Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Who Should Vote On Civil Marriage?

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

As the New Jersey Senate prepares to vote on the “Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act,” a number of editorialists have asked for my take on public opinion about gay marriage (or marriage equality, depending on one’s point of view). The polls conducted in the past year or two have been quite clear. At a gut level, the public is divided. As a policy issue, most people don’t really care one way or the other.

All the recent polls show support for same-sex marriage in the mid to upper 40s and opposition also in the mid to upper 40s, with the remainder having no opinion. If the state legislature decided to recognize same-sex marriage, a recent Eagleton Poll suggests that most residents would live with decision, while 4-in-10 would want to see the constitution amended to overturn it. However, this question only indicates an overall preference. It does not tell us how important the issue is in the context of all other issues. In other words, is this something that would get sizable numbers of voters up in arms? And my response is, not likely.

A Monmouth University poll from February indicated that a bare majority of New Jerseyans hold “strong” opinions on the issue – and again that is fairly divided, 25% in favor to 30% opposed. And only a subset of either faction would take the outcome of this week’s vote as a call to action.

Moreover, gay marriage was merely a blip on the radar screen of voter’s concerns during this year’s race for governor – a one or two percent blip to be exact. From a purely political standpoint, social issues become election issues only when nothing else is on the table. So, on the off chance that the Christie administration is able to plug the budget gap AND reduce property taxes, then perhaps gay marriage could be an issue in 2011.

So why not just put this up to a public vote and be done with it, as many opponents of gay marriage have called for? I am a strong advocate for including the public voice in all areas of public policy. The mode of expressing that voice, though, must be appropriate to the situation.

The public should absolutely have the final say on any situation that involves state borrowing. I also think a constitutional convention – where the public gives a straight up or down vote on the outcome – is worth serious consideration in New Jersey right now.

But the founders of our country – or at least James Madison in the Federalist Papers – were fairly clear that any issue affecting the rights of a minority should be determined within a deliberative setting. And general elections almost never meet the criterion of being deliberative – as anyone who followed this year’s vacuous gubernatorial race will attest.

A public vote on gay marriage also opens up the question of what other thorny issues should be put on the ballot. How about access to abortion? In a hypothetical situation where the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, I’m guessing that the same people who would support a public referendum on parental notification or limits on late-term terminations would be extremely wary of placing an all-out abortion ban on New Jersey’s ballot. It’s a slippery slope.

One key question in the current debate is whether civil union couples are being denied rights they are entitled to under the current law because their civil contract is not called “marriage.” The Civil Union Review Commission certainly heard many stories of civil union partners being denied rights accorded to them under the New Jersey Supreme Court decision in Lewis v. Harris.

I actually met with the Commission in August 2007 to discuss a potential study on civil unions. Ideally, the research would have interviewed a sample of civil union couples and a matching sample of married couples to see if the former were systematically experiencing any roadblocks that the latter were not. For various reasons (costs, logistics), the study was never conducted.

In the end, those empirical answers are immaterial for those who argue there is no compelling reason for government to create two separate structures to recognize the same contractual relationship. This got me to thinking about why the state even bothers to recognize marriage in the first place. (My penchant for asking these types of questions is probably the reason why I receive so few cocktail party invitations.)

I suppose if one spouse goes out to work, then there’s a reason for the state to recognize that the stay-at-home spouse is contributing to the economy and therefore should be afforded rights. But can’t that end up giving more benefits or, conversely, penalizing dual-earner families and single parents? (I can sense those party invitations rolling in about now).

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but it seems that at the end of the day government recognition of marriage is based largely on social convention. In other words, a major reason why government recognizes marriage today, specifically marriage between one man and one woman, is because governments through the ages always have.

I am not sure what this means, or should mean, for the upcoming Senate vote. But I do believe that it is always a good practice to periodically examine things that exist “just because” and ask why.

Now, if we could apply the same logic to New Jersey’s state constitution, we’d really be onto something.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Electorate was out to boot incumbent

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Courier-Post.

