggett does, the worse Chris Christie does. Certainly, Daggett’s rise in the polls over the past four weeks is a nearly point for point match with Christie’s drop in support.

That certainly is true at the aggregate level, as I have noted elsewhere. Specifically, if you compare this week’s Quinnipiac Poll to the one they released September 1, you will find that Christie’s support dropped by 6 points, Corzine’s increased by 3, Daggett’s increased by 5 and Undecided decreased by 1. While Corzine made some gains, it seems the big switch was from Christie to Daggett, with Undecided remaining stable.

I stand by this analysis, but there may be more to this phenomenon than the naked eye can see. Research conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute with a panel of New Jersey voters indicates that this “net” effect may actually be masking a lot more individual-level churning in the electorate.

The first round of our online panel was interviewed September 23-28 (Wave 1). A total of 340 of these respondents then participated in a second round of interviews on October 9-14 (Wave 2). [Note: the intention of this panel study is to track individual level change over time. As such, it is not necessarily designed to be representative of candidate choice for the full electorate. That is why I refrain from reporting “horse race” percentages here. We’ll leave that for our standard telephone polling.]

The survey analysis divided the vote choice question into 14 separate categories. Those who make a candidate choice (Christie, Corzine, Daggett, Other) were asked if they are either “very sure” about their choice or “might change” their mind before election day – leading to a total of 8 categories. Those who initially indicate they are Undecided were then asked if they “lean” toward a candidate – producing 5 categories (Lean to Christie, Corzine, Daggett, Other or do not lean to any candidate). The final category is for those who say they will not cast a vote for governor on the ballot.

In the Wave 2 interviews, fully 66% of participating voters stayed in exactly the same place in the 14 vote choice categories where they started in Wave 1. Another 16% stayed with the same candidate, but shifted their strength of support (e.g. from lean to sure, etc.).

In the first wave of interviews, a total of 7-in-10 respondents said they were “very sure” about their vote choice. Two weeks later, though, 15% of these “firm” voters had changed their minds – including 9% who softened the level of support for their chosen candidate and another 6% who actually switched their preference to another candidate.

Grouping all levels of support (sure, might change, and lean) together, both Jon Corzine and Chris Christie held onto about 9-in-10 of their voters from Wave 1 to Wave 2. Chris Daggett held onto about 8-in-10 of his Wave 1 voters. [Make no mistake – the sample sizes are relatively small, especially for Daggett. Grains of salt should be large and copious.]

So how did Daggett increase his overall margin? Apparently, by pinching voters from both major party candidates and other independents as well as picking up a bigger share of the undecided vote.

It seems that part of Chris Christie’s previous support is also leaching into the Undecided column. Thus, the aggregate Undecided vote share remains stable, while Daggett’s net support grows and Christie’s drops. The inference here is that the 5% of voters who are Undecided in this week’s Quinnipiac poll (or any poll for that matter), are not the same individual voters who were Undecided a month or so ago.

Another preliminary finding from this study is that all candidates saw some of their voters stay with them, but shift the strength of their support. Both Corzine and Daggett saw more of their supporters shift to a stronger rather than weaker position. Christie, on the other hand, had more supporters weaken their level of support than strengthen it.

One implication is that many of the Undecided and “leaning” voters today have flirted with being a Christie supporter in the past. Can the Republican win them back or has he lost them for good? That’s a question will be looking at over the next few weeks.

On a final note, please view these findings with caution. This analysis represents the results of a relatively small, self-selected panel study. However, the results suggest that there is a lot more individual-level churning involved in the recent Christie to Daggett swing than the top-line poll numbers indicate.

Three Weeks Out: How We Got Here

This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.

Shortly after New Jersey’s gubernatorial primary in June, I wrote a blog post about the messages and strategy to look for in the general election. With just three weeks left before Garden State voters go to the polls, I thought it would be a good time to see how things have played out. It turns out that neither major party candidate strayed from the blueprint laid down at the start of their campaign. The only real surprise has come from the independent.

1. Show me the plan. I believe that Steve Lonegan did better than expected in the GOP primary simply because he articulated a plan. And that lesson should not have been ignored. As I wrote in May, when it comes down to it, voters still need a policy-based hook to hang their hats on. Change for change’s sake was never going to be an effective strategy for Chris Christie. New Jersey voters believe that both parties are equally to blame for the problems in Trenton. Oddly enough, so does the GOP nominee. So why should we elect him over Corzine? That’s what a lot of Chris Daggett’s newfound supporters appear to be saying.

2. [With apologies to Socrates…] The unexamined life…could get you re-elected. Jon Corzine’s record has gone basically unexamined during this campaign. I wrote in June that the Corzine camp would focus on the incumbent doing the best he can under difficult economic circumstances. I parenthetically added, “Pay no attention to that toll hike plan behind the curtain.” I still can’t quite believe how Corzine walked out of the first debate without having to defend either his toll plan or the fizzled-out special session to reform property taxes. Not only is the Christie campaign short on specifics for their own ideas, but they’ve missed taking easy shots against the incumbent.

3. “What about the heart you promised Tin Man?” A continuing criticism of Corzine is that he just doesn’t understand the problems faced by average New Jerseyans. So, one of the images that really stood out on primary night was an unusually fired-up Jon Corzine and the personal stories he told. We saw a glimpse of that on the campaign trail when he talked to a voter about his son’s health troubles (which later turned into the Great Mammogram Debate of 2009). His campaign staff obviously recognized the value of this touching moment, since they blast emailed the exchange just hours after it occurred. But then we got…nothing. Corzine had ample opportunities during the first debate to phrase his answers in the context of the lives of average residents, but he never did. Considering that an inability to make personal connections is his Achilles’ heel, I was really surprised that his handlers didn’t prep him with stories about how his policies have helped Peter from Passaic or how Christie’s would hurt Margaret from Mays Landing.

4. Obamarama! I fully expected Corzine to play up his association with the President. Even though Obama’s poll numbers have slipped with independents, he’s still a force among core Democratic voter groups. I’ve been crisscrossing the state a lot these past few weeks, particularly spending time in the state’s urban areas. Corzine billboards are everywhere. But I’m a bit confused. I though Loretta Weinberg was the Democratic running mate. Judging from these billboards, it’s actually Barack Obama (with Corzine in the number 2 slot on the “Obama/Corzine” team).

5. Am-Bushed! I actually expected to see more Bush-Christie tie-ins from the Corzine camp. There have been some to be sure, but not quite as many as I expected. Of course, this connection got superseded by the news “scoops” on Christie’s unreported loans, unpaid income taxes, reckless driving, and other equally, um, weighty issues. The Bush connections have been mostly used in appeals to the Democratic core – but even there, the Bush image on billboards is quite literally squeezed aside by the monstrous image of Christie’s face. This race has gotten ugly by literally getting ugly. But the Corzine camp understands that voters will not vote for change if they are in any way uncomfortable with the alternative.

6. Lonegan rides again. I wrote in June that Steve Lonegan wants to be a player in state politics. Since he’s not on the ballot for governor, he has decided to lead the battle to defeat the open space bond question. He claims credit for defeating two ballot measures in 2007 (although my examination of the numbers indicates they would have been defeated even without his involvement). If this one goes down as well, expect the media to view him as a potent political force.

7. Hiding your L(i)G(ht) under a bushel. I thought Christie’s pick for Lieutenant Governor could be a hot potato for the GOP. In the end, he went for Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno, a pro-choice woman who presumably would appeal to independent voters. Then, the Christie brain trust promptly kept the media from having any access to her aside from joint appearances. Based on her performance at the LG debate last week, the reason is now clear. Guadagno’s actually a better candidate than Christie! But neither side knows what to do with these running mates. If you listened to Loretta Weinberg at the LG debate, it’s unclear that she has had any conversations with Corzine about what her role in the administration would be.

8. “Chris Daggett could make things interesting.” I wrote that sentence in June based on his primary night NJN interview where he came off as a straight-talker. That part has certainly come true. I also wrote that Daggett could make the debates uncomfortable for both Corzine and Christie. So, I was only half right there.

