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.