The conventional wisdom is that you just can't beat a superior bankroll. That might have proven true for the Phillies, but it certainly wasn't the case for Chris Christie.

A very disgruntled Garden State electorate came out to vote on Tuesday. In the last Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll taken before the election, only 36 percent of voters said they approved of the job Jon Corzine has done as governor. You just can't win re-election with numbers that low, even if you outspend your opponent by $20 million.

Most pre-election polls showed the race to be tight right up to the final days. So why couldn't Chris Christie seal the deal earlier against such an unpopular incumbent? Well, mainly because voters aren't thrilled with any politicians right now.

The New Jersey exit poll showed that about half of those who voted on Tuesday had a negative opinion of both Corzine and Christie, including 39 percent who felt strongly unfavorable toward the Democrat and 30 percent who felt strongly unfavorable toward the Republican. Only about 1-in-5 felt strongly favorable toward either candidate, which means that many voters cast their ballots for a candidate they weren't particularly thrilled with.

I held a focus group with undecided voters the week before the election that underlined this point. When these voters were asked which member of their family each candidate would be, Corzine was described as a rich uncle you rarely see and Christie was seen as an annoying brother-in-law. Tellingly, these voters said they really wouldn't want either guy as part of their family.

The bottom line is that voters are fed up with partisan politics in general. Christie got the job for the next four years simply because he wasn't the incumbent. His main campaign message was that New Jersey needed change. That made sense. According to the exit poll, the number one quality voters wanted in a governor was someone who could bring about change. But something was missing.

In last year's presidential race, voters chose to go with "hope and change." This year, New Jerseyans were simply desperate for change. The hope is gone. It has been replaced by frustration and insecurity.

I found it interesting that Chris Christie used the word "hope" very few times in his victory speech Tuesday night. Hopefulness was overwhelmed by an aggressive urgency, culminating in the victor's promise to turn Trenton upside down. Perhaps the time for hope is past. Perhaps we need someone who's willing to bang some heads together.

Corzine lost on Tuesday not just because of the job he has done over the past four years, although proposing a huge toll hike in order to reduce state debt didn't particularly endear him to the state. In fact, it was the single most important factor behind his negative job ratings and one of the key reasons he did so poorly among voters in Central Jersey and the Delaware Valley.

Voters ultimately rejected Corzine because he failed to adequately address 15 years of declining trust in state government and an ever-growing tax burden. It may have been that his CEO approach was not up to the job. It may be that the task itself is impossible. Regardless, voters decided they would be better off with a corruption-busting prosecutor in charge of righting the ship.

New Jerseyans may have been short on hope when they went out to vote on Tuesday. But they were certainly ready for a change.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

New Jersey: Who Voted, Where and How?

Well, the pundits said that turnout would be the name of the game in New Jersey this year. The problem is we were looking at the wrong type of turnout. While we were busy focusing on core Democratic areas, the republicans upped the ante on their own turf.

Overall, Garden State turnout was down about 3 points from the last gubernatorial race. Based on my analysis of votes counts as of Wednesday, it currently stands at 45% of registered voters. When undervotes and provisional ballots are taken into account, total turnout should be about 46% - well below the 48.5% prior low mark set in 2005. If anyone still doesn’t think that New Jersey voters are fed up with their state government, just take another look at that number.

Jon Corzine’s margin went from a positive 240,000 four years ago to a negative 100,000 this year. In terms of vote percentage, he went from a +10.8% plurality to a -4.6% deficit, a swing of 15.4 points to the Republican.

The interesting thing is that both of these phenomena – lower turnout and plurality shift – did not occur across all parts of the state in quite the same way.

To make it easier to discuss, I’ve grouped New Jersey’s 21 counties into seven regions. Let’s take them one by one, in the order of what I personally saw as most interesting.

Route 1 Corridor [Mercer, Middlesex, Union]:
I previously said this is the region I would be paying the most attention to, and it certainly did not disappoint. These three counties are made up of a mix of working class ethnic groups, with some professionals scattered throughout, who are really concerned with taxes and cost of living issues. They tend to be independent-minded in their thinking, but Democratic in their voting.