Whither Daggett and His Plan?

This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.

Just over a week ago, I was ready to write a column criticizing Chris Daggett for not using the opportunity provided by his presence in the gubernatorial debates to address important issues and shape the tone of the campaign. That’s what independent candidates are supposed to do, after all.

Then on September 29, Daggett laid down the gauntlet. He unveiled a fairly detailed plan to reduce property taxes – exactly the type of pledge voters say they are looking for. His proposal became the focal point of the televised debate two days later: which candidate has actually articulated a plan?

Now, the question remains. What impact will Daggett and his plan have on both the race governor and for New Jersey over the next four years?

Our polling suggests that even before the property tax plan, Daggett had started to siphon votes away from Chris Christie. Throughout the summer, Daggett consistently polled at 4 or 5 percent in the Monmouth/Gannett poll, but he drew his support nearly equally from would-be Corzine and Christie voters. However, in our latest poll – conducted largely before the independent’s property tax plan was announced – Daggett’s support stood at 8 percent. When those voters were asked who they would support between the two major party nominees only, Christie’s slim 3 point margin in that poll increased to 6 points without Daggett.

It’s unclear what subsequent impact Daggett’s plan and solid debate performance will have on the race. Voters say want to hear a property tax plan and Daggett gave them one. But he also proposes to shift much of that burden onto an expanded sales tax base – as Chris Christie repeatedly pointed out in the debate. Voters tell us that they want to see real spending cuts rather than tax shifts – although they tend to balk when specific cuts are proposed.

My guess is that Daggett will get some credit – and votes – for at least acknowledging that New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation property tax burden is the number one issue on voters’ minds. That’s something the two major party candidates have been avoiding like the plague.

If the dynamic we saw in last week’s Monmouth/Gannett poll holds up, we could hypothesize that every percentage point Daggett registers above 5 percent in the final tally will be, more or less, a point taken away from Christie.

The challenge for Christie is how he keeps Daggett from drawing off his support. The Republican is really backed into a corner here – a corner of his own making, to be sure. If he criticizes Daggett’s plan, he runs the risk of elevating Daggett’s profile and legitimizing him with some fence-sitting voters who might ask why the Republican doesn’t have a plan if the independent can come up with one. On the other hand, if Christie unveils his own plan at this late stage of the campaign, he runs the risk of being seen as making a cynical ploy to salvage his campaign. Christie’s least damaging option at this point is to ignore it and hope the Daggett plan gets shot down from other quarters.

The Republican is certainly not going to get any help from Jon Corzine in that regard. In Thursday’s debate, the incumbent welcomed Daggett’s presence in the race, noting that one candidate (Daggett) has a plan, one candidate (himself) has a record and a plan, and the other candidate (Christie) has neither.

The Corzine team understands that Chris Daggett’s gain is Chris Christie’s loss. But it’s unlikely that Daggett can win this thing outright. To have a realistic shot, an independent needs to enter a statewide race here with both star-power and a formidable war chest. Daggett has neither.

Then the question becomes whether Daggett will be a “spoiler” in this race. The answer to that is a little more complex. Yes, it appears that Daggett is pulling his support more from one candidate than another. If that movement becomes a trend and Daggett makes it into double-digits on election day, Corzine may squeak by Christie with just 40 percent of the vote.

Make no mistake, though. A double digit showing by an independent in New Jersey would be unprecedented. The most likely scenario is that – due to last minute concerns about wasting a vote and difficulty finding his name on the ballot – Daggett will do no better or perhaps even a point or two lower than his final pre-election poll showing, leaving Corzine and Christie to pick up the remaining undecided voters.

What then of the Daggett plan? Will the winning candidate invite Daggett to advise him on how to reduce property taxes? Will he feel compelled to come up with his own plan once in (or returned to) office?

The sad fact is, that despite the momentary excitement generated by Daggett’s plan, it probably won’t have much of an impact on the next four years. Regardless of who wins the election, you can probably write the following epitaph: “The Promise of Property Tax Relief: Born 9/29/09. Died 11/03/09.”

NJ Gov Candidate Image Clouds

As part of our polling coverage of the New Jersey Governor’s race, the Monmouth University Polling Institute is conducting an online panel study with mainly unaffiliated voters. In our first wave of the study, we asked Garden State voters to write down the first word or phrase that each candidate’s name brings to mind. We then created “clouds” using Wordle to show which words pop up most frequently (the larger the font, the more frequent the mention). I’ll let these images speak for themselves. They’re fairly telling. (Click on each image to enlarge it).

Jon Corzine:Images Shows Word Cloud from Voters for Jon Corzine

Chris Christie:Image Shows Word Cloud from Voters for Chris Christie

Chris Daggett:Image Shows Word Cloud from Voters for Chris Daggett
And we also asked voters to name the image or message that stands out most in the memory from the campaign ads they have seen:Image Shows Word Cloud from Voters Concerning Campaign Ads“Negative!” That word certainly refers to the tone, but it could also refer to the absence of anything substantive in these ads. Either way, it seems appropriate.

‘Tis the Season to be Silly

This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.

Enough already! Admittedly, no one in New Jersey ever suffered from the delusion that Socrates and Rousseau would be running for governor this year. But this year’s campaign has gotten worse than many of us could have imagined.

It’s not the nastiness. That much was expected. It’s the utter silliness of the sound bites and allegations engulfing this race that have pushed it over the precipice. The sheer absurdity of the current debate is enough to make you want to “go to North Dakota.”

It’s not as if we don’t have any real issues to discuss in this election. New Jersey perennially scores low for our business climate. The state’s unemployment rate has climbed. While New Jersey continues to rank at the top in terms of household income, if you look at it in real terms (i.e. adjusted for inflation), our buying power has decreased by 10 percent over the past three years – placing us just behind Vermont for the biggest drop in the country. And then there’s the news out this week that once again confirms our status of having the nation’s highest property tax burden.

While each of these stories has become fodder for vacuous campaign taglines, specific solutions are rarely suggested by any of the candidates running for New Jersey’s top job. And the media hasn’t really been pressing them on this either. Given the number of news cycles devoted to speeding tickets, personal loans, and hedge fund investments, why not devote just a week’s worth of coverage to the candidates’ refusal to address issues that really worry Garden State voters?

We’re told it’s not newsworthy to report what the candidates are not saying. I beg to differ. I think it would generate a lot of public interest to wake up every morning to a front page headline declaring: “Christie still won’t suggest specific any budget cuts.” Or turn on the car radio to hear: “In our top story, Governor Corzine once again refuses to say what he would do to bring down property taxes in his second term.”

Wouldn’t it be great if the media were “working every day” to press the candidates on how they “can lead us through these tough times?” Instead, we’re fed a slow trickle of tangentially germane facts and spurious charges leaked into the ether by partisan attack machines and reported by the media because they are so-called scoops.

And somehow we still have the audacity to expect the voters to be informed, engaged, and interested in this election; chastising them when turnout is low. Don’t they know how important this election is? Why do they stay “out of touch” when the stakes are so high? It’s as if there are “one set of rules” for the media and punditry and “another for everyone else”.

As contributors to the chattering class, we pollsters also have a responsibility to keep what’s truly important in our sights. That means not just measuring voter opinion of the nonsense being fed to them by scripted campaigns, but actually giving voice to what the voters themselves want to know about how this state will be governed over the next four years. Like tracking the fact that property taxes is consistently the top issue voters want to hear the candidates talk about.

I understand that a pollster can generate headlines – and perhaps clients – by asking what would happen if Corzine were replaced on the ballot by another candidate – as one out-of-state Democratic pollster did recently. [Although, it is intriguing that this partisan pollster did not include Dick Codey as one of the options – the only name that probably would have bested Christie in the poll]. However, these poll results do nothing to inform the debate for those of us who actually live in the state and are concerned about how we are going to pay our bills, such as – to use an entirely random example – property taxes.

