Wednesday, June 4, 2014

New Jersey 2014 Primary Day Recap

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
Here’s a look at yesterday’s vote by the numbers.  It’s long, but worth the read for those interested in GOTV targeting and ballot position logistics.
House District 3 – Republicans
Let’s start with the least surprising outcome.  Tom MacArthur won by a lot, as expected, because the county chairs – George Gilmore in Ocean and Bill Layton in Burlington – didn’t want their local candidates hobbled in November by sharing a ticket with Steve Lonegan. 
MacArthur’s 20 point margin was also fed by the low turnout.  The normal base electorate in CD03 is moderate senior citizens.  Lonegan needed to expand the base by turning out younger libertarian types who do not normally vote in primaries.  His vitriolic personal attacks on MacArthur did the opposite and only 25,000 Republicans showed up to vote – a normal turnout in a less competitive race.
House District 12 – Democrats
I was fairly certain all along that the underlying fundamentals of this district would result in a Bonnie Watson Coleman victory.  But I never foresaw by how much.  This “neck-and-neck” race turned into a 15 point rout! And on very high turnout – over 35,000 voters – to boot.
Here’s how it happened by the numbers.  Each candidate had a certain threshold they needed to achieve.  In order to squeak out a win, Linda Greenstein needed a minimum of 6,000 to 7,000 votes out of her home county of Middlesex, about 2,700 out of Mercer, 700 out of Union, and 400 out of Somerset.  She just reached those minimum levels.
The problem was that Watson Coleman exceeded her needed vote counts – by a mile! Her minimum target in Mercer was 7,000 votes based on expected turnout.  She got nearly 11,000! She was pegged to get 2,000 votes out of Union.  She took away 3,000.  And she met her needs in Middlesex (800) and Somerset (500).
The urban vote from Trenton and Plainfield were her anchors.  Despite Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp’s professed concern that the local contest there would hurt Watson Coleman, she came away more than 8-in-10 votes there.  The ballot set-up made it easy for voters to find their way to her despite who they chose in the local council race.
In Trenton, the concern was turnout.  Yesterday’s primary was sandwiched between the Trenton mayor’s race and its subsequent run-off.  Certainly turnout was slightly lower than the Watson Coleman camp would have liked, but still respectable.  And she won nearly 9-in-10 of the 5,000 Trenton voters who showed up.
The real story here wasn’t in the cities, though, but in the suburbs.  The suburban Mercer portion of this district turned out an astounding 12,000 voters yesterday.  Watson Coleman won a solid majority of these suburban voters despite the fact that Greenstein also represents some of those towns in the legislature.
To put it another way, my voter model assumed that about 11,000 voters would show up in Mercer and 8,000 in Middlesex.   It was actually 17,000 in Mercer - 55% over expectations – and 10,700 in Middlesex – 33% over expectations.
The over performance in Middlesex was not too surprising.  Many figured that a solid effort by Grenstein and county chair Kevin McCabe could get out a certain number of atypical primary voters.  However, very few observers believed that the Watson Coleman team could match, let alone exceed, any elevated GOTV numbers Greenstein might produce.
In the other parts of the district, Union’s turnout of 4,000 votes was within expectations, but Somerset’s 4,300 vote turnout exceeded expectations there.  That’s another part of the story that bears mentioning.
Upendra Chivukula ran a solid campaign for someone who had the deck stacked against him.  He took nearly 3,000 votes out of his home county of Somerset.  His 68% majority there was actually better than Watson Coleman in Mercer (64%) and Greenstein in Middlesex (60%).  He also garnered nearly 2,800 votes in Middlesex and 1,700 in Mercer. 
In fact, he won South Brunswick 43% to 38% – a town that was part of Greenstein’s core base before redistricting in 2011.  He also won quite a few precincts throughout Middlesex and in the Windsors that have sizable Asian populations.
These numbers should give pause to anyone in Middlesex looking to throw Chivukula off the line in next year’s legislative elections.  [Chivukula’s hometown of Franklin Twp is the only Somerset municipality in the 17th district.]