Republican Christie Whitman actually won this region by 5,000 votes in 1993 but lost it by 39,000 votes to native son Jim McGreevey in 1997. That Democratic margin increased to 105,000 votes in McGreevey’s successful 2001 run, and produced a very healthy 78,000 vote plurality for Corzine in 2005. Corzine also won this region’s vote this year, but by a paltry 19,000 votes.

So did these voters switch their allegiances and go with Christie? Actually it looks like Democratic voters in this region simply did not show up. Turnout was 44.2% 41.8% in this region, down from 49.9% in 2005. Specifically, it was down 5 points in Middlesex County, 6 points in Union County and 5 an unbelievable 16 points in Mercer County.

Mercer County, the home of many state government workers (!), had an abysmal 38% turnout rate, one of the second lowest county turnout levels in the state. This is noteworthy because Mercer usually outperforms the state average. On the other hand, the 17.2 point margin Corzine got here is actually in line with his 2005 performance. So who knows what went on in Mercer? [That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know.] [Update 11/07: Mercer posted corrected vote numbers, bringing total county turnout up to 45.9%. Thanks to Mercer Dem Chair Rich McClellan for alerting me.].

In Middlesex County, though, there was a clear shift from Corzine to the Republican. The governor won this – the new bellwether county (?) – by 17.6 points in 2005. He lost it this year by 2.7 points – a 20 point swing away from Corzine. That vote share swing is the third largest county level shift, after Monmouth and Ocean.

Northern Shore [Monmouth, Ocean]:
What the heck happened in Monmouth and Ocean? Let’s take it year by year. Christie Whitman won these two counties by 34,000 in 1993 and 58,000 in 1997. The region went Democrat in 2001, giving Jim McGreevey a slight 8,000 vote edge, before returning to form in 2005 with a 37,000 vote advantage for Doug Forrester.

So, how well did the Republican candidate do here this year? Try a 134,000 vote margin! Yes, you read that correctly. That represents a 36 point margin, when 25 would have been considered extraordinary.

How did it happen? A lot of Northern Shore residents came out to vote, that’s how. Turnout was at least 50.2%, about 5 points above the state average. In 2005, it was 50.1%, just 1.6 points above the state average. While turnout dropped 3 points across the state, it actually went up in Monmouth and Ocean! I’ve heard conflicting reports about whether there was any extra GOTV effort here. While there wasn't the standard street-level operation that Dems typically use, I'm told that Ocean GOP Executive Director Rob Cresson used sophisticated micro-targeted outreach (e.g. letters, calls) to keep these voters on the boil throughout the camapign.

And I do know one thing. Voters need to have a reason to get enthused enough to come out in large numbers, and nothing riles up a voter like anger against an incumbent. The source of that ire may be found in a New York Times interview Jon Corzine gave a week before the election. In that interview, he raised the possibility of revisiting his ill-fated toll plan from January 2008. That’s the plan that single-handedly caused his job approval rating to drop from a net +3 to a -15 in just two months. The plan that I kept wondering why Christie wasn’t hammering away at. Well, Corzine did his opponent a favor by reminding these Parkway-dependent commuters why they didn’t like him in the first place.

A look back at Monmouth/Gannett polling during the time of the toll plan debate points to a real possibility that the toll plan played more heavily in this region than any other. In March 2008, 53% of the state said they were paying a lot of attention to the toll plan, but interest was highest in the Northern Shore region at 73%. Statewide, 56% of New Jerseyans opposed the plan, while 15% who supported it and 28% who had no opinion. In Monmouth and Ocean counties, a whopping 73% opposed it compared to just 13% who favored it and only 14% who had no opinion. The region with the next highest level of opposition was the Route 1 Corridor at 62%.

It’s also worth noting that when Governor Corzine went on his town hall tour to promote the plan, he probably received his worst receptions in Marlboro and Toms River. Coincidentally, Congressman Frank Pallone probably had the angriest crowd of any in the state during the health care reform town halls last summer. That was in Monmouth County. The state’s angriest voters seem to live along the Northern Shore. And I always thought ocean breezes were supposed to be soothing. At any rate, it would be fair to say that the toll hike plan was a real sore spot with Northern Shore voters.