Perhaps the most bizarre example of measuring New Jersey public opinion was a recent question asking if President Obama is the anti-Christ. If this polling firm really wanted to be relevant to the current state of affairs in New Jersey, it should have asked whether the state’s voters believe any of the gubernatorial nominees is the anti-Christ. That’s certainly how each candidate hopes his opponent will be perceived by November 3rd.

The media, pollsters, and pundits can do an enormous service to New Jersey’s electorate by not being a party to these campaign shenanigans. And the candidates should get with the program as well by engaging in a candid dialogue with voters about specific plans for the next four years. The state’s problems are too serious right now to entertain any more of this nonsense. [Did I mention anything about property taxes?]

So, between now and election day, let’s all live by the following credo: “If you want to change Trenton, you can start by changing” … the tone of this race.

Contest Looks Bound for Ugliness

The following appeared as an Op-ed in the Sunday, Sept. 6 Courier-Post.

Is Chris Christie the next Michael Dukakis? After wrapping up the Democratic nomination for president in July 1988 and enjoying a lead in most polls, Dukakis returned to Massachusetts for the summer to resume his gubernatorial duties. Republican nominee George Bush spent August hammering away at his opponent with negative ads. By the time Dukakis returned to the campaign trail after Labor Day, he was toast.

Republican challenger Chris Christie has held a steady lead over incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine in every public poll released since February. Voters are unhappy with the job Corzine has done and are looking for an alternative. However, based on this summer’s events, Christie could still be the next Mike Dukakis.

Christie is participating in the state’s public financing system. While that means he receives $2 in public funding for every $1 in private contributions, the total amount he can spend is capped at $15.9 million.

Sound like a lot of money? Not in New Jersey, which is stuck between two of the most expensive media markets in the country. Christie will have to set aside at least half his kitty just for television and radio advertising in the final weeks of the campaign if he wants to make any impression on late-deciding voters.

Corzine, on the other hand, has opted out of the public system and will dig into his own deep pockets. Expect him to match the more than $40 million he pumped into his 2005 campaign. In fact, Corzine has already spent more than $5 million on television advertising according to some reports — mostly on negative attacks against Christie.

The Corzine team understands that there’s probably little they can do to change voters’ minds about the incumbent before election day. However, the Democrat’s camp realizes that their opponent is largely unknown to the independent swing voters who will determine this election. Christie has tried to position himself as a principled outsider who has taken on the state’s culture of corruption. The purpose of these summer ads has been to undermine that image.

Why does this matter? For one, Corzine’s attacks have gone unanswered, not because Christie is ignoring them but because he is unable to spend money to fight them on the airwaves.

More importantly, though, Christie has staked his claim to the governorship on his personal qualities — specifically, that he’s better than a typical politician. And therein lies the potential problem for Christie.

Recent polling has shown that while Christie continues to lead Corzine on the “vote choice” question, negative views of the Republican have been steadily building. If Christie’s signature advantage disappears, he will need to convince voters that he would be better than the incumbent on the issues which concern them. And this year the one issue that tops every poll is property taxes — an issue on which Christie has been vague.

To be fair, Christie said he will retain the current property tax rebate system. However, this is hardly the bold solution that New Jersey voters are looking for.

Right now, a disengaged Garden State electorate believes Christie will do a better job than Corzine on property taxes. It’s not clear that they will feel the same way on Nov. 3 after they start paying attention to the race. If voters don’t believe the challenger offers anything new on the issue which most concerns them, Christie will need to find another advantage if he is to unseat the incumbent.

Christie hopes that voters will see him as a political outsider who is above petty partisanship and political deal-making. Corzine will be saturating the airwaves with negative ads to make sure they don’t. And that’s why this race is going to get ugly.

Give Public Its Money’s Worth With Debates

The following appeared as an Op-Ed in the August 30, 2009 Asbury Park Press.

In New Jersey, if you’re going to take taxpayer dollars to fund your campaign, you must be willing to face both the public and your opponents in a mediated debate. In July, it was decided that two gubernatorial candidate debates would be held on October 1 and 16, with the lieutenant governor debate on October 8.

If you don’t take public funding, though, you don’t have to participate in the debates. That means Republican Chris Christie and independent Chris Daggett are in, but Democrat Jon Corzine, who opted out of public financing, can do what he wants. In mid-August, Corzine said he would “be involved” in the debates. So far, so good.

Now, it appears that Corzine may only be involved if all the debates are held in late October. NJN, the October 1 debate sponsor, has petitioned the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) to move its debate to October 22 to accommodate Governor Corzine’s schedule. This would also push the lieutenant governor debate to October 19, 20, or 21, since it has to be held between the two gubernatorial events (full disclosure: Monmouth University is the host site for the L.G. debate).

So what if ELEC doesn’t change the schedule and Corzine opts out of the first debate? On some level, an empty chair could provide voters useful information about the candidate. But I really don’t see that happening. The moral pressure to participate will be strong. If the schedule stays as is, my gut says Governor Corzine will be joining Chris Christie and Chris Daggett in NJN’s studios on October 1.

However, I can understand NJN’s preference to guarantee the incumbent’s participation. Even though Corzine is not required to participate, he will likely be one of the top two vote-getters on November 3rd. I’m sure that is something ELEC will consider. However, there are other equally important considerations that ELEC should weigh before making a decision to change the schedule.

When the public agrees to finance a gubernatorial candidate’s campaign, the expectation is that the public will also get a chance to learn about the candidate’s issue positions. The campaigns can spend their public funding on advertising that says very little about where they stand on issues that most concern the voters. The purpose of the required debates is to provide a forum where candidates cannot escape tough questions about the issues.

For example, 45% of New Jersey voters tell us property taxes is among the top issues they want to hear the candidates talk about. To date, none of the candidates has run an ad saying what he would do about this widespread concern. But you can bet they will have to address this issue in the debates.

So what’s the problem with holding the debates later in October rather than earlier? Late debates do little to help voters come to a decision. By the time we get to the final weeks of a campaign, the airwaves are crowded with paid advertising that does little to inform voters about the candidates’ issue positions.

This problem is compounded by the fact that New Jersey elections typically get little quality coverage from the New York and Philadelphia broadcast media. Garden State voters are more likely to know who’s running for mayor of New York City than governor of their own state. To illustrate this bluntly, New Jersey taxpayers are currently funding the campaign of one candidate, Chris Daggett, who is basically unknown to 86% of voters. Even Chris Christie, who also received public funding for his primary run, is still a blank slate for one-third of the state’s electorate.

Voters need time to get to know the candidates and digest what they have to say. The benefit of an earlier debate schedule is to introduce these candidates to the public just as voters are starting to pay attention to the race.

The bottom line is that the public pays for these campaigns. It’s not unreasonable to expect that the public will be able to hear from these candidates while there is still time to form an opinion.

Thoughts on Summer’s Likely Voters

The Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll released today on the New Jersey governor’s race showed plainly different results for registered voters (a 4 point lead for Chris Christie over Jon Corzine) versus likely voters (a 14 point advantage for the Republican). The size of this disparity between the two voter groups is definitely unusual, but not unheard of in the annals of polling. Here’s why.

Every polling organization has its own way of determining likely voters. This usually entails some combination of self-professed likelihood to vote, past voting behavior, and interest in the election.

Political pollsters tend to use samples drawn from registered voter lists that include actual voting history, but these lists miss many voters (due to errors in matching telephone numbers, accurate record keeping, etc.). List quality is a definite problem with New Jersey records. Public pollsters on the other hand, tend to rely on random digit dial samples that encompass more households, but rely on respondents’ self-reports of their past voting behavior, which they tend to overstate.

There are pros and cons to both sampling methods, and I have personally used both depending on the type of election. Just as private pollsters have techniques to adjust for list quality issues, public pollsters have techniques to adjust for false self-reports of past voting (e.g. asking the respondent to identify his or her polling place). However, neither approach is fool-proof.

