Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Chris Christie's Year in Public Opinion

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

It seems fitting that Chris Christie’s first year as governor wraps up with a snowstorm. That’s how it started. Before he even made his first address to the legislature back in February, the newly minted governor had to deal with a snowstorm that walloped South Jersey. He caught some flack for waiting two days to declare a state of emergency. Perhaps that’s why he decided to spend this one in the Land of Enchantment.

In between the two blizzards, the past 12 months have produced numerous other political storms. That makes it the perfect time to look back at Garden State voters’ assessment of his job performance so far (as measured by polls from Monmouth University, Quinnipiac, and Fairleigh Dickinson - scroll down for the chart).

Chris Christie came to office on January 13 as a blank slate to most voters. Many expressed optimism that he would be able to do something about the state’s top concern – property taxes. Just two weeks into his term, 31% approved of the job he was doing versus just 15% who disapproved, with the majority having no opinion. In other words, few voters had very strong feelings about him one way or the other. That would quickly change.

On February 11 he addressed a joint session of the legislature and announced an immediate spending freeze with the words: “Today, the days of Alice in Wonderland budgeting in Trenton end." And in what would be the first in a long line of “poster” children for public excess, he made an example of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission director. His job approval jumped to 52% in early March, in a sign that the public liked the new sheriff’s style.

However, that early enthusiasm didn’t last when he announced his draconian budget for the following fiscal year. By the end of March, his approval rating dropped to 43% while the percentage of voters who disapproved of the governor increased to 32%.

There is no question that Christie got New Jersey’s attention – 9-in-10 residents reported following the budget process – an unusually high level of public interest for a state budget. But many didn’t like what they saw, particularly the $800 million cut in school aid. By mid-April, the governor’s job approval number stayed steady at 42%, but his disapproval number climbed to 44%.

Through all the budget turmoil, Governor Christie’s numbers hovered at an even positive-negative split into the early summer: This period included the high-turnout school board elections in April, where the governor took credit for the defeat of a majority of school budgets; his historic action not to re-appoint a sitting Supreme Court justice; final passage of the state budget; and the unveiling of his property tax “toolkit” plan.

Considering the size of the budget cuts, the fact that Christie was able to keep his job rating “above water” was a testament to his approach to the job at hand. Voters were frustrated and he demonstrated that he understood their frustration.

Still, many New Jerseyans were perplexed by the governor’s continued assault on the NJEA. Residents expressed negative opinion of teacher’s union, especially when it came to fighting the governor’s call for a wage freeze. However, they were confused as to whether Christie’s public admonishments were aimed at the union leadership – who they disliked – or individual teachers – who they held in high regard. Clearly, these battle lines were not as clear-cut as Christie would have hoped.

By June, most people came to terms with the final budget, saying they could live with it as a fiscal necessity. The burning question on their mind, though, was whether the governor would now be able to turn his attention to property tax relief. The answer came on July 14, when Governor Christie signed a 2% cap on future property tax increase, the result of a compromise with Democratic leaders in the legislature. The public reacted favorably. The governor’s job approval number hit 51% in mid-August, while his disapprovals decrease to 36%.

There would be a bump in the road at the end of the summer called “Race to the Top.” Most New Jerseyans said the “clerical error” which cost New Jersey $400 million in federal education funds lessened their confidence in Chris Christie’s administration. Consequently, his job rating took a hit, dropping to 44% approve and 40% disapprove. But the governor bounced back quickly, turning his – and our – attention to a set of reform agendas for the state, including a setting December 31 deadline for legislative passage of his property tax toolkit.

September and October also saw the governor on the national stage being touted as a darling of the GOP and potential presidential contender in 2012. He stumped for Republican candidates across the country, including one incident where he took on a heckler on behalf of a California candidate – adding yet another clip to his popular YouTube “rant” repertoire.

His job approval returned to 51% in October. But there would be rumblings of concern. These same polls revealed growing doubts that property tax relief would become a reality. The public were also unsure of the governor’s impact on the state, with 27% saying things had become better since Christie took office, 31% saying they had become worse, and 41% saying nothing much had changed.

By late November his job rating narrowed to 49% approve and 39% disapprove. And despite the passage of some of his toolkit proposals in December, Governor Christie ended the year with a 46% approve to 44% disapprove rating – basically where it stood throughout the budget process.

The year’s polling indicates that a sizable number of New Jerseyans have developed strong feelings about Chris Christie – they either love him or hate him. This level of intensity is somewhat unusual for a governor in his first year.

Importantly, the governor’s style, alternatively called tough or confrontational, has divided the public. While his style keeps him in the public spotlight, it will be substantive results that will get Chris Christie re-elected. The bottom line is if he has success dealing with property taxes, then his style will be viewed as having been tough but necessary. But if he doesn’t produce results, then his style will be seen as needlessly antagonistic.

