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.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Thoughts on Summer's Likely Voters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on likely voter modeling, please visit

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

Monday, August 3, 2009

Corruption and the Governor’s Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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