Regardless, both methods of determining likely voters rely to some extent on a self-professed interest to vote in the upcoming election. In October, that’s usually not a problem. In August, that report can be highly suspect, especially in a state like New Jersey where voters are notoriously late to engage. The summer likely voter, like Thomas Paine’s summer soldier, can be unreliable.

[This is also one of the reasons why I tend to be dismissive of polls in non-election years that purport to measure policy opinions among “likely voters.” Likely to vote in what? “Most” elections? Without a specific election to anchor it, the determination of likely voters has to be highly arbitrary on the part of the pollster.]

Moreover, the “horse race” question in summer polls is the indicator most prone to volatility, which is compounded by the instability of the likely voter model. Seasoned campaign observers view horse race results as ballpark numbers (i.e. any way you slice it, Chris Christie has held a consistent lead). They focus more on the candidates’ favorability ratings and issue advantages, which tend to be harder to change once voters’ opinions are formed.

Even with this potential for volatility, we usually don’t see a wide divergence between registered and likely voters in the horse race numbers. Unfortunately, that is partially due to the fact that most private campaign polls, and many public polls, don’t provide results for both groups of voters. So the bottom line is that we don’t really know how often this divergence occurs.

In the poll we released today, Republican Chris Christie has built support among groups that nearly always vote. Moreover, the recent corruption arrests in New Jersey have had the ancillary effect of increasing turnout likelihood among voters who desire a change for the state. On the other hand, President Obama’s campaign stop last month helped incumbent Jon Corzine with minority voters, but unfortunately they continue to be much less likely to vote. The end result is that Corzine has been able to keep the RV number relatively close while falling behind in the LV number.

[As an interesting side note: I wrote yesterday (scroll down) that the Obama visit did not yield the hoped-for impact according to our poll, but we should wait until he started appearing in Corzine ads to judge. Coincidentally, a few hours after I wrote that, the Corzine campaign put up their first ad featuring the President’s Garden State appearance.]

As I stated in our press release today, the role of the Monmouth University Polling Institute is not to predict outcomes, but to explain where an electorate stands and why. At this early stage, understanding divergent views among both likely and unlikely voters indicates the potential for change as the race heads into high season.

For more on likely voter modeling, please visit Pollster.com.

Addendum 8/07: To consider why both the RV and LV numbers are worth looking at this early in a race, it might help to put it in the context of raw numbers. There are about 5 million registered voters in New Jersey. By examining the voter rolls, you can probably (and these numbers are hypothetical) identify about 1.5-2.0 million who always or nearly always vote and eliminate about 1.5-2.0 million who never vote or only vote in presidential elections. That still leaves you with at least one million voters whose likelihood to vote this year is still up in the air, regardless of whether you use list-based or random dial sampling.

Corruption and the Governor’s Race

It’s been more than a week since New Jersey’s political world was once again rocked by a series of high profile corruption busts – differentiated from past arrests only in scope and luridness. Aside from the usual garment-rending observations about how the Garden State can sink so low are questions about how this event will play out in the governor’s race. There are definitely both short-term and long term effects – but you have to do a little work to connect the dots.

The simplest and most direct consequence of these arrests would be if New Jersey voters expressed anger over ongoing corruption in the state by tossing out those in power on November 3rd. That’s a highly unlikely scenario. It didn’t happen after the previous 130+ arrests and convictions and it’s not going to happen now. That means no direct repercussions for this having occurred under Jon Corzine’s watch and no “extra credit” to Chris Christie for prosecuting most of those cases in the past eight years.

In a Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll (Jan. 16, 2009) released the week before the arrests, we found only 5% of likely voters who named corruption as one of the top considerations in their choice for governor. In a poll we are releasing tomorrow, that number has increased only slightly. Property taxes and the economy are still the overriding issues in this race.

That does not mean that the corruption busts are not having any impact on the governor’s race. In the short-term, this event serves to heighten the sense of malaise New Jersey voters feel about living in the state. This is just one more sign of “what’s wrong with New Jersey” – and that hurts Jon Corzine. (Admittedly, many of these problems are national in scope – but voters think locally.)

Barring any more revelations, however, these arrests will probably be off most voters’ radar screens after Labor Day. What Corzine has to worry about then is the long term impact.

By now, most followers of the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll and this blog know that Governor Corzine has a “base problem.” His support among key Democratic voter groups – urban residents, black and Hispanic voters, teachers, unions, state workers, etc. – is lukewarm at best. President Obama’s visit two weeks ago was supposed to change that. For the most part, it hasn’t (at least not yet – we’ll see what happens when Corzine starts using clips of the appearance in his ads).

Moreover, the governor has never generated a great deal of enthusiasm among local Democratic party operatives. These are the people who get out the vote on election day. If they don’t work to turn out voters, it could be a big problem for Jon Corzine. The primary election this past June is instructive of what could happen to Corzine in November.

A number of observers have pointed to the fact that Corzine only attained three-quarters of the primary vote as a sign of his electoral weakness – but focusing on the vote percentage misses the real story. The bigger problem for Corzine on primary day was that he only got 150,000 votes out of 200,000 cast. If the party organizations were really working that day, he should have gotten 200,000 votes out of 250,000 cast.

It’s unclear whether these party machines will be operating at full tilt on November 3. If they are, it’ll more likely be to assist local Democratic candidates than to support the governor. Many operatives are disgruntled with Corzine – for how he’s handled the current situation, for not picking an African-American as his running mate, and so on – and they might be reluctant to play ball on election day. However, it’s already clear that Corzine will have less organizational support on November 3 simply because of the operatives who are either out of commission or hobbled by these recent corruption arrests.

The conventional wisdom up to this point had been that Corzine could pull out a win despite his consistent deficit in the polls. The thinking was that Corzine’s copious ad buys would drive up Christie’s negatives at a time when the spending-limited Republican couldn’t mount a media counter-offensive. And thus turn this into a real horse race by the end of September.

That all changed with the arrests on July 23rd. Last week, three Washington, DC-based publications shifted their assessment of the New Jersey governor’s race to Chris Christie’s advantage. You can add this observer to that list.

Obama to the rescue…maybe

Governor Corzine has been down in the polls all year, so he’s decided to call in the big gun. President Obama visits the Garden State tomorrow to stump for the country’s one and only Democratic state officeholder up for re-election this year.

So what exactly is Obama’s visit supposed to accomplish for our guv?

Well, looking beyond the fund-raising event (that’s a private affair), the public rally was originally hoped to provide a bit of a two-fer: shore up the Democratic base and swing some undecided independent voters.

Let’s take the second part first – swinging the independent vote. Obama came into office with extremely high ratings among independent voters, both in New Jersey and across the country. As recently as a month ago, he was probably the only political figure in the country who could bestow some of his support on other office holders. However, independents have gotten antsy about the pace – or lack – of economic recovery, and the president’s ratings have declined among this group.

Obama is still in net positive territory with independents, just not strong enough to give his fellow Democrats a boost on the campaign trail. In fact, there is some polling evidence he could even have the opposite effect. [FYI – A new Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll will be released tomorrow.]

Which leaves us with the real reason why the president is in town. Governor Corzine has a base problem. Democrats are not all that enthused about their man in the State House. The surprise of the June primary was not that three unknown candidates garnered 45,000 votes – that protest vote was always going to be there. No, the bigger issue for Corzine was that the party apparatus could only turn out 154,000 supporters for the incumbent. That’s an embarrassing showing even for a non-competitive primary.

The poll we are releasing tomorrow shows Corzine with relatively weak support among core Democratic voter groups – e.g. black and Hispanic voters, urban voters, state government employees, and especially teachers (I suppose yesterday’s NJEA endorsement came in the nick of time). Corzine and Christie are basically tied among non-public union voters. Not only is Corzine’s support soft among these groups, but our likely voter models indicate that a somewhat higher-than-normal proportion of Democratically-inclined voters may be thinking of sitting this race out.