Governor Christie goes into his second year facing a public restless about whether their property taxes will go up and a $10 billion budget deficit. Pretty much the same scenario as last year. By most measures, he tread those waters with aplomb in Year 1. Let’s see how he does in Year 2.

(Click on chart for full-size image.)Sources: Monmouth Univ: 2/02, 4/13, 7/15, 9/21; Fairleigh Dickinson Univ: 3/03, 3/31, 5/25, 8/04, 10/12, 11/23; Quinnipiac Univ: 6/17, 8/19, 11/09, 12/21

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In the End, 12 Is Not Much Different Than 13

With the loss of a House seat, members of New Jersey's delegation will each represent 56,000 more people than they do now. Have our Congressional districts become too large?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

It’s now official. New Jersey will have only 12 Congressional seats starting with the 2012 election.

Actually, New Jersey didn’t lose its 13th seat by as large a margin as many had expected. Our total population according to the 2010 Census is 8.8 million – about 100,000 more than anticipated. In fact, if we could have turned up another 63,000 people, we would have held on to the 13th seat – although Montana, Missouri, and North Carolina were in line ahead of us and needed only 15,000 more residents to pick up that extra seat for their delegations.

Back here in the Garden State, a bipartisan commission must now draw 13 districts into 12 – each with equal populations. There will be much political ado. Which two sitting Congressmen will be pitted against one another? Will an incumbent decide to “retire” as happened in 1992?

That’s the insider intrigue storyline. The more important question – at least to those of us not employed in a Congressional office – is whether the loss of this one seat will have a negative impact on New Jersey.

When it comes to major policy issues, it’s unlikely to make much of a difference. New Jersey’s share of seats in the House of Representatives will go from 3.0% currently to 2.8% after the next election. The real power comes with seniority and committee assignments. Here, the state delegation rarely has more than one or two members in positions of influence. That won’t change whether we hold 12 or 13 seats.

There may be some impact on constituent services, though. Currently, the average size of a Congressional district in New Jersey is about 676,000 persons (not counting variations due to population shifts since 1992). In 2012, the average district size will be 732,000 persons. That means that each member will have to serve an extra 56,000 residents. And constituent service is a key ingredient in one’s re-election prospects.

The loss of a House seat also means that New Jersey will have the 12th largest Congressional district size in the country. By comparison, each of Rhode Island’s two members of Congress represent only 528,000 people. On the other hand, feel sorry for the people of Montana – a state with nearly one million people and only one House member to represent them all.

This raises the larger question of whether a House of 435 Representatives is large enough to represent the interests of the more than 300 million people who live in this country.

In 1790, the average House district contained 34,000 residents. Throughout the nineteenth century, the House was periodically enlarged to account for the addition of states to the union as well as overall population growth. By 1913, the size of the House was statutorily capped at 435 members.

The purpose of imposing a limit on the size of the House was to allow for better deliberation among its members. It’s not clear that the size of the House makes it any more or less a deliberative body. And observation of its proceedings over the past couple of decades certainly gives one pause.

The argument for a smaller House may have made sense when the average size of a district was around 200,000 people. But the country’s population continued to grow rather rapidly, topping 300,000 per Congressional district in 1940, 400,000 in 1960, 500,000 by 1980, 600,000 sometime in the 1990s, and to more than 700,000 per district today.

Law, regulation and precedent stress the principle that Congressional districts should be drawn – as much as possible – to represent populations of shared interest. It’s difficult to see how we can meet that mandate when our Congressional districts must encompass nearly three-quarters of a million people.

Our neighbor to the north, Canada, with a population about one-tenth our own, has 308 seats in its federal legislature, with the typical seat representing about 100,000 people. Great Britain’s House of Commons operates with 650 members – almost every one of them representing fewer than 75,000 constituents.

Perhaps it is time to take a hard look at that decision made nearly a century ago, and assess whether it really is in the best interests of our modern Republic to have such large Congressional districts. Let the debate begin.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christie and Obama: Still a Study in Contrasts

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

The national attention on New Jersey’s governor has taken a new turn – now portraying him as the anti-Obama. In the past month, numerous commentators have found editorial fodder in contrasting Chris Christie’s governing style with the president’s, including this article in Newsweek.

Welcome to the club. Observers of the Garden State scene saw this coming a long time ago. Back in late January, Chris Christie had appeared on his first “Ask the Governor” program on NJ101.5 and Barack Obama delivered his first State of the Union address. I wrote at the time, “Middle class voters want to know that their elected leaders truly appreciate the problems they face. Christie demonstrated that, while Obama fell short.”

That contrast in style has clearly grown over the past year, as the national media’s “discovery” of Chris Christie demonstrates. President Obama’s compromises on health care and now tax cuts are condemned as failures by his own partisans. However, when Governor Christie backed down on his demand for a hard constitutional property tax cap, disapproval was muted.

