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."