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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.

Tough Choices for Corzine

Governor Jon Corzine will unveil the fourth budget of his administration tomorrow. The fiscal reality is that he will have to make serious cuts in the state budget. The political reality is that he will have to do so in such a way that he doesn’t anger core constituencies (such as state workers and teachers unions) and also appears to spread the pain fairly (so he doesn’t tick off independent voters who are critical to his reelection prospects).

Not an easy task. Especially since he is not starting this process with a wealth of public goodwill. It’s worth taking a historical look at the governor’s job approval ratings during his prior budgets (see charts below).

Just three months after taking office in 2006, both the Quinnipiac and Monmouth U/Gannett NJ polls showed Jon Corzine’s job performance in the net negative region (i.e. more voter disapproved than approved of the job he was doing).

Corzine decided to take a hard line with his first budget in 2006, shutting down state government until the legislature agreed to pass what he felt was a fiscally responsible budget. In the end, the final budget included more than $300 million in so-called “Christmas Tree” items, specific spending earmarks inserted by various legislators.

The governor argued that this was his first budget and the process for legislative negotiations preceded him, but he vowed that the earmarking would be eliminated in future budgets. (President Obama is making much the same argument as an earmark-laden omnibus spending bill heads to his desk this week).

Indeed, Governor Corzine’s approval rating climbed back into positive territory after the budget agreement was reached in July 2006, even though the budget also included a one cent increase in the state’s sales tax.

The governor assured the state that the following year’s focus would be on relieving the state’s highest in the nation property tax burden. In November 2006, as a special legislative session on property taxes met, voters approved a half penny dedication of state sales tax revenues toward property tax relief. The governor’s job ratings remained basically stable.

The governor’s rating became muddied in the spring and summer of 2007, as it was entwined with his serious automobile accident and subsequent recovery. He did sign a budget without Christmas tree items that year, although overall spending continued to increase. His ratings remained relatively positive and stable throughout this period. However, by the fall of that year, the governor’s job rating started to decline.

In November 2007, voters rejected a bonding measure to fund stem cell research. While this garnered most of the media attention, the more significant vote was the defeat of a measure to dedicate another half penny of the sales tax toward property tax relief. This was basically identical to the measure voters had supported just a year before!

The problem was that the prior year’s special session never resulted in the property tax reform that homeowners were seeking. Instead, Trenton brought back property tax rebate checks. My interpretation of the 2007 vote on the half penny dedication is that voters didn’t want to be a party to what they saw as a shell game with tax revenues. (Ironically, the rebate program is one of the budget lines likely to get the ax tomorrow).

These events took a toll on the governor and his approval ratings started to decline in the fall of 2007. However, the real hit was yet to come.

In January 2008, Governor Corzine announced a plan to raise tolls in order to fund transportation projects and pay off state debt. His approval ratings took a nose dive, and they continued to drop as he held town hall style meetings around the state to sell his plan. His net job approval numbers went into negative territory for all three polls that regularly track New Jersey and stayed there throughout most of the year.

By June 2008, Governor Corzine had dropped the toll plan and signed a budget that kept total state spending flat. His numbers improved slightly, but remained negative overall.

His ratings further improved during the fall, but this may to have been largely an effect of the presidential campaign. After Obama’s inauguration in January, Governor Corzine’s job ratings began to drop. Thus, he embarks on his fourth budget process with public approval in negative territory. As I said at the outset, not an easy task.

Image presents two charts tracking NJ Gov. Jon Corzine’s approval ratings. Top chart presents percentage of registered voters who approve of the job Corzine is doing. The second chart presents the net job ratings (i.e. % approve minus % disapprove).

A note on the above charts. Each chart presents the results for three polls that regularly track Governor Corzine’s job ratings: Quinnipiac University, FDU-Public Mind, and Monmouth University. The first chart presents the percentage of registered voters who approve of the job Corzine is doing. The second chart presents the net job ratings (i.e. % approve minus % disapprove). The Quinnipiac and Monmouth numbers tend to track fairly close to one another, with a few exceptions. The FDU numbers tend to be higher than the other two polls. However, all three polls’ trend lines tend to move in the same direction.

Question Wording Matters

Today, we released a Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey poll on same-sex marriage. I characterized the poll results – 48% in favor to 43% opposed – as showing a public divided on this issue. I have been asked why I did not frame the results in a more positive light for same-sex marriage, especially since support among registered voters was slightly higher at 50%. The political reality is that these results indicate this is an issue with little momentum right now.

First, if this issue were put to a referendum, polling support would need to be above 50% for passage (referendum polls in New Jersey tend to understate the size of the “No” vote). Second, 27% of Garden State voters “strongly” oppose same-sex marriage, including 1-in-5 Democrats and 1-in-3 independents. Considering how tight the gubernatorial pre-election polls are right now, Governor Corzine needs nearly every one of these voters if he is to be re-elected. So he can’t afford to turn this into a campaign issue.

In the end, I chose to portray the results cautiously. By comparison, Garden State Equality released its own poll last August which obtained similar results, but under the headline: “Zogby Poll: New Jersey Wants to Dump Civil Unions for Marriage Equality, and Is Ready Now”. This leads me to the larger point of this post – which is to pay attention to question wording.

I was initially skeptical when I saw who conducted the poll. John Zogby has a reputation among credible pollsters for a lack of “quality control” when it comes to his client studies. For example, his firm recently conducted a poll on behalf of a conservative activist which purportedly measured Obama voters’ “knowledge” of the presidential candidates. However, it posed questions with unequal information about the two parties’ tickets that basically got the client what he wanted to hear. You can find critiques of this poll from the Wall Street Journal’s Numbers Guy and Politico. Zogby, for his part, first defended the poll but later said he was “out of town” when his firm accepted the contract.

Back to the August poll, some news organizations in New Jersey chose to report the poll under the rationale that Zogby supposedly has a good track record at election forecasting. That’s debatable, but really immaterial to this poll. The real issue is whether he asked objective questions.

The Monmouth poll’s same-sex marriage question, a variant of one first used by the Eagleton-Rutgers Poll in 2003, is: “Do you favor or oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally?”

The Zogby poll asked: “Currently, New Jersey lets same-sex couples enter only into civil unions, while California and Massachusetts give same-sex couples the freedom to marry. Do you support or oppose same-sex couples in New Jersey also getting the freedom to marry?”

On its face, this question violates a number of tenets of question wording. It uses appeals to the status quo (“currently…”), external benchmarks (“other states do it”), and loaded wording (“freedom”).

So what is the impact of all this extra verbiage? To find out, I included the Zogby wording in a split-half design experiment on our last poll (acknowledging that California voters have since banned same-sex marriage).

Among registered voters, the Zogby wording produced a 51% favor to 37% oppose result. That’s not significantly different than the Monmouth question wording’s 50% favor to 40% oppose among voters. However, a closer look at the internal numbers suggests that the Zogby question wording did indeed have an impact – but it was different for different groups. Among Democrats, support for same-sex marriage using the Zogby question stood at 66%, compared to 58% in the Monmouth question. Conversely, Republicans were less supportive of same-sex marriage in the Zogby question (31%) than they were in the Monmouth wording (37%).

My best guess is that the “other states do it” and “freedom” appeals encouraged some Democratic poll respondents to be more supportive than they would have otherwise. But the reference to Massachusetts and California – seen as bastions of liberal thinking by some – seems to have moved a similar number of Republican poll respondents in exactly the opposite direction.

I’ve posted about the importance question wording before . It’s a lesson worth repeating. If you are a client who insists that certain words need to be included in a question, be careful what you wish for. And if you are a journalist reporting on a poll, make sure you read – and are comfortable with – how the questions are asked.

Corzine, Obama speeches study in contrasts

What a difference a week makes.

On Tuesday in Trenton, Gov. Jon S. Corzine started his fourth year in office with a restrained State of the State address, mentioning a number of modest accomplishments and a handful of new proposals to help New Jersey weather the current economic storm.

This Tuesday in Washington, Barack Obama will take the oath of office and, as president, lay out his vision for the country’s future in these troubled times.

Aside from the settings, there are other significant differences in the two speeches.

The hopeful anticipation that will greet Obama is in stark contrast to the weary skepticism New Jersey feels toward its state government. The Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll reported in Friday’s Press found that Obama’s handling of his transition period meets with the approval of an incredible 75 percent of Garden State voters. A similar 71 percent say they are optimistic about the policies the new president will pursue. These numbers are basically identical to national poll results.

Corzine, on the other hand, clings to an unenthusiastic 43 percent approve to 40 percent disapprove job rating. However, he has finally climbed out of the net negative territory he found himself in after unveiling his highly unpopular, and ultimately abandoned, toll-hike plan in last year’s State of the State address.