Obama’s job tomorrow is to link Corzine’s fortunes to his own. In other words, Obama’s message to the Democratic base will be “If you don’t vote for Corzine, you’re dissing me.”

This could be a dangerous gambit for the president. Our poll indicates that the vast majority of Garden State voters do not see their vote for governor as any kind of referendum on the administration in Washington. Despite this empirical evidence, every media pundit and GOP operative will cast it as such if Corzine loses, even if the president never lifted a finger to aid the incumbent. The Obama folks realize that and have decided to put on a full-court press and make this race about the president.

It’s unclear, though, that this gambit will work with the typical suburban voter who has a high opinion of the president but a low one of the governor. A caller to Jim Gearhart’s radio show on New Jersey 101.5 Monday typifies the dynamic we’re seeing in the poll. The quote is not exact, but “Maggie” basically said, “I’m a lifelong Democrat and I love what President Obama has done. But I’m absolutely not going to vote for Corzine.”

Now, what Maggie said next is really telling: “I was going to vote for Christie. It would have left a bad taste in my mouth, but I was going to do it. But now with that independent candidate in the race, I’ll take a look at him.” Our polling indicates that Maggie is not alone – there are a number of Democratically-inclined voters who have absolutely ruled out a Corzine vote, but are not entirely comfortable voting Republican. If there were no other options on the menu, they would probably hold their nose and vote for Christie. But with independent Chris Daggett making some noise, these voters have another way to express their displeasure with the incumbent. If this race comes down to the wire, these voters will really matter.

Can Barack Obama win over voters like Maggie to Corzine’s side? Maybe, maybe not. To have a shot, tomorrow’s rally has to be a humdinger. There’s an expectation that the Governor will up the ante by introducing his lieutenant governor running mate tomorrow; and there is heavy speculation that it will be Randal Pinkett of “The Apprentice” fame.

That’ll certainly make news – perhaps too much news! Or a story that the Corzine folks can’t control. Will Obama be seen as bestowing his blessings on Corzine or on Pinkett? And given how the Corzine camp has handled the preparations for this rally, it’s easy to doubt that they really have a grip on this.

When the event was first announced, the Corzine folks allowed people to sign up online. More than 52,000 people received an email confirming their ticket. The problem was that the original venue – the lawn at Rutgers University – could only hold about 5,000. The campaign then moved the venue to the PNC Bank Arts Center, which holds about 17,000. That still means they had to rescind the invitations of at least 35,000 people!

My guess is that many, if not most, of those 35,000 disappointed people were voters just like Maggie. They like Obama, but are not so keen on Corzine. Now, after being cheated of their chance to see the president, they must really dislike Corzine! And considering that New Jersey has had a few gubernatorial contests in recent decades decided by fewer than 30,000 votes, I’m pretty sure that’s not the reaction the Corzine folks were going for.

13 Things New Jersey Learned Tuesday

In no particular order…

1. Jon Corzine wasn’t hatched in a lab at Goldman Sachs
It seems our governor has a personal story and he finally wants to tell it. He grew up working on a farm and spent time in the Marines. Also, thoughts of his children and grandchildren and the love of a good woman pulled him though a near-fatal car accident. And importantly, he was fired up on Tuesday – like he really wants to win another term.

2. Yo! Chris Christie’s a Jersey guy
Who cares if Corzine grew up on a farm in Illinois. The GOP’s got a guy who grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Livingston. And has a bigger Springsteen CD collection (which he’ll be playing at every campaign stop between now and November 3).

3. The CWA has no fear (and perhaps no shame)
We learned from a Star-Ledger report that Corzine’s big event with Vice President Joe Biden was almost derailed by the threat of a picket line by the state workers union. Is the CWA in danger of overplaying its hand? Probably not. We released a poll last month that showed most New Jersey voters side with them on furloughs and, more importantly, they were not aware of the tactics being used by the CWA to avoid concessions.

4. Chris Daggett could make things interesting
No one expects him to win, but he’s a straight-shooter. Based on his interview with NJN Tuesday night, he could make the debates uncomfortable for both Corzine and Christie.

5. Steve Lonegan wants to be a real player in state politics
His gracious concession speech and bearing throughout the campaign indicates that he enjoyed being taken seriously by both the media and members of his own party.

6. The GOP LG pick could be a hot potato
Lonegan’s “line in the sand” comment (i.e. he will work to make sure Christie sticks to “Republican principles”) could be something that hard-core conservatives use to lobby on the Lieutenant Governor slot. Does Christie select a pick to help him (or more accurately, not hurt him) get the 200,000 or so undecided independent voters he needs to win this race? Or does he appease the 30,000-40,000 conservative voters who might sit this race out if he doesn’t choose a true believer as number two? You do the math.

7. “It’s the economy, stupid!”
No, that’s not coming from the Christie camp. It’s the message of Corzine supporters (it’s clearly on their Talking Points memo). Specifically, they claim that Jon Corzine’s poor approval ratings are simply a byproduct of the tough choices he’s had to make during this economic downturn. And given voters’ short memories, that just might work. However, as the chart below illustrates, Corzine’s job approval dropped well before the Dow Jones did. [“Pay no attention to that toll hike plan behind the curtain.”] Perhaps Corzine’s job approval rating is a leading indicator for the economy?

Chart Image Shows NJ Gov. Jon Corzine's Approval Rating in Relation to Performance of Dow Jones from June 2006 to April 2009
8. Yes, we can … bring up Obama as much as possible!
Pop quiz: Who is the only political figure of either party, state or national, who holds a 60% approval rating among New Jersey’s independent voters? Look at the chart above again. See that spike in Corzine’s rating that occurs between November 2008 and the presidential inauguration in January? It’s not a coincidence.

9. Good Call from the Obama Playbook
“Bushwacked!” That’s what Governor Corzine said would happen to the state if the Republicans were in power here like they were in DC for much of the past decade. Yeah, I know Bush is out of office, but he’s an effective avatar to hang around Christie’s neck (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?). The Bush presidency still resonates with voters as emblematic of “failure” and “partisanship.” And, unlike Christie’s attempt to tie Corzine to McGreevey, there are tangible connections between the GOP nominee and the former president. We’ll be hearing more (and more and more) about this.

10. Bad Call from the Obama Playbook
“Change!” According to the GOP standard bearer, the 2009 gubernatorial election in New Jersey is all about change – just like the 2008 presidential contest. Wrong! American voters tired of the Republican regime in DC because they saw the national party as partisan ideologues who were not looking out for the nation’s best interest. So it was worth giving Democrats a shot. Here in New Jersey? The voters see it more as a choice between Republocrat or Demican – both parties are equally to blame for the mess in Trenton, so what’s the point of choosing between the two. Significantly, of the 80 Assembly seats up for grabs in November, it looks like only 2 (!!!!) have any shot of switching parties. So change for change’s sake is not a message that will resonate in New Jersey.

11. “A man without a plan is not a man – Thomas Jefferson.”
Jefferson really didn’t say that – It was one of numerous false quotes uttered by Al Pacino’s character in the Dick Tracy movie. However, it’s apt here. By all rights, Steve Lonegan should have earned about 100,000-110,000 votes as the conservative standard bearer. He got 140,000. That’s because he offered a specific plan – the flat tax. Christie did a good job shooting that down (i.e. that it would raise taxes on most families), but Lonegan did as well as he did in this race because he offered a clear policy proposal on an issue voters cared about. An important lesson lies therein…

12. NJ could save money by holding GOP primaries in only five counties
On Monday, I posted that the cumulative vote total in just five counties – Bergen, Morris, Burlington, Monmouth, and Ocean – has been an uncanny predictor of the statewide vote. The same was true this year – Christie beat Lonegan by 56% to 41% in these five counties, nearly identical to his 55% to 42% margin statewide.

13. I’ll be living off my Doherty pick for some time
Only one incumbent got knocked off in the Legislative primaries on Tuesday. And I called it!

