Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's Property Taxes, Stupid!

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

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

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

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

New Jersey’s Most Important Issue *
YearProperty TaxesOther TaxesEconomy/ JobsCrimeEducationEnviron- mentCar insurance
* Only first responses to “most important issue” question are presented here.
    Results prior to 2005 are from Eagleton-Rutgers Poll.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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