Chivukula was not the spoiler.  Throwing his vote total in Middlesex County to Greenstein still would not have changed the outcome.  One wildcard is whether Greenstein would have been able to nab the Somerset line if Chivukula had not run.  But even then, she would have gotten only maybe another 1,000 to 1,500 votes because turnout there would have been lower. 
Chivukula performed as well as he did not just by taking votes away from Greenstein.  He certainly did that to some degree, but he also expanded his own base by getting out the vote in the Asian community.  That’s the kind of candidate you want on your ticket in a place like Middlesex County.
In the end, Bonnie Watson Coleman won this race in suburban Mercer.  I don’t think the video of Greenstein calling Mercer Dems her enemies had much impact on voters.  But I bet it put a spur in the saddle of local party leaders, giving them even more impetus to put their GOTV efforts into hyperdrive.
House District 7 – Republicans
I really didn’t expect this race to be on my recap list.  Movement conservative David Larsen has run against Leonard Lance twice before.  The first time was for an open seat in 2010.  Lance beat Larsen by 24 points in a field of four candidates.  Two years ago, incumbent Lance fended off Larsen by a healthy 61% to 39% margin.
This year, Lance’s victory was a much slimmer 54% to 46%.  Turnout played a major role.  In 2012, Lance got 23,400 votes in the primary.  This year, he took only 15,700.  Larsen, on the other, hand nearly matched his vote total from two years ago.  He had 15,200 votes in 2012 and 13,100 votes in 2014.  Larsen supporters are stalwarts.  Unlike in CD03, these core primary voters veer to the right ideologically.
While Lance is safe for another two years, this primary actually had up-ballot implications and may have helped determine the winner of the GOP’s US Senate nomination.
U.S. Senate – Republicans
Anybody, including me, who tried to predict this outcome ended up getting burned.  I also lost my bet to Paul Mulshine.  No candidate reached 30% of the vote.  The prior record for a low primary victory plurality was Brendan Byrne’s 30.3% in 1977, in a much more crowded field.
How did we get to this result since none of the candidates spent much, if any, money on their campaigns?  For one, fewer than 143,000 New Jersey Republicans showed up.  I’m not even going to bother to look this one up.  It has to be a modern day low for a contested statewide primary!
This low turnout race came down to county lines and ballot positions.  If you never believed either factor matters much, read on and be amazed!
Fourteen of New Jersey’s 21 county GOP organizations endorsed a candidate in the US Senate race.  That chosen candidate won 11 of those 14 counties.  But that is not the whole story.
There is a good deal of research on the value of nabbing the first ballot position in low-information races.  Yesterday’s primary proved that.  Among counties with no organizational endorsement, the candidate who landed in the first ballot position won 5 of those 7 counties!  In fact, the person who lucked out with the first ballot position came in either first or second place in 18 of New Jersey’s 21 counties.
I anticipated this pattern, which is why I thought Goldberg had the best shot of securing the nomination.  He had the party line and the first position in 4 counties, the party line but not first position in 6 counties, and first position without the line in 2 counties.  By contrast, Murray Sabrin had one line and 7 first positions.  Rich Pezzullo had only three county lines and two first positions.  Jeff Bell had no lines and 5 first positions.
Given this distribution of lines and prime ballot position how did Jeff Bell win? 
Bell won 4 of the 5 counties where he had the first ballot position.  He won Burlington, where Goldberg had the “line” (more on that below), and Morris County where he had the last ballot spot in a county with no endorsed candidate.  He also took second place in 8 other counties.  That translates to 14 “top two” showings. 
Goldberg, on the other hand, won 7 of the 10 counties where held the line.  Unfortunately for him, he tanked in those counties where he didn’t have organizational support.  It is an amazing juxtaposition.  He came in dead last in 10 of the 11 counties where he did not have party support, usually failing to get out of the single digits in those counties! 