The governor’s speech this year was much more subdued than past efforts. There were no sacred cows, 800-pound gorillas or flying pigs. Not even a dyspeptic squirrel. Recognizing the public mood, the governor walked a fine line between sober and upbeat. The speech was interrupted 31 times by applause, but the reception could be described as polite at best, and not altogether spontaneous. Indeed, by the third time Corzine referred to the economy as “priorities number 1, 2 and 3,” the clapping felt forced.

More importantly, the few new proposals the governor unveiled in his speech, such as pension contribution deferrals for local governments and a stop-gap open space bond measure, were met with silence.

Regrettably for the governor, the current situation did not allow much opportunity for unveiling the type of grand plans that one would expect of an incumbent about to launch a re-election bid. The sluggish economy and loss of jobs — named by half of state voters as the top issue in this year’s gubernatorial race — have hamstrung his ability to propose voter-friendly spending initiatives. The question is whether he will be seen as having helped New Jerseyans weather this storm.

From an election year point-of-view, the interesting parts of the speech are the accomplishments Corzine decided to include. These offer clues to the campaign strategy ahead. He pointed to educational improvements, investments in new school construction and a revised school funding formula among his successes. This is not surprising when you look at the polling numbers. Education is one policy area where the Democratic governor has a clear advantage over any potential Republican challenger, and nearly one in five voters currently name this issue as one of their top concerns.

On the other hand, Corzine also emphasized an area where he does not necessarily hold an advantage over the Republicans, or at least one Republican in particular. That is crime and corruption. Corzine devoted nearly three pages of his 22-page speech highlighting his administration’s crime and safety efforts, along with a call for more ethics reform.

Considering that very few voters — 6 percent to be exact — name corruption as a burning issue in this year’s gubernatorial race, it may seem like an odd issue to highlight. However, it is the only issue where GOP contender Chris Christie, the former U.S. Attorney, would start the race with a decided edge over the incumbent. Assuming Christie is able to win his party’s nomination — by no means a foregone conclusion given the history of Republican primaries in this state — neutralizing this issue will be a significant part of the Corzine campaign’s strategy.

Equally interesting, given the election-year context, is what was absent from Corzine’s State of the State speech. Aside from extending the “Senior Freeze” program and an unspecified promise to enforce a 4 percent cap on local property tax increases, the governor did not address broad-based property tax reform. The issue was a key element of his 2005 election campaign, but it now appears to be off his radar screen.

It is not out of the public’s mind, though. Nearly four in 10 Garden State voters say property taxes is the most important policy area they want the gubernatorial candidates to talk about. The property tax issue basically matches the economy as the top concern voters have this year.

So, Corzine has unofficially kicked off his re-election campaign with decidedly less than a bang. He must steer the state through an economic crisis at a time when many voters are skeptical of his ability to do so.

In two days, newly sworn President Barack Obama will face a distressed, but hopeful, nation. While the tone of his inaugural speech almost certainly will be sober, I expect the applause on the National Mall will be a bit more enthusiastic than what was heard last week in the New Jersey Statehouse.

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Asbury Park Press (1/18/09)

Record(?) Turnout in Blue(?) Jersey

Most observers (myself included) expected this year to mark the highest voter turnout in perhaps a century. A record number of people registered to vote in the past few months, voter enthusiasm and interest was at an all-time high, and early morning lines at many polling places all pointed to an unprecedented turnout. It was not to be.

New Jersey Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells issued a press release last week saying she was “proud that the people of New Jersey came out in record numbers” to vote this year. Wells’ press release referred to the 3.65 million voters who cast ballots in the presidential race as “extraordinary.” This year’s raw vote total was certainly a record, surpassing the ballots cast for president in 2004 by about 40,000 votes. The problem is that about 350,000 more New Jerseyans were registered to vote than four years ago.

If you look at turnout as a percentage of the voting pool, 68% of registered voters turned out this year, lower than the 73% in 2004, and decidedly lower than the 83% of registered voters who turned out as recently as 1992. Since the Motor Voter Act was passed in the mid-90s, we’ve seen turnout as a percentage of registered voters decline simply because more eligible voters are registered. So perhaps a better way to look at historical turnout is to focus on the eligible voter base (FYI: Professor Michael McDonald of George Mason University has a great site on state turnout estimates based on eligible voters.)

The voting eligible population (VEP) turnout in New Jersey this year was 63%. It was 64% in 2004, when John Kerry beat George W. Bush by 7 points in the state. On the other hand, this year’s VEP turnout was slightly higher than 1992 (62%) when the state chose a Democrat (Bill Clinton by 2 points) for the first time since 1964.

The size of the winning margin – Barack Obama bested John McCain by 15 points in the Garden State last Tuesday – could have been a factor. In other years, where the margin of victory was large (2000 Gore+16, 1996 Clinton+18, 1988 G.H.W.Bush+13, 1980 Reagan+13), VEP turnout was between 57% and 59%. However, VEP turnout was 61% in both 1984 when Reagan won the state by 21 points and 1976 when Ford took the state by just 2 points. In 1972, Nixon won New Jersey by 25 points on a 62% VEP turnout. So there is no clear turnout trend based on winning margin.

Among the 11 northeastern states, New Jersey placed 8th in terms of VEP turnout. The highest state turnout was registered in Maine at 73% and the lowest in New York at 58%. We did surpass battleground state Pennsylvania (62%) though.

How Blue is New Jersey?

There is perhaps a very thin silver lining for Garden State Republicans that Barack Obama’s 15 point win wasn’t larger on Tuesday. New Jersey’s preference for Democratic candidates has caused us to be viewed as one of the bluest states in the country. But based on the results of this year’s presidential race, New Jersey can’t hold a candle to other states in the region.

Obama’s winning margin in New Jersey ranked 9th out of 11 states in the Northeast. Only battleground states Pennsylvania (11 points) and New Hampshire (9 points) gave the Democratic nominee a smaller winning percentage. New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maryland, and Delaware all gave Obama margins in excess of 20 points (Maine was 17 points).

Nationally, New Jersey provided the 16th largest margin for Obama out of the 29 states (plus DC) that the Democrat won. Furthermore,’s Wally Edge pointed out that Frank Lautenberg’s winning margin ranked 11th out of the 12 Democratic U.S. Senate incumbents who ran for re-election this year. Lautenberg’s margin was even bested by four Democratic senators from states won by McCain, as well as two newcomers who convincingly won Republican-held seats in New Mexico and Virginia.

Compared to 2000, the last race without an incumbent, Barack Obama obtained a greater share of the vote than Al Gore in 39 of the 50 states plus DC. Of the 12 states where John McCain either held steady or improved over George W. Bush’s 2000 performance, one was his home state of Arizona, 7 were southern red states and 4 were in the northeast, including – you guessed it – New Jersey. Granted, the difference in these blue northeastern states between 2000 and 2008 was a single point or less. But the other states gave Obama much bigger margins to begin with (Massachusetts +26, Rhode Island +28, New York +25).

Considering New Jersey Democrats’ underperformance relative to other states in the region, I’m not sure which party should be crying the blues. OK. Democrats still held a 16 point identification advantage among last Tuesday’s voters according to the exit polls. But if you’re a Republican looking ahead to the 2009 gubernatorial race, you take your comfort where you can find it.

New Jersey Electoral Margins

The final Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll before Tuesday’s election puts Barack Obama ahead of John McCain by 55% to 34% in the Garden State (here). If this margin holds, it will be the first time in more than two decades that a presidential candidate won New Jersey by more than 20 points.

The last instance was 1984, when Ronald Reagan bested Walter Mondale 60% to 39%. The last 30+ point win was Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964. However, both of these races were won by incumbent presidents. You have to go all the way back to 1928 for the last time a non-incumbent candidate carried the state by 20 points.

That is not to say that large presidential victory margins are uncommon in New Jersey. Fifteen of the past 25 presidential elections were won by double digits, including 8 that were won by 20 points or more. Since 1908, the average margin of victory in New Jersey has been 14 points. [See the table at the end of this post for historical data.]

In New Jersey’s Senate race, Frank Lautenberg leads Dick Zimmer in our poll by 19 points going into the final days. This margin may come as a bit of a shock to those who keep track of the incumbent’s career. While he won his current term with a 10 point victory (after coming out of retirement to replace Robert Torricelli just weeks before the 2002 election), his prior margins were slimmer – including a 3 point win in 1994, 8 points in 1988, and 2 points in 1982.

The poll indicates that the size of Lautenberg’s margin in this race is due almost entirely to enthusiasm for the top of the ticket. (Quick fact: 72% of Jersey voters have been paying close attention to the presidential race, but only 9% have been closely following the senate campaign). It is possible that Barack Obama’s coattails can also swing two Republican-held Congressional seats in the 3rd and 7th districts into the Democratic column and lead to a potential upset of a GOP incumbent in New Jersey’s 5th.