Delaware Valley [Burlington, Camden, Gloucester]:
This was supposed to produce solid turnout for Democrats, led by the Camden County organization and organized labor. In 2005, this region produced a sizable 46,000 vote advantage for Corzine. This year, it could only muster 11,000. This area of the state was supposed to be strong, based on the Democratic Party’s tight hold on local offices here. It now seems hat hold was not all that strong. This region’s 42.3% turnout was down by 4.8 points from 2005, a slightly larger than average drop. Moreover, Corzine lost Burlington and Gloucester counties this time, after winning them both in 2005.

Burlington is not a surprise, as it has exceeded a 5% plurality for any candidate only once in the past five gubernatorial elections. Gloucester, on the other hand, has been a solid Democratic performer, with pluralities between 10.6% and 18.6% since 1993. This year, Gloucester went Republican by 3.7%, which may have had as much to do with local political issues as with the governor’s race.

The biggest disappointment, though, has to be Camden County, home of the vaunted Norcross political organization. Democrats running for governor over the previous four elections averaged a 27 point win here. Corzine could only manage a 15 point edge. This is supposed to be a well-oiled machine. Apparently, someone forgot to take it out for a lube job before the election.

Urban Core [Essex, Hudson]:
This is THE Democratic base region. In 2005, Corzine earned a 147,000 vote plurality. It was reduced to 116,00 this year. The Corzine camp was probably hoping for about 130,000 votes from here (which, by the way, would still not have been enough given what happened in other regions). Turnout was an abysmal 39.5% in these two counties. This was to be expected, though, since Urban Core turnout is usually about 6 points below the state average. But this also means that there was no “Obama 2.0” surge at work. This was not a repudiation of the president. It’s just that even a president who is wildly popular among these voters was not enough of a proxy to get them to vote for Jon Corzine.

Northeast [Bergen, Passaic]:
This has traditionally been the bellwether for New Jersey, especially Bergen County. Whoever wins the northeast, wins the election. Except this year. Jon Corzine still won both counties here even though Chris Christie won the election. But the Democrat won the Northeast by 40,830 votes less than he did in 2005. Turnout was about average – at 46.8% it was 1.4 points higher than the state average, similar to 2005 when it was 0.9 points higher. Based on the closeness of the polls and Corzine’s unpopularity, these numbers are pretty in line with expectations, especially since the Republicans were surprise victors in both county’s freeholder races.

Western Hills [Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, Warren]:
This is die-hard Republican country. Turnout was 51.5% – about 6 points higher than the state average. In 2005, it was 5 points higher. So the turnout here is not all that surprising. A small jump would be expected given how competitive this race had been. The 118,000 vote plurality racked up by Christie may look like a big gain compared to Doug Forrester’s 60,000 vote win here in 2005. However, the last time Republicans were in a competitive race for governor – 1993 and 1997 – Christie Whitman picked up an average 100,000 vote margin each time. So, this year’s result was never outside the realm of reasonable expectations.

Southern Shore [Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem]:
This region usually provides mixed results, but has been trending more Democrat as of late. Not this year. Corzine only won one county here, and ended up 6,800 votes behind Christie in this sparsely populated region.

New Jersey Turnout as percentage of Registered Voters
   STATE TOTAL45.1%48.5%-3.4%
   Urban Core39.5%42.1%-2.6%
   Rt 1 Corridor41.8%49.5%-8.1%
   Western Hills51.5%53.4%-1.9%
   Northern Shore50.2%50.1%+0.1%
   Delaware Valley42.3%47.1%-4.8%
   Southern Shore42.9%46.5%-3.6%

