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.


  1. Great essay. If you think the press is bad try coming to Warren County where "tangentially germaine facts" would be an improvement over the moronic preformances of certain anal retentive editors at a certain Lehigh Vally Newspaper, I wont say Txpress-Eimes, we can't get a middle of the road political press release published. Where have all the ballsy editors and journalists gone, gone to complacency every one, when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn.
    John Valentine,
    Washington Boro

  2. New Jersey Unemployment Trends - August 2009

    New Jersey Unemployment Situation in Heat Map form:
    here is a map of New Jersey Unemployment in August 2009 (BLS data)

    versus New Jersey Unemployment Levels 1 year ago