And New Jersey simply reflects what’s going on nationally. Here are some other interesting stats to keep in mind as you watch election returns on Tuesday night:

–In the 1980 Reagan victory, the GOP picked up 34 House seats and 12 Senate seats (gaining control of the Senate).

–When Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, the GOP picked up 5 House seats and 6 Senate seats.

–Four years earlier, the Johnson landslide helped Democrats pick up 36 new House seats, but there were no gains in the Senate.

–When Truman defeated Dewey in 1948, the Democrats picked up 75 House seats and 9 Senate seats (which marked a return to majority status after both chambers temporarily went Republican in 1946).

–And the seminal 1932 Franklin Roosevelt election saw the Democrats pick up 97 House seats (they had gained bare control the year earlier with a couple of special elections) and gain control of the Senate with 12 new seats.

Will this year look more like 1980 or 1968? Or perhaps 1932? (Well, probably not that last one.)


New Jersey Presidential Vote Margins

Year Winner Margin
2004 D-Kerry 7
2000 D-Gore 16
1996 D-Clinton* 18
1992 D-Clinton 2
1988 R-G.H.W. Bush 13
1984 R-Reagan* 21
1980 R-Reagan 13
1976 R-Ford* 2
1972 R-Nixon* 25
1968 R-Nixon 2
1964 D-Johnson* 32
1960 D-Kennedy 1
1956 R-Eisenhower* 31
1952 R-Eisenhower 15
1948 R-Dewey 4
1944 D-Roosevelt* 1
1940 D-Roosevelt* 3
1936 D-Roosevelt* 20
1932 D-Roosevelt 1
1928 R-Hoover 20
1924 R-Coolidge* 35
1920 R-Harding 40
1916 R-Hughes 11
1912 D-Wilson 7
1908 R-Taft 18

* incumbent

An Age Old Question

Is Frank Lautenberg too old to effectively serve as a U.S. Senator for New Jersey? The answer seems to depend on how you ask the question.

Lautenberg, at 84 years old, is the third oldest incumbent in the U.S. Senate. Two polls released today show conflicting results on attitudes toward Lautenberg’s age. Quinnipiac’s poll shows a majority of registered voters who think New Jersey’s senior senator is too old to effectively serve another six year term. On the other hand, our own Monmouth/Gannett Poll finds fewer than 1-in-3 voters who think Lautenberg is too old to be effective.

So what gives? Well, since both polls have the Senate race with similar margins (9 points Quinnipiac and 10 points in our poll), the main difference appears to be the way the two polls ask the age question.

Quinnipiac asks: At age 84, do you think Frank Lautenberg is too old to effectively serve another six year term as United States Senator? They’ve asked this question five times over the past year and have obtained consistent results each time:

Quinnipiac: Is Lautenberg too old?

Date Yes No
Sep 08 54% 40%
Aug 08 55% 39%
Jun 08 54% 41%
Feb 08 58% 36%
Sep 07 54% 40%

By comparison, Monmouth asks the following question: Do you agree or disagree that Frank Lautenberg is too old to be an effective senator?, to which we have obtained the following results in the last year:

Monmouth/Gannett: Is Lautenberg too old?

Date Yes No
Sep 08 31% 57%
Jul 08 31% 54%
Apr 08 41% 46%
Jan 08 34% 51%

We found some increased concern about Lautenberg’s age in April, when he faced a primary challenge from Congressman Rob Andrews and the incumbent’s age was raised as an issue. But this quickly receded after he won the nomination in June.

One difference between the two questions is that the Quinnipiac question asks voters to focus on Lautenberg serving out another term whereas the Monmouth question implies a present-time context. This likely accounts for some, but certainly not all of the 23 point disparity between the two polls. The more important difference appears to be that Quinnipiac actually mentions the senator’s age, while Monmouth does not. And this does seem to matter significantly.

In July, we performed a question wording experiment where half the voter sample was asked our standard Lautenberg age question and the other half was asked the following about an unnamed person: In general, do you agree or disagree that someone 84 years of age is probably too old to be an effective senator? On the latter question, we found 46% of voters in agreement – a full 15 points higher than those who said Lautenberg is too old in our standard question format.

Now, I hear you saying, “But Lautenberg is 84, so why isn’t there more concern about his age?” Well, it’s because most voters don’t really know how old he is. In the poll released today, we asked voters to tell us how old they think their senator is. The average guess? 75 years old – fully nine years younger than his actual age! In fact, fewer than 1-in-4 voters could place Lautenberg’s age in the right decade.

Additionally, it appears that most New Jersey voters consider the mid-70s an acceptable age for public service. In the same July poll where we experimented with asking about Lautenberg’s age, we did a comparable test for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. In that poll, we found that 21% of voters thought McCain was too old to serve effectively as president. This was not remarkably different from the 28% who said the same about a generic 72-year old, McCain’s current age.

Pollsters can have reasonable differences in how they frame a question. Should we put survey respondents in the present context or focus them on the future? How much information should we include in a question when most voters are unaware of that information? This is something that we frequently deliberate about when crafting questions about issues, such as toll hike plans.

At the outset, the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll made a decision not to mention Lautenberg’s specific age in our question wording. Our intent was to obtain results that reflected current perceptions based on what voters believe his age to be. If, as most observers expect, Senator Lautenberg’s age becomes more widely discussed in the current campaign, we anticipate this question will be able to capture the impact of any heightened voter awareness, as it appears to have done during this spring’s primary battle.

Party ID Apples and Oranges

In the next few weeks, election polls will be coming fast and furious. And that also means an increase in professed skepticism from party leaders whose candidate ends up on the short end of the results.

One of the most common, and misused, attack strategies is to claim the poll doesn’t have the “right” partisan mix. Usually, these partisan critics will point out how the offending poll’s party identification is out of line with the state’s party registration figures. Party leaders know this is a red herring, and so should you. Here’s why.

Party affiliation can be viewed in two ways: the party you register with and the party you “identify” with (e.g. the standard polling question “In politics today, do you consider yourself…”). Getting party registration numbers is pretty straightforward. Their relation to how voters think of themselves is less so.

On February 4, 2008, the majority of New Jersey voters – 58% in fact – were unaffiliated with either of the two main parties. Among the remainder, Democrats had a 6 point registration advantage over Republicans (24% to 18%). However, 2 days later, party registration in the Garden State experienced a sea change. As of February 6, the majority of New Jersey’s voters were suddenly registered with a party, 34% Dem to 21% Rep, while 45% remained unaffiliated.

If you accept the premise that party self-identification as measured in polls should match party registration figures, then you would also need to swallow as the notion that 600,000 previously independent New Jersey voters awoke on the morning of February 5 with the sudden revelation that after years of political independence, they would now be partisan – a sort of party ID road to Damascus.

Or you could accept the more reasonable premise that these voters were always partisan – i.e. they tended to vote consistently for one party or the other in general elections. However, due to the nature of New Jersey’s voter registration system, they weren’t recorded as partisan on the registration rolls until they decided to vote in a primary (which they did in record numbers for the Feb. 5 presidential primary. I’ve already posted about that phenomenon here.)

Let’s look at a direct comparison of party registration and party ID. Based on estimates culled from voter list services, the 2.3 million New Jerseyans who turned out to vote in the November 2006 U.S. Senate election were registered as follows: 34% Democrat, 27%, Republican, and 39% unaffiliated/other. (As a side note: turnout is much lower among unaffiliated voters than it is among registered partisans, so you should expect the actual electorate to have fewer independents than the registration figures show). The 2006 Exit Polls showed party ID as 41% Democrat, 28% Republican, and 31% Independent. While Democrats had a 7 point registration advantage in the 2006 vote (similar to their overall registration advantage), they enjoyed a larger 13 point “identification” advantage.

Turning back to the current cycle, what appears to have happened on February 5 is that partisan voters turned out in proportions more similar to their self-professed party ID than they had in prior state primaries. However, our polling indicates that the Democratic party ID advantage has continued to grow since the presidential primary.

I’ve compiled 7 month rolling averages for party ID from Monmouth’s past year and a half of polling. Because party ID is an attitude and not a stable demographic like gender or race (see this Gallup report from January 2007), averaging partisan self-identification helps to smooth sudden fluctuations in party ID that may be due to either sample variation or reactions to major political events.