Corzine Vote Margin
Region20092005Plurality shiftShift in % vote share
   STATE TOTAL-99,285239,280-338,565-15.4%
   Urban Core115,783147,163-31,380-7.7%
   Rt 1 Corridor18,89377,822-58,929-14.2%
   Western Hills-118,154-60,000-58,154-16.0%
   Northern Shore-134,267-37,638-96,629-25.6%
   Delaware Valley11,49446,292-34,798-10.8%
   Southern Shore-6,77711,068-17,845-12.4%

Note: 2009 numbers are based on unofficial returns. Final vote totals should increase overall turnout by about 1 point, which is still well below the 2005 turnout

New Jersey Exit Poll Wrap-Up

For this year's gubernatorial election, the Monmouth University Polling Institute joined with NJN News and the Gannett New Jersey newspaper group to provide some "home-grown" analysis of the New Jersey exit polls.

The exit polls were conducted by Edison Research (of Somerville, NJ) for the National Election Pool (the major TV and cable networks and the AP).

Here are links to summaries of the exit poll stories we ran Tuesday night:
Top Issues
Did a Property Tax Plan Matter?
Candidate Favorability
Candidate Qualities
Independent Voters
The Daggett Factor
The Obama Factor
The Democratic Base
Gender, Age and Race
Negative Ads

And for good measure, here's what I was looking for before the results came in:
What to Look for In the New Jersey Election

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

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Congratulations and onward...

Congratulations to Governor-Elect Christie. Now for the hard part. You said New Jersey needs a good, hard shake-up. Here's hoping you can do it.

Also, kudos to Scott Rasmussen (of Ocean Grove) for the poll which most closely resembled the final election result. Oddly enough, it was taken 5 days before the election. I guess the lesson there is to quit while you're ahead :) The other so-called robo-call pollsters (PPP and Survey USA) also did a good job reflecting the margin of victory (albeit while overstating Daggett's support level by 4 to 5 points).

I'll spend Wednesday updating all the exit poll stories I posted on Tuesday night, many of which were based on preliminary results. So if you check back later, some of the numbers may have changed by a point or two.

It's been a wild election with an outcome that no one expected -- i.e. a 100,000 vote margin for the victor. I'll be examining the returns to figure out why. But my first stop will probably be a look at the astronomical Christie vote in Monmouth and Ocean counties. It appears the GOP picked up a few GOTV tricks in the past year or so.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Exit Poll: The Democratic Base

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

Polls taken during the summer showed New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine with serious problems among his partisan base. His support among African-American and Hispanic voters was below average and union members were trending toward Chris Christie. Overall, he was significantly underperforming among voters who called themselves Democrats.

Corzine’s base seems to have come home, although it was not enough in the end. Among Democratic voters who cast ballots today, the governor picked up 86% of the vote, including 88% among African-Americans, 65% among Hispanics, 61% among union members, and 83% among political liberals.

In last year’s U.S. Senate race, Frank Lautenberg garnered 89% support among Democratic voters, including 87% among African-Americans, 82% among Hispanics, 68% among union members, and 87% among political liberals. In the 2006 U.S. Senate contest, Bob Menendez took 92% of the Democratic vote, including 82% among African-Americans, 71% among Hispanics, 63% among union members, and 87% among political liberals.

Among voters who say they also voted for Corzine in the 2005 election, the incumbent held onto only 78% of his support, while 17% of prior Corzine voters went for Republican Chris Christie.

Among those who supported GOP nominee Doug Forrester in the 2005 contest, an overwhelming 96% went with Christie, and only 3% voted for Corzine.

Among those who did not vote in the last gubernatorial election but cast a ballot today, Christie took a 50% to 39% advantage over Corzine.

Exit Poll: NJ Vote by Gender, Age and Race

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

In most states, Democrats tend to do better among women, while Republicans fare well with male voters. That hasn’t been the case in recent New Jersey elections, though. Both Barack Obama and Frank Lautenberg in 2008 and Bob Menendez in 2006 won over both men and women voters.

That Garden State gender scenario did not play out in today’s race for governor. Jon Corzine did take 50% of the female vote compared to 45% who went for Chris Christie. But Christie won the male vote by 53% to 40%.