Goldberg also came in last in Burlington County, where he had the county endorsement.  However, the ballot wasn’t structured in lines – Goldberg was not visually linked with MacArthur running in CD03 and the local favorites.  The names were actually stacked, with Sabrin atop Goldberg and Pezzullo in the first column and Bell all by himself in the second column.  In practical terms, Sabrin and Bell both had “first position” on the ballot and consequently ended up tying for first in Burlington with 32% of the vote each.
The lack of a visible “line” rendered the party endorsement meaningless for Goldberg.  If nothing proves the importance of “lines” and ballot positions, this one result should.
The places where Goldberg had an actual line but lost were Hunterdon and Somerset.  This is where the Lance-Larsen CD07 race comes into play.  Conservative Rich Pezzullo won Hunterdon.  While he wasn’t bracketed with Larsen, he likely won the support of Larsen voters – who would not support any part of the organizational ticket – by virtue of being listed first on the ballot.  A similar phenomenon occurred in Somerset, although in this case Bell was the beneficiary of drawing the first position and sopping up support from the anti-organization Larsen contingent.
It’s entirely possible that Pezzullo would have won the nomination if he was lucky enough to draw first ballot position in more than just two counties.  That’s how important this factor was in New Jersey’s Senate primary.  However, there may have been another issue at play here.
Bell, the eventual winner, never bothered to go to any of the state’s county parties to ask for their support.  He won on the basis of being lucky enough to draw the first position in counties where no party line was awarded and by being the top choice of GOP voters who rejected their county organizations’ favored candidate.  Why him over the others? 
Barring ideology or other issue positions, people tend to vote for candidates who they feel are like them.  Yesterday’s election featured a low turnout base of core GOP primary stalwarts.  Let’s see, you got MURRAY Sabrin, Rich PEZZULLO, and Brian GOLDBERG on one hand.  And then there is “Jeff Bell.”
You get just 4,000 or so GOP primary voters who make their pick based on a name they feel comfortable with, and voila - there’s your nominee.

Monday, June 2, 2014

New Jersey 2014 Primary Day Outlook

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
New Jersey has a few interesting primary contests in federal races tomorrow, some with greater consequences than others.  Here’s my take on the few competitive ones.
House District 12 – Democrats
Monmouth University’s poll two weeks ago showed a very tight race between State Senator Linda Greenstein and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman.  This race will come down to geography.  Each leading candidate has the full-throated support of the party organization in her home county – Greenstein in Middlesex and Watson Coleman in Mercer. The presence of Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula effectively took Somerset County off the table for either, although Watson Coleman was able to nab the Union County line amidst a very convoluted local election in Plainfield.
This race really boils down to voter turnout, particular county-by-county.  Keep in mind that turnout for this primary is likely to be in the 20,000 to 25,000 range. 
Greenstein should win the Middlesex portion with about 70% of the vote, with Chivukula, who represents two towns there, coming in second with about 15%.  Watson Coleman will split the remainder of the vote with a fourth candidate, South Brunswick resident Andrew Zwicker. 
Watson Coleman will win the Mercer vote, but the question is whether her majority will be closer to 55% or closer to 65%.  Greenstein, who represents a number of towns in the county, will come in second with at least 20% of the vote.
Somerset will go handily to Chivukula – he’ll take at least two-thirds of the vote – with Watson Coleman and Greenstein vying for second.  Thus, this county should have limited impact on determining the victor unless the overall margin is less than 100 votes.
Union County is the wildcard in this race.  Watson Coleman has the line and her name will appear on the ballot just below Cory Booker and above county chair Jerry Green’s endorsed slate.  Most of this is in Plainfield which is facing a pitched battle for city council, with Green’s slate under Watson Coleman in column A and Mayor Adrian Mapp’s slate all by itself in column E.  Although Watson Coleman is supported by both sides in Plainfield, the local battle has cost her resources in the form of shared literature drops and get out the vote efforts.  In addition, Chivukula appears at the top of an off-the-line county freeholder slate.  Although those candidates are not campaigning – the slate is a byproduct of the local race in Elizabeth – the presence of an alternative ticket may attract some hardcore supporters of the Mapp team in a town where none of the Congressional candidates have any real name recognition.