New Jersey Primary Primer

There will be little suspense for most of the races in New Jersey’s primary election tomorrow. Of course, the Republican battle to take on Jon Corzine in November is the marquee event. But there are a few other races worth keeping an eye on – too many to mention in this admittedly lengthy post (e.g. some interesting Democratic mayoral primaries that pit “reformers” against the “party establishment” in places like Plainfield, Edison, Atlantic City, and Morristown).

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so sit back and soak up a bevy of interesting facts, including some fascinating history in the 23rd district Senate race and a nifty shortcut you can use to be the first on your block to know who won the night’s big prize.

GOP Turnout Factor
Turnout is the name of the game. Accepted wisdom says that higher turnout benefits Chris Christie and lower turnout helps Steve Lonegan. We actually have some numbers to confirm that.

The Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll released two weeks ago showed Christie with an 18 point lead – 50% to 32% for Lonegan. For the record, that poll was conducted using a listed sample of registered Republican voters in the state who were known to have voted in recent primaries. It was further screened to determine the propensity of voting in this particular election (based on a combination of known past voting frequency and self-professed likelihood to vote this year). In the end, our model assumed a turnout of about 300,000 GOP voters on June 2 (give or take 10,000).

[By the way, not one media outlet who reported on the poll asked about the turnout model before, or since, publishing the results!]

The 300,000 turnout estimate is in line with recent gubernatorial primaries based on valid ballots cast for governor (302,500 in 2005 and 337,000 in 2001). Turnout in recent GOP gubernatorial primaries has gone as low as 200,000 in 1997, when incumbent Christie Whitman went unchallenged. The last time it surpassed 400,000 was in 1981. Turnout in contested U.S. Senate primaries is generally lower, at 200,000 or so.

It’s important to note that turnout approached the 400,0000 mark in 1993, exceeding most expectations that year. It also just happened to be another time when three Republicans were vying to take on an unpopular Democratic incumbent! So, will we see a typical gubernatorial turnout on June 2 or will Corzine’s weak position in the polls give GOP voters extra incentive to turn out, as apparently happened in 1993? Or, on the other hand, have Republicans become so demoralized by their poor standing nationally and 12-year electoral drought in New Jersey that we will actually see a lower than average turnout?

Variations in turnout tend to have more impact on primary results than they do on general elections. In general elections, the preferences of non-voters tend to line up fairly well with those who actually go out to the polls on election day. However, for primary elections, particularly with an ideologically-fractured GOP electorate, a factor of just a few thousand voters simply deciding whether or not to show up can swing a close race.

It doesn’t look like we have a particularly tight race in this case, although that 18 point poll gap may have narrowed since our last sounding on May 20. I did re-examine our data using alternative turnout estimates. If the GOP primary turnout model is set to well above 430,000 – i.e. a 40-year record turnout for a non-presidential race – the Christie margin in our poll grows to 23 points. Alternatively, if the turnout model is pushed down to about 200,000 – i.e. a typical U.S. Senate race – the gap shrinks to 13 points. That’s a swing of 10 points based on turnout alone!

A related finding of this analysis is that the “hard-line” conservatives who always show up are generally with Lonegan. They comprise about half of that 200,000 “core” GOP turnout. The other half are comprised equally of other conservatives and moderates who are mostly for Christie. This gives him an overall lead among the core GOP primary electorate – perhaps it’s not the 13 points of two weeks ago, but probably still a lead. Basically, every 25,000 voters who turn out above that core electorate contributes a one point gain to Christie’s margin.

Five County Predictor
Here’s a fascinating artifact of recent elections. The results from just FIVE counties are all you need to know to determine the winner in New Jersey’s GOP primaries (including a pretty good approximation of the statewide margin of victory)!

Two counties together – Morris and Bergen – consistently comprise about one-quarter of the GOP electorate. Look for that percentage to be even higher this year, since both counties have home town boys in the race.

Lonegan, a former 3-term mayor of Bogota, is fighting the powers-that-be in his home county of Bergen, who gave the party line to Christie. The Morris County Republican organization does not grant an official ballot line, but Christie has the backing of most power-brokers in his home county. The last Monmouth/Gannett poll suggested that both candidates would do well in their home counties. It will also be interesting to see how the third man in the race, Assemblyman Rick Merkt – Christie’s Mendham neighbor – does in Morris – and whether he pulls support more from either candidate.

If you add the “belt” counties of Ocean, Monmouth and Burlington into the mix, you account for half of the GOP primary vote on June 2 (with the other half coming from the remaining 16 counties).

Now here’s the interesting bit. These five counties – Morris, Bergen, Ocean, Monmouth, and Burlington – have done startlingly well at mirroring the final statewide vote share in GOP primaries, as the table below illustrates (note: only the top two finishers’ results are shown, but the pattern also holds for all results in multi-candidate races).

Year NJ Cand#1 NJ Cand#2 NJ Margin 5-Cnty Cand#1 5-Cnty Cand#2 5-Cnty Margin
2008 46% 40% 6% 45% 40% 5%
2006 76% 24% 52% 77% 23% 54%
2005 36% 31% 5% 35% 28% 7%
2002 45% 37% 8% 46% 39% 7%
2001 57% 43% 14% 58% 42% 16%
2000 36% 34% 2% 38% 35% 3%

So, if history is any indicator, whoever wins the cumulative vote in these five counties will nab the nomination. Of course, some of these counties, particularly Burlington, can be slow in tallying votes on election night, so this shortcut might not be all that helpful if the race is close.

Dem Governor
With all eyes focused on the GOP race, it’s easy to forget that Governor Corzine faces opposition, albeit token, from a trio of challengers. There is some speculation that the size of Corzine’s majority among his fellow partisans on June 2 will portend his strength in the general election.

In two recent Democratic primaries with only nominal opposition, the victors took 84% (Menendez 2006) and 88% (Corzine 2005) of the vote. So an 85% win by Corzine would be in line with recent primaries. If his majority tomorrow dips seriously below that level – say to 70% – it will be a sign of voter discontent within his own party.

23rd Senate District
There’s a primary challenge in the special election for the Senate seat vacated by Leonard Lance, who went to Congress in January. Assemblywoman Marcia Karrow beat fellow legislator Mike Doherty in a convention to fill the seat until this election, and so she gets to run as the incumbent. Doherty vowed to take his fight to the voters, and hence the challenge. Barring a shift in the space-time continuum, whichever Republican wins this primary has this safe seat for as long as he or she wishes.

Karrow has the support of party leaders – although there is no official party “line” in the Warren part of this Warren-Hunterdon district. She also has the decided money edge, raising $131,000 to Doherty’s $51,600. So it looks like Advantage-Karrow, right? Well, you’d be unwise to count Doherty out of this race.

For one thing, Doherty has firmly aligned himself with Steve Lonegan in a conservative part of the state where Lonegan should do very well. Furthermore, Doherty consistently outperformed Karrow each of the three times they appeared on the same primary ballot.

Their first joint appearance was in the 2001 Assembly race, when both Doherty and Karrow were vying for an open slot on the Republican ticket created when Leonard Lance – yup, him again – moved up to the state senate seat vacated by Bill Schluter (who himself left the legislature to launch an independent bid for governor that year!). In that race, Doherty got 9,700 votes to join incumbent Connie Myers (10,200 votes) on the GOP ticket. Karrow came in third among four candidates, with 7,000 votes.

When Myers stepped down from her seat in 2005, Karrow’s name again appeared on the 23rd Assembly primary ballot with Doherty, along with four others. The incumbent Doherty got more than 10,600 votes, while Karrow gained the number two spot with 6,600 votes (beating out Mark Peck by just 300 votes).

Doherty and Karrow ran together as incumbents in 2007. While they faced absolutely no challengers on that primary ballot, Doherty still managed to garner 448 more votes than Karrow!

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Karrow campaign launched an aggressive robocall and direct mail effort claiming that Doherty supports “surrender in Iraq” (based on his endorsement by Ron Paul). Doherty has three sons serving in the military and is himself a veteran (as the photos in his campaign mailers clearly show). When attacks like these are seen as false by the voters, they usually backfire on the accuser. This race is worth watching.