New Jersey Voters’ Party Self-Identification
(7 month rolling averages)

Date Dem Rep Ind Dem adv
Jul 08 42% 25% 33% +17
Apr 08 41% 24% 35% +17
Mar 08 40% 25% 35% +15
Feb 08 38% 24% 37% +14
Jan 08 37% 24% 39% +13
Oct 07 38% 24% 38% +14
Jul 07 37% 25% 39% +12
Apr 07 37% 24% 39% +13
Feb 07 36% 25% 39% +11

A number of things are worth noting here. First, while the Democrats’ edge in party registration jumped from 6 points to 13 points because of February’s presidential primary, their advantage in party ID remained fairly stable in the run up (ranging from 11 to 14 points during the prior year).

Second, the Democrats’ ID advantage has grown since the February 5 vote. The percentage of voters identifying themselves with the Democratic party has increased from 38% to 42%, while Republican identification has remained stable at 25%. (This is also supported by a partisan “enthusiasm gap” noted in our July poll).

Third, while both Barack Obama and frank Lautenberg are maintaining leads in our latest poll, they are both underperforming the partisan ID split. Among registered voters in our July poll, Obama was ahead of John McCain by 14 and Lautenberg led Dick Zimmer by 10, while the Dem party ID advantage was 17 points.

The bottom line is that the apples of party ID as measured in polls are not the same as the oranges of party registration. If you see a poll with party ID that matches New Jersey’s registration, the pollster likely gave too much weight to unaffiliateds who are unlikely to vote. Otherwise, when you hear a party spokesperson say something like “We know in New Jersey that’s not exactly how the makeup goes” to shoot down a poll’s party split, consider the source and check the facts.

To Decide or not to decide

Last month, I posted an entry about not reading too much into the horse race numbers from summer polling. Last week, a post on Skeptical Pollster added another wrinkle to the debate about early horse race numbers, specifically questioning whether polls accurately measure the level of indecision among voters.

The Skeptical Pollster site is run by David Moore, a former Gallup Poll editor. Moore asserts that Gallup’s current definition of “swing” voters grossly underestimates the level of indecision in the electorate. Or more precisely, the poll overstates the number of voters who are truly committed to a candidate in this year’s presidential contest.

Moore points to an experiment Gallup did 12 years ago that directly asked voters whether they had made up their minds about who to support. This was asked prior to the typical horse race question (e.g. “If the election were held today, who would you vote for…”). Using this format in a September 1996 poll, they found that 40% of voters said they were not settled on a candidate.

Moore uses this finding as evidence that the typical horse race question forces people to make a choice they haven’t yet considered making. I’m not so sure.

After February’s New Jersey primary, the Monmouth University Polling Institute re-contacted voters from our last two pre-election polls (conducted Jan. 9-13 and Jan.30-Feb.1) to see what these voters actually did on primary day. In those polls, the number of likely voters who told us they were undecided was 17% for Republicans and 21% for Democrats the week before the primary, and 23% for Republicans and 26% for Democrats the month before. However, about one-third of these undecided voters admitted to “leaning” to a candidate when prompted. So the “pure” undecided number reported in our final polls ranged between 11% and 17%.

On the other hand, our post-election interviews found that, among those who actually voted on February 5th, 23% said they made up their minds in the final three days and another 37% decided within the month prior to primary day. This seems to support Moore’s assertion that many, if not most, voters in pre-election polls “have not yet even decided whom to support” rather than being nominally decided voters who “could” change their minds.

But there’s more to this story. Let’s take a closer look at the nearly 1-in-4 New Jersey primary voters who told us they made up their minds in the final three days. Among those voters, 77% had actually expressed a candidate preference in our pre-election polls. Among this small group of voters, only one-third changed their mind in the end. In other words, most of those voters who supposedly did not decide until the final days were able to predict their voting behavior a week or even a month prior to the primary. Moreover, among all voters who named a candidate preference in our pre-election polls, 5-in-6 stuck by that choice on primary day.

Of course, many “likely” voters that a poll measures decide to sit out an election – and this group could arguably be included as part of the voter indecision phenomenon. So if we start with our total base of likely voters and add together vote switchers (12%), undecided voters who would not state a preference until election day (6%), and voters who stayed home (20%), we find that 38% of our pre-election voter sample was volatile. That’s pretty close to the 40% number cited by Moore.

Do pollsters err when they press initially undecided voters to name a preference? To answer that, you need to consider the purpose of pre-election polls. These polls, by design, give us a picture of the electorate in the aggregate at a specific time point. They are not designed to track individual-level changes. That’s what survey researchers call a panel survey.

The evidence suggests that, for the most part, individual voter volatility is statistically random – in other words, these vacillations tend to cancel each other out. That’s what we found among the vote switchers in our primary polling. In addition, about half of the likely voters in our pre-election polls who did not turn out on primary were pure undecided voters anyway. So their decision not to participate had little impact on the accuracy of our pre-election horse race numbers.

Certainly many voters are not entirely committed to a candidate at any point in an election and we should remain aware of that volatility. Pre-election polls may not fully tap the amount of individual-level churning that goes on within the electorate, but the polls do give us a decent picture of the aggregate effects of that churning. In the end, pollsters probably learn more by measuring voters’ leanings than if we let all undecided voters simply stay on the fence.

Track those aggregate changes over time (e.g. see, and you have a more complete story about how the candidates and issues are resonating with the electorate over the course of a campaign. It’s certainly a more interesting story than having poll after poll tell us that 4-in-10 voters are not completely certain of what they’ll do on election day. Heck, I’m not totally sure what I’ll be doing tomorrow.

Summertime, and the polling is easy

Polls released in the past few days provide an early gauge of the upcoming elections in New Jersey. In the U.S. Senate contest, today’s Quinnipiac Poll gives Frank Lautenberg a healthy 9 point lead over Dick Zimmer, whereas Monday’s Rasmussen poll showed the incumbent with an insignificant 1 point advantage. The conventional wisdom says that New Jersey voters tend to flirt with Republican candidates early in the campaign, only to return to “blue state” form by mid-October. However, this is a relatively new development.

As recently as 1992, New Jersey was still in play for presidential elections, and both the 1993 and 1997 gubernatorial elections saw the GOP candidate win in a squeaker. And while New Jersey voters have not sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972, they came within 3 percentage points of doing so in both 1994 and 2000.

Summer polls make interesting news fodder, but what do they tell us about where a campaign will eventually end up? I took a look back at polls taken in seven different races in New Jersey since 2000. To be fair to individual pollsters, I averaged the Democratic candidates’ margin over/under the Republican candidate in each race for five time periods: June through August, all of September, early October, late October, and the final November polls. [As a side note, the final polls’ average margin was within 2 points of the election day victory margin in five of the seven contests – perhaps a compelling argument for averaging poll results!]

NJ Democratic Candidate Advantage   (poll averages) *

Election Summer Sept Early Oct Late Oct Nov Actual
’06 Sen +3 -2 +4 +5 +7 +9
’05 Gub +10 +10 +7 +8 +6 +10
’04 Pres +12 +3 +4 +8 +5 +7
’02 Sen+ +7 -7 +2 +7 +12 +10
’01 Gub +17 +15 +12 +14 +13 +14
’00 Pres +4 +12 +14 +9 +10 +16
’00 Sen +16 +9 +14 +7 +4 +3
*   Data for 2006 are from 15 polling organizations and for 2005 are from 11 pollsters. The 2000 to 2004 data are averaged from Quinnipiac and Eagleton polls.
+   Due to a candidate switch in 2002, the summer and September polls test a different Democratic nominee than the later polls. While this election is one of New Jersey’s wonderful little anomalies, it is included in the table for continuity and doesn’t necessarily disrupt any trend.

One question is whether the summer polls are predictive of the final outcome. When it comes to the final vote margin, they are not. The summer polls hit the nail on the head just once (in 2005), and were within 3 percentage points of the actual victory margin in 2001. They were also within 3 points in 2002, although the Democratic candidate was literally a different person in the summer and at the final bell. In 2004 and 2006, the summer polls were off the final margin by 5 to 6 points. And they were off by double digits (12 to 13 points) in both the presidential and senate races of 2000.

Interestingly, the differences between the summer polls and the actual victory margin show no partisan consistency. In two elections – 2000 president and 2006 senate – the Democratic candidate performed better on election day than he did back in the summer. [This was also true for the 2002 senate switcheroo.] However, for three elections – 2000 senate, 2001 governor, and 2004 president – the Democrat did relatively worse in the final vote margin than in the summer polls.

Another question is whether New Jersey Republican candidates show stronger support in summer polls than they do later in the campaign season. This does not seem to be the case either. Only in the 2000 presidential race did summer polling show the narrowest D minus R gap of the campaign season. For three races (2002, 2004, and 2006), the Republicans actually enjoyed their best showing in the September polls. The 2001 election showed the Democratic advantage at its slimmest, albeit nominally so, in the early October polling. Only in the 2000 senate and 2005 governor races did the Republican candidate narrow the gap throughout the final weeks of the campaign, although the movement in 2005 was neither substantive nor predictive of the final outcome.