Despite the potential confusion, Watson Coleman will win the Union County vote.  The question is by how much.  This is just one of the multiple moving parts in this race which, if adjusted ever so slightly in certain combinations, will determine the eventual outcome.
Looking at Democratic primary voting trends over the past couple of election cycles, Mercer has a history of contributing the largest share of the vote in the towns that currently constitute the 12th Congressional District – specifically, more than 4-in-10 of the total votes.  Middlesex usually contributes less than one-third, Union about 15% and Somerset just over 10%.  The local race in Plainfield may spur turnout in that city while the fact that tomorrow’s primary is sandwiched between a Trenton mayoral election and its subsequent runoff may reduce turnout there.
What Greenstein needs to do to win: turn out enough voters in her base so that Middlesex voters comprise more than one-third of the total district vote and take at least 25% of the vote in both Mercer and Union.
What Watson Coleman needs to do to win: turn out at least 6,000 voters in Trenton and earn 60% majorities in both Mercer and Union.
The difference between Middlesex making up 32% versus 33% of the total turnout and Greenstein winning 24% versus 25% in Mercer County – or some similar combination of moving parts – could be the deciding factor in this race.
Having said that, I’m going out on a limb and predicting that Watson Coleman will win by 2 points.  But I won’t be the least bit surprised if this forecast turns out to be wrong.
House District 3 – Republicans
This race has gone from nasty to unseemly.  Steve Lonegan violated a cardinal rule – it is one thing to say that your opponent ran a horrible company that hurt people.  That can be used to show a lack of judgment, competence, etc.  It is quite another, though, to accuse your opponent of being a horrible person – unless you have a secretly recorded video to back you up.  Voters don’t react kindly to unsupported assaults on a person’s character.  They view this strategy as a sign of desperation.
Moreover, these type of ad hominem attacks only serve to depress turnout.  That’s good for Steve Lonegan, you say?  The conventional wisdom is that the most conservative candidate will win a low turnout primary, you say?
That may be true in Mississippi, but not in the middle of New Jersey.  Monmouth University’s poll from last month showed that while Lonegan was winning the strongest conservatives among likely voters in CD03, Tom MacArthur was winning most other conservatives as well as moderates – who make up a larger share of the electorate. 
Lonegan’s support actually relies on younger libertarian-oriented voters who are generally turned off by politics and infrequently vote in primaries.  The typical CD03 GOP primary voter is a middle-of-the-road senior citizen.  Lonegan would have done even worse in our poll if we had tightened the likely voter model.  And low turnout is the direction this race is likely to go.
Prediction: MacArthur by 16 points.
U.S. Senate – Republicans
In case you were wondering, four candidates are vying for the GOP nomination to face incumbent Cory Booker in November.  Three of them have run statewide races before.  One has never run for elected office.  Can you guess which one has, at least nominally, the most support from the Republican establishment?
Even though three of the candidates have faced the voters before, New Jerseyans have short memories and none have any name recognition to speak of, as we found out in a February Monmouth/Asbury Park Press Poll.
We have little hard evidence on how this race is shaping up.  There has been almost no campaign activity and there has been no polling – either internally or independently.  For my own part, I can’t justify spending more money to field a poll than most of the candidates have raised for their own campaigns.
We will know soon enough who gets the honor of losing to Booker in November. But that shouldn’t stop us from making predictions, right?  In lieu of actual polling I arbitrarily assigned weights to party endorsements and ballot positions to forecast potential vote share in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties.  Putting all that data through the Vote-O-Matic processor turned up this entirely feasible – or totally bogus – outcome: 
Brian Goldberg 35%, Jeff Bell 23%, Rich Pezzullo 22%, and Murray Sabrin 20%.