Trends since the 2006 election also indicate that Democratic candidates in New Jersey easily win among younger and middle age adults, while Republicans tend to gain a slim advantage among senior citizen voters. In this year’s race for governor, Democrat Jon Corzine was only able to claim a decisive win among voters under age 30, where he bested Christie by a 57% to 36% margin. The 30 to 44 year old age group went for Christie by 50% to 44%. New Jersey voters age 45 to 64 were more divided, 48% for Christie to 46% for Corzine. Christie, though, was the clear winner among those age 65 and older by a sizable 55% to 40% margin.

While Corzine picked up typical Democratic margins among minority voters, Christie did particularly well among whites. Black voters went for Corzine over Christie by 88% to 9% and Hispanics did the same by 65% to 32%.

Christie won the white vote, though, by 25 points - 59% to 34%. Typically, New Jersey Democrats run about even or only a few points behind the GOP candidate among this group of voters.

Exit Poll: Candidate Qualities

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

What personal qualities do New Jersey voters want most in a governor? According to the exit poll, 39% were looking for someone who can bring about needed change, 27% preferred to vote for someone who shares their values, 12% wanted somebody honest, and 17% say experience was the most important candidate quality in their vote today.

Among voters who named change as their most sought after quality, 67% voted for Chris Christie and 7% voted for Daggett, while 26% stuck with incumbent Jon Corzine. Not surprisingly, Corzine won an overwhelming 82% of the vote among those who said experience was the quality that mattered most.

“In a race where the incumbent’s job approval rating has been anemic, many voters say they wanted a change candidate. By comparison, in last year’s presidential race, 37 percent of New Jersey voters said that change was the top quality they were searching for. Obama won that race and Christie won this one,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and exit polling analyst for NJN News and Gannett New Jersey.

Exit Poll: Did a Property Tax Plan Matter?

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

Throughout the 2009 gubernatorial election, New Jersey voters have consistently said that they would like to hear the candidates talk more about property taxes. Chris Daggett briefly surged in the polls after he laid out a plan to reduce property taxes. While they may not have been satisfied with how well the candidates addressed this issue in the campaign, the exit polls asked voters who they felt has the best plan to lower this tax burden. In the end, it seemed not to matter all that much to the outcome.

About 4-in-10 (39%) voters said that none of the candidates offered a good plan. Among those who make a choice, Chris Christie is the nominal winner, with 33% saying he has the best property tax plan, compared to 22% for Jon Corzine and just 6% for Chris Daggett.

Among New Jerseyans who considered property taxes to be the most important issue consideration in their vote today, 45% felt Christie had the best plan, 14% gave the nod to Corzine, 9% said Daggett, and 32% felt none of them did.

Ironically, incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine fared well among those who felt that none of the candidates adequately addressed the state’s number one issue. Among those who felt that none of the candidates came up with a decent property tax plan, 52% decided to vote for Corzine, while 39% went for Christie.

“It seems that Christie’s decision to avoid discussing a specific property tax plan did not deliver a fatal blow to his candidacy and may have even worked to his advantage,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and exit polling analyst for NJN News and Gannett New Jersey.

Exit Poll: Candidate Favorability

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

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

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

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

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

Exit Poll: Negative Ads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exit Poll: Daggett Factor

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

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

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

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

Exit Poll: Obama Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exit Poll: Independent Voters

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

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

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

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

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

Exit Poll: Top Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

What to Look for in the New Jersey Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

Understanding Unaffiliated Voters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Christie’s Message of Change Lacks Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 15, 2009

As the Voter Churns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Three Weeks Out: How We Got Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Whither Daggett and His Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

NJ Gov Candidate Image Clouds

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

Jon Corzine:Chris Christie:Chris Daggett:
And we also asked voters to name the image or message that stands out most in the memory from the campaign ads they have seen:"Negative!" That word certainly refers to the tone, but it could also refer to the absence of anything substantive in these ads. Either way, it seems appropriate.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

'Tis the Season to be Silly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Contest Looks Bound for Ugliness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Give Public Its Money's Worth With Debates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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