Indeed, the only point on which all seven races were consistent is that the Democrat was ahead in the summer polls and went on to win each of those elections. Given the very different pictures painted by the two polls released this week, we will need to see a few more polls before we have a good sense of how this race is shaping up. However, there are a number of factors this year that will probably make it even tougher than usual for the GOP to do well in New Jersey. A Republican who stands a chance of winning statewide needs to start off with a broader base of support than the party appears to have now.

For instance, both the February 5th and June 3rd primaries registered higher turnout among Democrats than Republicans. This in itself is not unusual, but in both instances the Democratic turnout was nearly double that of the Republican vote. That is definitely unusual. Also, the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll in April indicated that 6-in-10 Republican-leaning voters had no real preference as to who their party’s U.S. Senate nominee should be. This is certainly not evidence of tremendous enthusiasm among the GOP base.

Another major factor this year is that the economy has become the predominant voter concern – an 800 pound gorilla shoving all other issues to the background. A commonly accepted rule of politics is that certain issues naturally benefit one party over the other. Campaigns are designed to raise “their” issue as the primary consideration for voters. Democrats typically have an advantage when economic concerns dominate the debate. The GOP will need to move their issues – such as national security or taxes – to the top of voters’ minds if they want to grab the advantage here in New Jersey.

Couple all this with the fact that New Jersey voters rarely tune into statewide races until a couple of weeks before the election, and you have a hefty grain of salt with which to read these early poll results. Pollsters, Monmouth/Gannett included, will continue to track these races through the summer and fall. My advice is to look for the numbers behind the “horse race” to get a better understanding of both the mood of the electorate and the dynamics that will drive this year’s election. What are the top issues on voters minds? Are voters tuning in early this year? Are there partisan differences in enthusiasm for the campaign? In the early polls, this information will be more useful, and indeed more interesting, than the horse race numbers in giving us a picture of the electorate, both here in New Jersey and throughout the country.

A Numbers-Based Primary Primer

The candidates have staked out their issues and have sought to bring undecided voters into their camps. But when it comes down to it, primary elections are mainly a numbers game. There are generally few, if any, issue positions that separate the contenders – that is if there is even more than one candidate seeking the nomination. So, the following information is to provide a numbers-based context for the June 3rd primary.


Hey, didn’t we already vote in a primary this year? Yes, and in record numbers. For the first time, New Jersey separated its presidential contest from the primary election for all other offices. On February 5th, 1,141,000 voters came out to vote in the Democrat primary and 566,000 voted in the GOP contest. Is this a harbinger for higher turnout Tuesday? Probably not. One of the reasons given for New Jersey’s generally low turnout in most elections is that we hold too many of them. Including tomorrow’s primary, some towns in the state will have held FIVE elections in the past four months! Yes, you read that right – in addition to the February 5 and June 3 primaries, there were fire district elections on February 16, school elections on April 15, and non-partisan municipal contests on May 13.

Throw in November’s general election, and somewhere in New Jersey, probably in Delran, there lives a voter who will have gone to the polls six times this year. Unfortunately, he or she is probably the only one. Most voters are fatigued by all these elections, and so most observers expect that tomorrow’s turnout will be even lower than usual.

A typical primary election headlined by a contested U.S. Senate seat would draw about 275-300,000 Republican voters and maybe 350-400,000 Democrats based on turnout figures from the past 15 years. The Dem number is less certain since the only recently contested primary occurred during the 2000 presidential year. If turnout looks more like the 187,000 Republicans and 219,000 Democrats who voted in the 2006 Senate primaries (where the front-runners faced only token opposition), then it’s likely that primary fatigue has been a factor this year.

Democratic Senate Race

This U.S. Senate race is a story of party lines. Not surprisingly, Rob Andrews has lined up solid support in his native south (as far as getting the party line on the ballot), but this will only account for about 22% of the total Democratic turnout statewide. In the 2000 Senate contest – a similar North versus South battle between Jon Corzine and Jim Florio – Florio won the seven southernmost counties by a 2-to-1 margin. Even with his poor showing in South Jersey, Corzine only needed 55% of the Democratic vote from the rest of the state to win the nomination. He actually got 65% – including 77% in Essex and 78% in Hudson.

Assuming that Morristown mayor Donald Cresitello takes about 8% of the statewide vote and Andrews does as well in the south as Florio did, Frank Lautenberg will only need about 49% of the vote in the rest of the state to take the nomination. There are some rumors that party operatives in Essex, Union, and Middlesex may be secretly working for Andrews. It’ll be worth watching how well he does in those counties.

GOP Senate Race

The Republican race is in greater flux. Dick Zimmer has better statewide name recognition, but Joe Pennacchio may have support where it counts most. Basically, Zimmer has the party line in counties that represent about 48% of a typical GOP primary vote, while Pennacchio has the line in counties which account for 49% of the projected vote. Importantly, Pennacchio has the line in the two biggest counties – Bergen and Morris – which together represent about one-quarter of the GOP vote. Since Morris is his home county, it’s worth paying attention to both his margin and the total turnout in that county. There’s also a contested freeholder race in Bergen that could have an up-ballot effect.

Furthermore, Pennacchio has the party line in the four counties that fall in the 7th congressional district – one of two hotly contested open GOP primaries. This means he is running with Leonard Lance in Hunterdon and Somerset. (He’s also on the line with Kelly Hatfield in Union and Kate Whitman in the Middlesex portions of that district). Look for a potential reverse coattails effect in those races (see below for the congressional outlook). It should be noted that Zimmer has the party line in the counties comprising the 3rd congressional district, but it’s not clear whether this race is generating the kind of voter enthusiasm that will help Zimmer.

Also of note is that Murray Sabrin, who has only one county line (Gloucester), is running bracketed slates in CD#s 1, 2, 6, 7, and 11. It’ll be interesting to see if he does better in those areas where he is running a slate – and if that hurts Pennacchio.

For historical perspective, in the 2000 U.S. Senate GOP primary, only three counties were lost by the party organization’s designated choice. On the other hand, Doug Forrester won the 2002 Senate nomination despite having only one line. And if we throw recent gubernatorial contests into the mix, it becomes anybody’s game. So the larger question is whether party lines will carry the day, or if GOP primary voters will reject the county party organizations’ choices, as they have done many times in the past.

GOP Congressional Races

All eyes are on the 3rd and 7th districts, where retiring GOP incumbents have led to heavily contested fights for the party’s nomination. The 7th district is a free-for-all among seven contenders, led by state senator Leonard Lance and Kate Annis, nee Whitman (the daughter of the former governor, who is reverting to her parents’ last name for purposes of the ballot). Lance has the party line in his home county of Hunterdon, along with Somerset – which together make up two-thirds of the Republican primary vote in that district. (Note: I’m averaging turnout share from the last three congressional races.) Despite residing in Somerset, Whitman has only the Middlesex line, which comprises just 6% of the GOP vote. Kelly Hatfield took the line in her home county of Union, making up the remaining 27% of the vote.

It’s worth watching Hunterdon County. About 3-in-10 voters in the 7th district have already seen Lance’s name on the ballot as a state legislator. Most, if not all, of these Hunterdon voters have become accustomed to voting for him. It’ll be worth watching to see if Lance can break the 50% barrier in his home county among this crowded field. If so, he’ll only need a nominal win in Somerset to take the nomination.

The 3rd congressional district race has been acrimonious, to say the least. Of the three contenders there, the two main candidates are Medford mayor Chris Myers, who has the Burlington and Camden lines, and Ocean freeholder Jack Kelly, who has the line in his home county. The Ocean County portion of GOP primary turnout in this district has ranged from 39% to 49% in the last three elections. However, none of those congressional nominations have been contested and the turnout has been largely driven by other offices. Kelly, as a freeholder, is known to the voters of Ocean, whereas Myers’s base is more local. Furthermore the Burlington party organization is seen as more fractured than the Ocean party. This race may come down to which county – Ocean or Burlington (including the small part of Camden in the district) – can turn out more than half of the total vote in this primary.

Corzine Job Approval: A Tale of Two Offices

About two months ago, I was part of a group from Leadership New Jersey that had the opportunity to meet with Governor Corzine’s chief-of-staff, Brad Abelow. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the governor’s highly unpopular fiscal restructuring plan and state budget proposal.

The Chief said that the governor has taken unpopular positions in the past and stood by them regardless of what happened to his poll ratings. Fair enough. But then Abelow said something curious – well, curious to a pollster. He asserted (and I’m paraphrasing a bit) that the all-time biggest drop in Jon Corzine’s job approval came during his U.S. Senate term, after he voted against authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

I didn’t have Corzine’s senate career ratings memorized, but given recent events in his gubernatorial career, I was sure that wasn’t right. So, in our never-ending pursuit of the “Real Numbers,” I looked it up. Any way you slice it, the movement in Senator Corzine’s voter approval is nothing compared to what’s happened to Governor Corzine’s ratings this year.