Assembly Primaries
Oh, yeah. There are also challenges in a handful of the 80 Assembly primaries – 9 on the Democratic side and 12 for the Republicans. Of the contested Republican primary races, 8 include candidates running under the Lonegan slogan, “Conservative Republicans Putting Taxpayers First.”

Incumbents face the prospect of losing in probably only two (perhaps three) of these contests. In the 25th District, where Morris County doesn’t grant party lines on the ballot, Michael Patrick Carroll is running for re-election alone (Rick Merkt having foregone his Assembly seat to run for governor). He faces challenges from freeholder Doug Cabana and attorney Anthony Bucco (son and namesake of the 25th’s sitting senator). Although Bucco is married to Cabana’s sister, this race has not been a family-friendly affair, with the two launching strong attacks against each other. Carroll seems to have taken a “que sera, sera” attitude toward re-election, raising just $25,300, to $60,600 for Cabana and $71,600 for Bucco. Expect Bucco to do well, as some Republicans will vote for him because they like his father and others will vote for him because they think they actually are voting for his father (and you better believe some will be doing just that!).

The big money primary race this year is in the 40th district. Incumbents David Russo and Scott Rumana have raised a whopping $454,000 for this primary compared to $158,000 raised by their challengers Joseph Caruso and Anthony Rottino. However, Caruso and Rottino are running on the Lonegan slate in a district that dips into Lonegan’s home county of Bergen. The race has been acrimonious, highlighted by a defamation lawsuit, not an unheard of occurrence in this part of the state. It almost seems like northeastern New Jersey actually tries to produce one of these wacky races each election cycle.

The 23rd district is also interesting, mainly because of what is happening in the Senate race. John DiMaio, who was appointed to fill Karrow’s seat (and who, coincidentally, came in fifth place in the crowded 2005 primary that launched Karrow’s legislative career) and running mate Erik Peterson face off against a single challenger, Edward Smith, who is running on the Lonegan-Doherty ticket (at least in Hunterdon). The DiMaio/Peterson team have raised $46,700 to Smith’s $18,300.

There are some other interesting side stories in the Republican field. One to watch is in the 1st district, where a single Lonegan ally (Robert Schaefer) is challenging the party favorites, albeit with no money. This is likely to be the only legislative district with any potential for a party switch in November. Republican organization picks Frank Conrad and Michael Donohue have raised $37,000 for their primary contest. This is less than half the $82,000 raised so far by incumbent Democrats Nelson Albano and Matt Milam, who are unchallenged in their primary race. Expect a lot more money to pour into this district after June 2.

All nine of the Democratic primary challenges are against Democratic incumbents. However, none poses any threat, especially since the challengers in 8 of these districts have raised exactly $0. The only one of passing interest is former legislator Craig Stanley’s comeback attempt in the 28th district. However, after Newark adversaries Mayor Cory Booker and Senator Ron Rice united behind incumbents Ralph Caputo and Cleopatra Tucker, the race was effectively over. Stanley and running mate Shelly Bell have raised only $8,000 to the Caputo/Tucker team’s $100,000.

“If The Polls Are To Be Believed…”

Did you ever notice that polls seem to be subject to more journalistic skepticism than other numbers? Perhaps it’s because there are so many polls available, and of such varying quality, that it’s easy to compare and contrast differences.

On the other hand, nearly all other statistics – especially those from “official” sources – are accepted prima facie. For example, the media ran unquestioningly with a Social Security Administration story about the dramatic increase in baby boys being named Barack, although a simple journalistic inquiry would have quickly deflated that claim. Also, every press story about autism in New Jersey now includes the tag that New Jersey has the highest autism rate in the nation. However, this claim is based on a study that was done, not nationally, but in only 14 states – and even the comparability of those state results is suspect. (I’ll be blogging more about this issue in a few weeks.)

Not that I’m arguing for less scrutiny of polls – far from it. My main concern is that while basic questions about all numbers go unasked before being reported to the public, it seems that only with polls do the media express doubt on the veracity of the numbers they themselves report, many times with banner headlines.

On NJN’s Reporters Roundtable this past weekend, one panelist after another – including a reporter from Monmouth’s own media partner – used the phrase, “if the polls are to be believed.” They were discussing the New Jersey GOP gubernatorial primary and, specifically, Chris Christie’s large lead over Steve Lonegan in polls released by Monmouth/Gannett and Quinnipiac last week.

Skepticism of election polls – as with any number provided for public consumption – is extremely healthy. Polls are designed to capture a snapshot of attitudes and behaviors at the time they are taken. And indeed, we tend to see a lot of consistency among reliable polls on “here-and-now” measures (e.g. a politician’s job performance rating). However, polls are imperfect tools when asked to predict the future, such as an election outcome. Yet they work reasonably well and are the best tools we’ve got – so we use them.

What concerns me about the “if polls are to be believed” line is that there tends to be little discernment about why one should or shouldn’t believe the polls. And that’s because there is a tendency to evaluate election polls only in their capacity to predict outcomes. Among the five journalists on RR, I recall only one actually discussing a poll finding other than the top-line “horse race” results.

There’s such a media fascination with the horse race numbers that it’s easy to shoot down polls as insubstantial, if in fact that was all the polls were asking about. However, some polls actually do strive to go beyond the vote intention question to understand the dynamics of the electorate.

Monmouth/Gannett’s GOP primary poll included 19 questions about the campaign. But media outlets tended to report only the horse race results, or at most, the results of one or two additional questions.

In fact, the poll included a wealth of information that could help shape media coverage of the campaign and indeed make that coverage more relevant to voters’ actual concerns. For example, in poll after poll, property taxes is named by New Jersey voters as the number one issue they want to hear the gubernatorial candidates talk about. However, less than half of the GOP primary electorate say they have heard any of the candidates articulate a plan on this issue, or indeed on just about any of the issues voters consider to be important.

Perhaps the media could better serve its readers and viewers by pressing the candidates more to address these issues rather than focus on horse race and strategy. That is, of course, if the polls are to be believed.

A Hook to Hang Your Hat On

That’s a phrase I keep coming back to during this year’s gubernatorial race. And last night’s televised debate between Chris Christie and Steve Lonegan – who are vying for the Republican nomination for New Jersey Governor – only increased my sense that at least one candidate is not giving voters a hook to hang their hats on.

It’s clear from every poll in the past year, that most voters in New Jersey are disinclined to give Governor Jon Corzine another four years on the job. In the Republican field, Chris Christie has been positioning himself as the most electable contender in a state that trends solidly Democratic. Based on his campaign rhetoric, his main qualification appears to be that he showed how “tough” he can be as U.S. Attorney and he will be equally “tough” as governor.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make many voters – even Republican primary voters who are desperate for a general election win – feel comfortable enough to support him. He needs to give them a commitment on at least one salient issue – with salient being the key word – so they can say to their friends, “I’m voting for Christie because he’s going to fix X.” In other words, he needs to give voters a hook to hang their hats on.

The first question in last night’s debate offered the perfect opportunity. It was about property taxes, which is New Jersey voters’ #1 concern by far. Unfortunately, both candidates avoided offering specifics on how they would bring down property taxes. Basically, they said would do all sorts of other things right, e.g. cut spending, etc. This, we are led to believe, would somehow lead school districts and local governments to lower their tax rates. That may be so, but you’ve got to connect the dots to convince voters.

In other areas, Steve Lonegan did offer a number of specific ideas. Obviously, the flat tax is his central platform issue. And when asked what he would cut in state government, Lonegan named five departments he would eliminate or consolidate. Now, you can argue how much money that will actually save, but at least he made a specific commitment.

Christie did a good job hammering Lonegan’s flat tax proposal – basically that it would actually raise income taxes on most New Jersey families – thus undermining the credibility of Lonegan’s “hook” a bit. However, when asked to describe his own plans, Christie was less compelling.