As a side note, I have a bet with Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine on the outcome of this race.  Not on who will win, but on whether the winning candidate will be able to break 30%.  Historical context: Gov. Brendan Byrne barely broke 30% in a crowded primary when he ran for a second term in 1977.  Who knows how this will turn out – but with a six-pack of Flying Fish riding on the outcome, I certainly hope I’m right.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

When it comes to profiling Christie, facts are for wussies

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
In the movie Love & Death, the main character impersonates a Spanish ambassador and is asked how much progress he’s made on a pending treaty.  The ersatz diplomat replies, “I've come up with all the little details.  If I can just think of the main points, we got something.”
A recent New Yorker profile of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie turned this quote on its head.  It got all the main points right, but it misfired on the details. 
Ryan Lizza’s article was geared toward a national audience that has recently turned its attention to the Garden State’s chief executive.  It was not aimed at me, but the number of errors in material fact and other arguable characterizations of history were off-putting to anyone with a modicum of knowledge of recent history.
Let’s take a look at a few blunders that jumped off the page.
The 2006 U.S. Senate race was not contested by Congressman Robert Menendez as the article claims.  Menendez was actually a U.S. Senator during the time period discussed.  He was appointed by Jon Corzine to fill the newly elected governor’s vacant seat in January of that year.  That means Menendez was already in the Senate before Solomon Dwek was arrested and turned government informant.  It would be pretty difficult for Christie to turn his attention on “Menendez, then a Jersey City congressman” unless he had a WABAC machine.  And for the record, Menendez is known as either a “Union City” or “Hudson County” politician.
The article also asserts that top Democrats were considering a run for governor later in Christie’s first term because “Christie’s popularity began to dip in 2012.”  While some politicos may have thought Christie was beatable, his poll numbers were fairly stable in 2012 until Superstorm Sandy hit, at which point they skyrocketed.  According to three independent polls that regularly track the governor – Monmouth University, Quinnipiac University, and FDU-Public Mind – Christie’s voter approval rating never went lower than 50% or higher than 59% from January to October that year.
While there were some minor fluctuations in the 16 poll readings taken during that ten month period, there is no point where a “dip” is evident.  In fact, Christie’s job approval ratings in 2012 were consistently higher than they had been during his first two years in office.  His average job approval rating for 2010 was 46%, in 2011 it was 50%, and for the first ten months of 2012 it was 54%.  I’m pretty sure if I plot that on a graph, we won’t find any dip.
Another material error in the article is that the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy is not, in fact, a charter school under New Jersey law, but a specially legislated “Renaissance School.”  This distinction is noteworthy because the special designation was created in part to help George Norcross’s foundation avoid the onerous charter school application process.  The irony here is that reporting the more accurate designation would have strengthened the author’s argument about Christie’s style.
Other statements stand out not because they are technically incorrect but because they are somewhat misleading.  For example, saying “Christie and his prosecutors gave Dwek a second assignment” to ensnare politicians makes it sound like it was thrust upon the Dwek rather than coming at Dwek’s prompting, as has been reported elsewhere.
The article also contends that George Norcross and former Gov. Jim Florio are both “from Camden” with the context suggesting that they grew up in the city.  While both were Camden County politicians, neither hails from Camden City.  Norcross grew up in neighboring Pennsauken and Florio was raised in not-so-neighboring Brooklyn.  Florio did move to Camden as an adult to attend law school before settling in a suburban community.
Oh.  And one more. New Jersey has 565 municipalities, not 566 as the article claims.  Although perhaps the New Yorker would have us believe that Staten Island is part of the Garden State rather than the Empire State.  I hear that’s a pretty popular idea among its readership.
These errors and mischaracterizations are minor you might say.  True.  It doesn’t necessarily undermine the overall theme of Christie’s personality and governing approach the article attempts to portray.  But in a time when mainstream journalism is under attack for both lack of relevancy and declining standards, you’ve got to wonder…
It is only fitting then to end by misappropriating another movie line that is itself an erroneous quote.  To wit: “Facts? We don’t need no stinkin’ facts!”