According to the latest Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll (April 30, 2008), Governor Corzine has an upside down job rating among New Jersey registered voters – 36% approve to 53% disapprove. [Note: I’m using registered voters as the base in this analysis so the trend is consistent across polls.]

Corzine ended 2007 with a +3 net rating, or 46% approve to 43% disapprove according to the Quinnipiac Poll (see tables below for full trend). That dropped to a net –4 rating in the Monmouth/Gannett poll released January 16, 2008 – the week after he announced his toll road/fiscal restructuring plan. The governor then embarked on a series of town hall meetings to sell the plan, but by late February his ratings had dropped even further to a net –15. [An interesting side note: While the governor’s job rating declined during this period, opinion on the toll road plan itself did not budge (for details).] And two weeks after the governor announced his austere budget proposal, his approval dipped even further to a net –21.

In sum, from December 2007 to March 2008, Governor Corzine’s net job rating dropped a full 24 points. Specifically, his job approval declined from 46% to 34%, while his job disapproval increased from 43% to 55%.

Now, let’s turn to Brad Abelow’s assertion. Senator Jon Corzine’s job rating in September 2002, the month prior to his vote against the Iraq war resolution, was 47% approve to 19% disapprove – or a net +28 job rating (courtesy of Quinnipiac). This is fairly consistent with his job rating throughout 2002.

Senator Corzine’s job approval in December 2002 – his first public poll rating after the war vote – was a net +25 rating (47% approve to 22% disapprove), a nearly negligible change. To be fair to the governor’s chief-of-staff, though, we should look to the time of the actual conflict. After the Iraq war commenced in March 2003, Jon Corzine’s approval rating did indeed decline – to a net +17 (46% to 29%). It bottomed out at 44% to 30% in June (and again in November) of that year, before his approvals climbed into the 50s by August 2004.

Jon Corzine’s job rating as senator dropped 14 net points from September 2002 to June 2003. It’s also worth noting that President Bush’s net job rating among New Jersey voters (again, courtesy Quinnipiac) also declined by a similar 15 points during the exact same period – from +34 in September (64% to 30%) to +19 in June (58% to 39%). So, it’s not really clear whether it was specifically Corzine’s vote against the Iraq war or a general reaction against Washington that was responsible for the decline in his senatorial job rating.

In any event, Senator Corzine’s job approval never dropped below 44% and his disapproval never topped 30%. This is a far cry from where Governor Corzine’s job approval stands today, with a clear majority of voters who disapprove and a net rating that is now 20 points lower than it was at the start of the year.

What are the possible implications in today’s political climate? Well, if Congressman Rob Andrews thinks calling for change is a good primary strategy against a U.S. Senator with a +17 net job rating (48% approve to 31% disapprove of Frank Lautenberg’s performance), imagine how that change message may play out against a gubernatorial incumbent with a net –17 job rating.

Governor Corzine Job Approval (among registered voters)

Date Approve Disapprove N/A Net Approval
    4/30/08 * 36% 53% 11% -17
    3/9/08 * 34% 55% 11% -21
2/26/08: Announces budget proposal
    2/20/08 ** 37% 52% 12% -15
1/12/08 to 2/11/08: Holds town hall meetings
    1/16/08 * 42% 46% 12% -4
1/8/08: Announces fiscal restructuring plan
    12/11/07 ** 46% 43% 11% +3
    10/7/07 * 47% 34% 19% +13
    9/25/07 ** 49% 40% 11% +9
    7/22/07 * 46% 36% 17% +10
    7/9/07 ** 48% 39% 13% +9
    4/19/07 * 52% 30% 17% +22
    4/18/07 * 51% 36% 13% +15
4/12/07: Auto accident
    2/28/07 ** 50% 34% 16% +16
2/19/07: Announces state worker contract
    2/18/07 * 44% 36% 20% +8
    1/24/07 ** 42% 42% 16% +0
      Source: * Monmouth/Gannett;  ** Quinnipiac

Senator Corzine Job Approval(among registered voters)

Date Approve Disapprove N/A Net Approval
    11/12/03 44% 30% 26% +14
    9/24/03 48% 30% 22% +18
    6/18/03 44% 30% 26% +14
    4/2/03 46% 29% 25% +17
March 2003: Iraq war starts
    1/29/03 47% 23% 30% +24
    12/11/02 47% 22% 30% +25
October 2002: Iraq war resolution vote
    9/12/02 47% 19% 33% +28
    8/8/02 49% 19% 31% +30
    4/24/02 48% 20% 32% +28
    1/30/02 51% 15% 33% +36
      Source: all from Quinnipiac Poll

New Jersey’s New Partisan Landscape

The presidential primary has created a sea change in party registration in New Jersey. The Monmouth University Polling Institute has been closely tracking turnout in the February 5th contest and now has preliminary data from 13 counties which questions prior assumptions about party identification in the state.

Many political observers use party registration as a guide to the partisan divisions in an electorate. In New Jersey, this can lead to a mischaracterization of the electorate – and some bad polling (more on that below).
New Jersey does not require party declarations when a person registers to vote. Nor does the state require unaffiliated voters who wish to vote in a primary to make an early declaration of which party’s primary they want to take part in. These voters can just show up on primary day and choose a party before stepping into the voting booth.

Registered Democrats and Republicans are stuck with their primary choice (unless they contact their county clerk a few months ahead of time to change their party affiliation). Anecdotal evidence from this year’s presidential primary indicate that a number of New Jersey voters showed up intending to vote in one party’s primary, but did not recall voting in the other party’s primary some years ago and were now stuck with that choice. Our own polling suggests that between 2% and 5% of voters cast ballots in the primary of the party opposite their original intent. This makes being an unaffiliated voter an attractive option in New Jersey.

New Jersey’s party registration has been fairly consistent for the past decade or so. On average, about 24% of the state’s voters are registered as Democrats, 18% as Republicans, and 58% as independents or unaffiliated voters – a 6 point advantage for the Dems. (Just a handful – about 1,600 out of 4.8 million – are registered with a third party).

At the same time, recent polling on New Jersey voters’ partisan identity has also remained fairly consistent, after trending more Democratic through the 1990s. Our most recent Monmouth Poll from March 2008 shows the party ID split (“In politics today, do you consider yourself…”) at 40% Democrat, 26% Republican, and 33% independent – a 14 point Democratic advantage. Obviously, a lot of voters who are registered unaffiliated claim a partisan identity. So which is part indicator is right?

Well, bottom line, party registration and partisan identity are not the same thing. As Charlie Cook puts it: “[T]he real jaw dropper is when independents are asked which party they lean toward. This is important because historically, independents who lean toward a party tend to vote almost as consistently for that party as those who identify themselves with the party. There are just some people who like to call themselves independents but, functionally speaking, are really partisans.”

In New Jersey, a significant number of unaffiliated voters have a partisan leaning. However, the state’s dearth of high-interest, competitive primaries means that those voters find little need to publicly declare their affiliation.

A number of pollsters use party registration numbers as a way to re-weight their data to “improve” the partisan representation of their results. In New Jersey, that means weighting up independent voters to 58% of the survey sample. That’s not a smart move. There just aren’t that many truly “independent” voters in the state.

The results of the February 5 vote bear this out. This year’s presidential contest generated extraordinarily high turnout for a primary in New Jersey – 35% of all registered voters participated. This is double the percentage who voted in the 2000 primaries and is even higher than the 32% who voted in the November 2007 general election for state legislature. A total of 1,141,199 votes were cast in the Democratic primary and 566,201 on the Republican side. This represents 97% of all registered Democrats and 65% of registered GOP voters. Those kinds of turnout percentages are dubious. Clearly, quite a few unaffiliated voters showed up to vote as well.

The Monmouth University Polling Institute staff have been in contact with election boards and county clerks in all 21 counties to determine how many unaffiliated voters showed up on February 5. To date, we have received responses from 13. (Interestingly, most of the large Democratic counties have not yet completed their counts.)

We are able to draw some tantalizing, if tentative, inferences from the data we have received so far. First, it appears that just under half of the Democratic electorate on February 5 was unaffiliated. In the Republican primary, the number of unaffiliateds was about 1-in-3. And because participating in a primary automatically registers the voter with that party, there are now a lot more partisan voters on the election rolls. With the caveat that most of the big Democratic counties have yet to report their unaffiliated turnout, we estimate that the official voter registration figures released in the next month will show New Jersey party registration standing approximately at 34% Democrat, 21% Republican, and 45% unaffiliated – a 13 point Democratic registration advantage.