Christie said he would use zero-based budgeting and the line-item veto, but did not specify which budget lines he would strike out. His hallmark tax reduction plan is to require a legislative super-majority for future tax increases. Not exactly the kind of stuff that’ll make voters to sit up and take notice.

It’s like walking into a Baskin-Robbins and finding the only flavors they’ve got are Pistachio Almond, Cotton Candy, and Rum Raisin. Sure, some people may really like those flavors. But for most people, the choices are nothing to get excited about.

The candidates did agree on some other policy areas. They support school vouchers, although there were some differences in how they would be applied. Neither would re-appoint any of the sitting Supreme Court justices up for tenure during the next four years (although a question about re-appointing Chief Justice Stu Rabner, a former Christie protege, made for an interesting moment).

Of course, the bottom line is whether any of their core proposals can get passed by a Democratically controlled legislature (and that’s not going to change next year, regardless of who wins at the top of the ticket). On that score, Christie is probably more realistic. Lonegan’s flat tax proposal will go nowhere in Trenton, whereas the line-item veto may be a Republican governor’s only real power.

Still, you should be able to specify which lines you will veto so the voters who are inclined to support you have some hook to hang their hats on.

That being said, the winner of this debate was Lonegan on points.

Barack Baby Boom Bupkus

The internet is burning up today with new numbers out of Washington. No, it’s not the bank stress test results or new stimulus spending. It’s the Social Security Administration’s annual report of America’s most popular baby names.

One major highlight of the report (and the item most media outlets jumped on is that: “Barack moved up a record 10,126 places to No. 2,409.” Actually, the SSA press release said that it was “probably” a record jump on the list, but we shouldn’t let that stand in the way. This is big news — our president has inspired a Barack Baby Boom!

The problem is that no reporters seem to have inquired just what the “Barack” jump from #12,535 in 2007 to #2,409 in 2008 actually represents in terms of raw numbers. Well, I did. And according to an email I just received from the SSA press office, the number of boys who were named Barack in 2008 was 52! That represents an increase from the 5 Baracks named in 2007.

[As a side note, these figures are approximate. The press rep said she was “uncertain of the precise number.” Huh? It’s not like I asked them to track down the TARP funds!]

At any rate, about 50 boys were named “Barack” in 2008 — out of more than 2.1 million boy names registered with the Social Security last year. That means “Barack” represents a grand total of 0.0024% of all boy names in 2008, up from 0.00023% the year before. [And yes, the decimal points are in the right place.]

To put this in perspective, the most popular name boy name last year was Jacob, accounting for 22,272 registrations with Social Security. The 50th most popular boy name was Aaron at 8,423, while Eli popped in at #100 with 4,445 registrations. In fact, to make it onto the SSA website’s list of the top 1,000 names, you only needed to have 191 co-namees (I’m talking about you, Yurem!).

All of which leaves me wondering why the SSA never reported on the Boutros Boutros-Gali boomlet of the early 90s.

This is #127 signing off.

It’s Property Taxes, Stupid!

Two months ago, I attended a conference at Rider University’s Rebovich Institute which featured campaign operatives from last year’s New Jersey District 3 Congressional race. Steve Ayscue, a consultant for the successful John Adler campaign, remarked that candidates don’t get to choose on which issues they get to campaign.

Well that’s not entirely true. There are times when no single issue dominates the political landscape and so candidates have a wider variety of options to focus on. In those campaigns, candidates choose to highlight issues where they have a natural advantage (e.g. jobs, health care, education for the Democrats and taxes, crime, security for the Republicans), and simply ignore the other issues.

However, there are times when a voter concern becomes so prevalent that candidates ignore it at their peril. Bill Clinton’s campaign team understood this in 1992. Despite President George H.W. Bush’s success in the Gulf War the year before, the American electorate had become almost singularly focused on economic woes. Hence, the Clinton mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Well, this year’s gubernatorial race in New Jersey is one of those times when candidates don’t get to choose their issue. The voters have spoken loud and clear (in response to an open-ended question on the recent Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll – April 29, 2009). And the number one issue is property taxes.

New Jersey’s Most Important Issue *

Year Property Taxes Other Taxes Economy/ Jobs Crime Education Environment Car insurance
2009 36% 5% 31% 1% 7% 1% <1%
2005 26% 8% 9% 5% 12% 2% 3%
2003 10% 10% 15% 2% 13% 4% 13%
1997 11% 10% 12% 5% 14% 3% 27%
1994 11% 11% 14% 17% 10% 3% n/a
1989 5% 5% 9% 15% 3% 24% 21%
1981 1% 10% 31% 9% 5% 5% <1%
1976 4% 28% 22% 2% 14% 4% 0%
1972 7% 29% 4% 6% 12% 7% 0%

* Only first responses to “most important issue” question are presented here.
Results prior to 2005 are from Eagleton-Rutgers Poll.

While it seems this is a perennial issue in New Jersey, it wasn’t always the case. In fact as recently as 2003, only 10% of voters named property taxes as the state’s biggest concern. The economy and jobs (15%), education (13%) and car insurance (13%) all surpassed this issue just six years ago.

In fact, a look back at past polling shows that auto insurance (27%) was the top issue in 1997 – which was basically ignored by incumbent Christie Whitman and almost cost her re-election. In 1989, the environment (24%) joined car insurance (21%) as the most important issues of the day, the economy and jobs (31%) topped the list in 1981, while income and sales taxes (28%) were leading concern in the 1970s.

Two things stand out from this walk down memory lane. First, prior to 2005, property taxes never topped 11% as a voter concern. And second, no single issue surpassed 31% as the state’s top concern. Until this year.

Right now, fully 36% of voters name New Jersey property taxes as the most important issue in this year’s gubernatorial campaign. When second choices are included, this increases to 48% who want this issue to be addressed. By comparison, 31% name the economy and jobs, which increases to 47% when second choices are added in.

But it’s property taxes that really sparks voters’ ire, and they already know what they think of the incumbent on this issue. In a poll we issued in February, the New Jersey public gave their governor a D+ on his handling of property taxes.

So of course, the Republican contenders recognize the current zeitgeist and have issued their own plans to deal with the state’s overriding concern? Not quite. Only 13% of voters say they have heard any specific proposal on property taxes from any of the GOP candidates.

Instead they have decided to focus on income taxes – the number one concern of only 3% of voters (or 12% if second choices are included). Steve Lonegan has proposed a flat tax. Chris Christie says that he will require a two-thirds super-majority in the legislature for any future tax increases.

That reminds me of the saturation point experiment in high school chemistry class – when you kept adding sugar to water until the water would no longer dissolve the sugar, no matter how hard you stirred. It’s called super-saturation. Christie’s tax majority proposal is akin to saying he will stop adding sugar. The problem is voters feel that they’re already super-saturated by the state’s property taxes and they want the candidates to figure out how reduce the excess sugar – i.e. tax burden – they’ve already got.

So, what if the eventual Republican nominee did issue a pledge to reduce property taxes? Well, 47% of voters – including a good number of Democrats – say they would be more inclined to vote for him in November.

Are the GOP candidates concerned that voters would view any such pledge as an election year gimmick? They would, but that might not matter. Sure, only 21% of voters say they believe such a pledge would be sincere, while fully 68% would see it as a promise made simply to get elected. However, even among this latter group of cynics, a sizable number – nearly 4-in-10 – still say they’d still be more likely to vote for the Republican if he made such a promise, even though they wouldn’t believe it!

It seems to be a sign of how desperate New Jersey voters are to have their top issue acknowledged – to have a candidate say “I feel your pain” (Bill Clinton again) – that they’d view him more favorably if he made a promise that he probably couldn’t keep.

So what happens if the gubernatorial candidates continue to ignore the (non-partisan) elephant in the room? Will voters make their choice based on whatever issues the candidates decide to discuss? Or will they decide not to bother voting at all? I’m betting that a significant number of New Jersey voters will take the latter course.