This new party configuration also affects political characterizations in a number of counties. For example, Burlington County has gone from an even party split to an 8 point Democratic registration edge. In Somerset County, the Republican’s 8 point registration advantage has been reduced to a single point. Both of these counties will be embroiled in hotly contested Congressional races this fall. The biggest gain among the 13 counties who reported thus far is in Mercer, where the Dems increased their advantage from 12 to 23 points.
So what does this portend for the June primaries this year – with contested U.S. Senate nominations in both parties and a couple of open House seats up for grabs? Well, probably not much. There is nothing to indicate that the interest generated by this year’s presidential contest will carry over to state races. And if we calculate primary turnout as a percentage of registered partisans, we may potentially be going from record highs in February to record lows just four months later.

The Public “Gets It”

The Monmouth University Polling Institute and the Gannett New Jersey newspaper group just released a series of polls assessing New Jersey’s reaction to Governor Corzine’s toll hike plan and budget proposal. One of the questions I am frequently asked as a pollster is if the public can truly understand what’s going on, particularly in terms of the details.

My response is that while most individuals do not absorb all the finer points of public policy, the body politic tends to “get it” even for complex issues. This view has its roots in the concept of “collective wisdom” – the idea that the knowledge of a group qua group is superior to that of the vast majority of its members.

Perhaps the best known demonstration of collective wisdom in action was recorded during the turn of the 20th century. Sir Francis Galton, an anthropologist and statistician – and relative of Charles Darwin – was attending a county fair and became intrigued by a competition to guess the weight of an ox. He watched as 800 local residents attempted a guess, but no one came up with the animal’s actual weight – 1,198 pounds. Curious about the villagers’ apparently universal lack of estimating ability, Galton recorded each of their guesses and calculated the average estimate for the entire group. It turned out to be 1,197 pounds!

Journalist James Surowiecki recounts this episode in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki posits that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”

What does that mean for public opinion polls, especially those that ask the public to assess complex spending and financial restructuring issues? Well, the public might not know every line in a budget, but they can develop a pretty good sense of whether they trust the approach that is taken by their political leaders. And collectively, they can be pretty on-target in understanding the scope of an issue.

So, the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll tried an experiment. We asked New Jersey residents to estimate exactly how much debt the state is in. Among the two-thirds of poll respondents brave enough to hazard a guess, only about 10% were able to come within $5 billion of the actual figure (which is somewhere between $30 and $32 billion, depending on who you ask). However, when all the guesses were averaged together, the collective estimate stood at an amazingly accurate $31.6 billion!

On the national level, the Gallup Poll did this on a somewhat less weighty topic. That pollster asked its respondents to estimate the age of the three remaining presidential candidates. They got Barack Obama’s age right on the money at 46, and underestimated Hillary Clinton’s and John McCain’s ages by only four years (the average guess was 56 for Clinton and 67 for McCain).

So, when you see poll results that indicate – to take a random example – a majority of the public doubting that proposed cuts were made with the needs of the average taxpayer in mind, think of these words from Surowiecki: “Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart. Even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision.”

It makes you wonder about the veracity of all estimates by the public. For example, when we asked respondents in an October 2007 poll to guess the percentage of state legislators willing to sell out to lobbyists, the average estimate was 60%. That’s 72 out of 120 legislators. Yikes!


New Jersey Poll Flashback
March 10, 1997: When Governor Christie Whitman wanted to float $2.8 billion in bonds to fund the state pension system, she hoped to move the plan quickly – and quietly – through the legislature. A Star-Ledger/Eagleton Poll found that among those who knew something of the plan, 67% saw it as a gimmick to balance the budget and 73% thought it was simply a way for the governor to push the cost of her tax cuts on to future generations. And, nearly everyone surveyed – 90% – said that this type of borrowing needed to be put on the ballot for a vote. Over time, the state has taken on approximately $27 billion in debt obligations, including some that were declared unconstitutional, where the voters had no say.

Will New Jersey Voters Turn Out?

Based on turnout in the primaries held so far, the answer is Yes! At least relative to our past performance. Primary turnout in New Jersey has not been particularly robust in recent years. Moving the primary up to February should change that, at least for the presidential contest.

The high water mark for primary turnout in the last few election cycles occurred in 2000, when 17% of registered voters came out to choose nominees for the two parties. However, this was driven less by the presidential race – George W. Bush and Al Gore faced only token opposition on the New Jersey ballot – and more by the U.S. Senate primaries. The race to succeed Frank Lautenberg (you may recall, he retired once) included the high-profile showdown between once and future governors Jim Florio and Jon Corzine on the Democratic side and the nail-biter between Bob Franks and Bill Gormley (with Jim Treffinger and Murray Sabrin in the mix) on the Republican side.

Year Democratic turnout as percent of Registered Democrats Republican turnout as percent of Registered Republicans Total turnout as percent of all Registered Voters
2007 21% 18% 8%
2006 19% 21% 8%
2005 24% 37% 12%
2004 22% 20% 9%
2003 21% 20% 9%
2002 22% 28% 11%
2001 23%* 40%* 13%*
2000 42% 37% 17%

* 2001 includes just ballots cast for governor, not total turnout.

If you look at turnout as just a percentage of registered partisans, the Democrats turned out at a rate of 42% and Republicans at 37% in 2000. That’s not too bad, but in most years only about 1-in-5 partisans have voted in New Jersey primaries. And because fewer than half of the state’s voters have declared a party, that means about 1-in-10 registered voters regularly participate in our primary elections.

While unaffiliated voters can technically vote in either primary, the truth is that very few of them actually do. New Jersey doesn’t officially track the number of unaffiliated voters who show up on primary day. Preliminary research by the Monmouth University Polling Institute indicates that, in many counties, unaffiliateds who vote in primaries number in the tens rather than thousands. (We’re working on getting a more robust count of that phenomenon this year.)

That’s the real reason 58% of New Jersey’s voters are “independent”. Voters don’t need to make their party commitment official until they decide to vote in a primary. In truth, a good portion of those voters – as much as one-third by our estimates – are partisans at heart. Specifically, they tend to vote a straight party-line in general elections, while retaining their non-partisan registration.

So, how many voters will turn out on February 5th? Well, New Jersey’s voter rolls for this primary stand at 1,170,644 Democrats and 874,752 Republicans, with 2,798,817 unaffiliated voters who can show up and vote in either primary.

In other states this year, the Democrats racked up record turnouts in Iowa (nearly double the 2004 turnout), New Hampshire (up 30%), and South Carolina (up 80%). Even Florida, which was supposed to be a delegate-free “beauty contest”, saw 1.7 million Democratic votes cast; 30% better than their previous high in 1976. And the exit polls showed that most new voters were coming out for Barack Obama.

Republican turnout has also been strong in spots, if not quite as universally enthusiastic as the Democrats. New Hampshire turnout basically matched the 2000 high (when McCain beat Bush), but was about 22% lower in South Carolina and 32% lower in Michigan. However, last week’s Florida turnout of 1.9 million Republican voters doubled that state’s prior high from 1988. Turning to New Jersey, we would expect Republican turnout to be somewhat less robust than the Democratic side, especially with New York neighbor Rudy Giuliani out of the race.

Will turnout reach prior state highs? In 1984, 676,561 New Jerseyans cast ballots in the Democratic contest between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart – the last time New Jersey found itself voting in a contested nominating campaign. To find similar turnout for Garden State Republicans you have to go back to 1952, when the G.O.P. race turned out 643,066 voters to help Dwight Eisenhower to his eventual nomination. (Read more on turnout at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball).

There’s one point about moving up New Jersey’s primary that has largely escaped notice. High voter turnout on February 5 will provide a bonus for local candidates and party organizations come November. Since voting in a primary automatically registers voters with a party, political operatives will be able to identify a greater proportion of their base from voter rolls.

After the presidential hoopla of Super Tuesday passes we will still have our June primaries for Senate, Congress and local offices (although the G.O.P. has drawn out the presidential process by putting their delegates on that ballot as well). And, for those important, but lower-profile primary races, we can probably expect New Jersey’s lackluster voter turnout to return to form.

Polls on Tolls

I wasn’t sure whether to call this entry “Taking a Poll on Tolls” or “Taking a Toll on Polls”.

A Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll on the toll road plan proposed by Governor Corzine was released today.

Our findings paint a slightly different picture from the poll released by the Bergen Record on Monday. This follows presidential primary polls where our polls differed as well. Herb Jackson did a pretty good job summing up the differences in methodology on his election blog, so I’ll just focus on the toll road polls here.

The Record poll, which is conducted by Research 2000 in Maryland, found 42% in favor of the plan, 52% opposed, and 6% with no opinion. The Monmouth/Gannett poll found only 15% in favor, 56% opposed, and 29% with no opinion. So, what’s up with that?

One of the key differences in assessing public reaction to the toll road plan is the way the questions were worded in the two polls. The Record’s poll described the plan as “reining in New Jersey’s public debt load by imposing a series of 50 percent toll hikes…Proceeds of bonds backed by the future revenue increases would be used to retire debt and fund new road improvements.” Our poll described it as a “plan to raise tolls about 50 percent every four years over the next 14 years in order to reduce state debt and fund transportation projects.”

The Record wording started off by emphasizing “reining in debt” while ours started with the cost issue. We also spelled out a time frame for the toll hikes. The Record’s poll asked respondents whether they “strongly favor, favor, oppose, or strongly oppose.” Our poll asked “do you favor or oppose this plan, or do you have no opinion?”

This may all seem a bit esoteric for the casual poll watcher, but in the short time frame after the toll plan was released (although it has been spoken about for months), question wording and response option choices can matter. Each poll started interviewing the day after Corzine’s State of the State address, but the Record completed interviewing in two days, while the Monmouth/Gannett poll interviewed for five days.

Differences in question wording, as in this case, are valid choices made by pollsters as ways to tap what the public is really thinking and it is incumbent upon us not to “create” opinion by phrasing questions that are far removed from the experiences and discussions of the typical resident.

And we have to be fair in the way we word the questions. Most “favor or oppose” questions are just that. The pollster will only record a “no opinion” response if the respondent insists. On this issues, I heard from a number of plan supporters that they believed many members of the public wouldn’t care about this plan since they don’t drive the toll roads. So, it made sense to explicitly include the “no opinion” option in the question we used.

But that alone doesn’t explain the differences between the two polls’ results. There are some interesting demographic differences in the poll breakdowns. In the Record poll, Democrats support the plan by a 62%-32% margin while Republicans reject it by 81%-17%. Independents reject it by a slimmer 55%-39% margin. In our poll, residents of all partisan stripes rejected the plan, including Democrats (48%-19%), Republicans (68%-9%) and independents (57%-16%).

There appears to be some serious difference in the Democrats interviewed by the Record and those interviewed by us. The Record poll’s sample was comprised of 600 New Jerseyans who reported they generally vote in state elections and are likely to vote this November. Our poll was composed of 804 New Jersey adult residents. [Side note: As a matter of standard procedure, the Monmouth/Gannett poll prefers full population samples when polling about issues that affect all residents, whether they vote or not.]

Does this mean that Governor Corzine does better among people who will go out to vote when (and if) he runs for re-election? Well, not necessarily. When we drilled down our sample to the most likely group of voters, we found that opinion of the plan stood at 16% favor, 58% oppose, and 26% no opinion – nearly identical to our results for the general population.

Aside from the type of sample used by each poll (likely voter vs. adult population), there are some key differences in how the surveys are weighted. We use weighting techniques make sure our surveys are representative of the population on region of state, gender, age, education and race.

One thing we don’t use in our weighting is party identification. Party ID is an attitude that is subject to change, unlike hard demographic data (unless of course you’re planning on a sex change operation). Most media pollsters ask something along the lines of: “In politics today, do you consider yourself a Democrat, Republican or independent?”.

A major difference between the two polls is our party breakdowns. Our full population sample in this poll identified itself as 37% Dem, 22% Rep – we are pretty a blue state – and 41% independent. The Bergen Record poll’s party-self identification is 28% Dem, 14% Rep, and 58% independent.

While New Jersey’s electorate is pretty fickle, it’s not that independent. Interestingly, the Bergen Poll party numbers roughly correspond to the party registration figures on the state’s official election rolls. However, as anyone of who has run a campaign in New Jersey knows, a good number of those “unaffiliated” voters consistently vote either Dem or Rep in general elections. You unaffiliateds who are party-line voters know who you are! They are only unaffiliated because they haven’t bothered to vote in one of New Jersey’s typically non-competitive primaries (making turnout projections for this year’s presidential primary that much more interesting).

The problem is if you weight the party preference question (“what do you consider yourself today?”) to the party split in the voter registration books for New Jersey – and I’m not saying this is what Research 2000 did – you’re mixing apples and oranges.

I have some more thoughts (and data) on weighting poll results by party ID. But it’s been a long week, so I’ll leave that for another post.

Drive safely.

What Happened in New Hampshire?

So what went on with those Democratic pre-election primary polls in New Hampshire. My take on it is that we don’t yet know what happened. But the fact that it involved all polls (including both the Clinton and Obama campaigns by all reports) and those same pollsters tabbed the Republican outcome correctly, points to something occurring on the ground Tuesday.

Maybe the polling methodology was universally off-base or perhaps pollsters simply stopped polling too soon to catch an amazing Clinton surge in the final day (both are plausible given the turnout and vagaries of the New Hampshire primary electorate).

The post-mortems have begun (from ABC News and Gallup. for example) and at least one pollster appears to be revising history for his New Hampshire tracking poll. I’m not sure how someone can claim that his data showed Clinton behind by only 2 points on the last day of polling while his rolling average actually increased Obama’s lead from 10 to 13 points. (And I’m pretty sure my New Jersey high school had a decent math program.)

A number of observers have focused on the potential race factor (specifically, white respondents telling a pollster they would vote for a black candidate but casting their ballots otherwise). That may be partially the case, but at present there is little supporting evidence. First of all, in past instances where a candidate’s race has been a factor in polling miscalls, it was in general elections, where white Democrats OVERstated their propensity to support their party’s black nominee. In New Hampshire, we are only considering Democratic or Democratic-leaning independents voting in a primary. Furthermore, Obama’s support was not over-stated in the polls. Clinton’s was understated.

So for race to play a significant factor in the New Hampshire polls’ universal failure, you would have to accept the premise that white, less-educated, likely Democratic primary voters who chose NOT to speak to pollsters were significantly more racist than white, less-educated, likely Democratic primary voters who did answer the pre-election polls. And moreover, that this same group was significantly LESS sexist, because they overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton.

Unlike some pundits who are currently hitting the airwaves and print media with the certainty of their speculations, I’ll withhold judgment on what really happened until we have time to sift through the empirical evidence and get some REAL NUMBERS.

Regardless, the New Hampshire experience is another opportunity to remind poll watchers that pre-election preference polls are just that – polls which measure voters’ preferences prior to an election. The fact that they are generally good predictors of the eventual outcome is in part a testament to the fact that change is usually gradual. Or at least slow enough to be caught the day or two before an election … fickle electorates like New Jersey’s notwithstanding.


Welcome to the first installment of the “Real Numbers” blog.

Numbers are knowledge. Numbers are power. They influence everything from media coverage to policy decisions. Unfortunately, not all numbers are created equal. This venture will cast a critical eye on the use of numbers in the public domain – to sort out how “real” numbers are. This blog will generally focus on New Jersey issues, and occasionally venture into the national arena.

The objective is to foster a keener awareness of how numbers are used and misused in the pursuit of political gain or notoriety. As creators of some of those numbers, we at the Monmouth University Polling Institute understand the impact “statistics” can have. Polling numbers will certainly be fodder for many of the entries on this blog, but it will also examine other “real numbers” that gain public currency (e.g. funding formulas, health care stats, voting turnout, etc.).

In some cases, the blog will turn its attention to numbers built on faulty methodology. But in many more cases, readers can expect a discussion of how justifiable variations in methodology can be used to reach different conclusions.

For example, what does the New Jersey public consider to be a “significant” property tax cut? In a poll we conducted in July 2006 most homeowners selected a dollar amount that averaged about 15% of their property tax bill. But we also found that their perception of “significant” depended on how the question was asked. If we started off the questioning at $250 and worked up to $2,000, most respondents settled for a lower amount. But if we started the suggested level at $2000, many respondents would not accept the lower boundary as being significant.

In any event, after the final “caps and credit” deal was signed last year providing a property tax credit of 20% for most homeowners, our February 2007 poll found that only 1-in-10 who had heard of the plan believed it would deliver significant, long-term relief. That opinion seemed to have more to do with the plan’s lack of systemic reform than with the dollar amount saved in the first year. Indeed, a Quinnipiac Poll released around the same time found that a large majority of New Jersey voters approved of the intention to lower property taxes by 20%, but disapproved of how the governor and legislature had handled the issue.

In the end, the main objective of this blog is to increase accountability for the dissemination of numbers in the public domain, including any numbers that appear on this site. So when you see a post that is off base, let me know by posting a comment.

In the meantime, for those of you, especially journalists, who would like to learn a little more about interpreting polls for the non-pollster, spend a little time with this free News University online training, developed by the American Association for Public Opinion Research.