Poll after poll tells us that New Jerseyans are pre-occupied with their property taxes in a way that they have never been before. Whether he likes it or not, the voters will judge Chris Christie by what happens to their property taxes.

He understands that. This is why his style continues to work in his favor. Getting property taxes under control is a long-haul project. The governor needs to convey the sense that he is as frustrated as we are about the process. His town hall meetings and designed-for-YouTube “rants” keep that message in the air.

Unlike the president, the governor is willing to draw a line in the sand. His property tax “toolkit” is expected to be taken up by the legislature next week during their last scheduled voting session of the year. Considering the fact that the governor and legislative leaders have not agreed on the terms, I wouldn’t be surprised if the legislature passes a package of bills on Monday only to have it vetoed, followed by the governor calling them into special session through the holidays.

All this makes great political theater and helps keeps some of the more doubting members of the public on his side. But there comes a time when you have to deliver results.

The Obama presidency has shown that you can succeed in passing difficult policies but look like a failure doing it. However, the reverse is not necessarily true. You cannot fail to enact key public demands and make it look like a success by scoring style points. Especially when we’re talking about New Jersey property taxes.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Case for NJN

The clock is ticking for NJN.

New Jersey Network. The New Jersey Channel. JerseyVision (yes, it was once called that).

Forty years of broadcast television focused on one thing – the state of New Jersey.

It would be a shame to lose that. Yet it is difficult to justify NJN’s state operation as an essential government service. However, NJN – or the existence of some broadcast entity focused on the state – is essential to New Jersey’s identity.

While NJN’s audience is small, the impact of having a visual broadcast medium that keeps tabs on state issues five days a week (barring public holidays, of course) is measured in more than Nielsen ratings. Much has been made of the potential loss of NJN News coverage if the station goes dark on January 1.

Frankly, it’s unique to have a station, public or commercial, devoted to state news. Given the current condition of broadcast media, it’s amazing that NJN has lasted so long in its current form.

Frankly, NJN should have been planning to move away from state government a long time ago. While accusations of government sycophancy in its reporting are unjustified – the quality of journalism is among the highest – the fact that the NJN news team is on the public payroll has allowed those charges to persist.

That move must be made in a few short weeks, unless the governor relents and extends the transition period until a truly viable solution to re-vision NJN is developed.

I, for one, hope he does. And not just because I show up on the airwaves there from time to time. I’ve been a member of NJN since 1994, well before my punditry days. I support NJN not just for its news coverage, but for the focus it brings to all aspects of life in the Garden State.

For a state that lacks a cohesive identity, NJN has helped to bridge the gap between north and south. Growing up in Camden County – NJN went on the air when I was 8 years old – NJN conveyed a sense that my state was more than just a suburb of Philadelphia.

That sense is found in shows like State of the Arts, Images/Imagenes, and Another View. And specials like Our Vanishing Past, Greetings from Asbury Park, and 10 Crucial Days – highlighting the pivotal role New Jersey played in the American Revolution. These programs could only be produced by a public entity that puts the telling of New Jersey’s story at the root of its mission.

I’m no Pollyanna. Both the cultural and the news programming of NJN could use a bit of modernizing. But if NJN ceases to exist entirely, the state will be lesser for it. You can’t find this content anywhere else.

As a pollster, one of my missions has been to bring a focus on New Jersey as a state – what unites us, what divides us, and ultimately, what drives our quality of life. A sense of statewide identity has always been a major struggle for us. A repurposed NJN can contribute to building that identity.

Hopefully, this transition period will be used as an opportunity to build a revitalized NJN.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Media Lessons from 2010 Elections

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

What did we learn from this election?

Two things:
- Internal campaign polls that make their way into the public domain are highly suspect
- Independent - or unaffiliated - voters don’t vote in non-presidential years.

Actually, we already knew both those things. Unfortunately, this sometimes gets forgotten in the quest to report something “sexy.”

So, when next year’s legislative races roll around, here are two rules for New Jersey media to live by.

1. Don’t report internal polls. Or to be more accurate, don’t report numbers from “interested party” memos claiming to be the results of internal polls.


In this past cycle alone, we had one “poll” from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the Adler campaign showing a so-called Tea Party candidate with 12% of the vote (he got less than 2%). And another instance where the governor announced that his pollster, National Research, had Anna Little in a dead heat with Frank Pallone (Pallone won by 11 points and the gap was never smaller than 7 points in the Monmouth University Poll).

Campaigns only release internal polls for one reason – to drive the media narrative. Reporting them is akin to giving in-kind campaign assistance.

Moreover, internal campaign polls “released” to the public consistently show a bias in favor of their candidate. Scot Reader analyzed 136 internal polls released publicly and found that 70% of those polls showed the pollsters’ client outperforming the actual results.

That appears to extend to partisan pollsters’ on-the-record public polling as well. For example, the firm headed by Mark Penn (the Clintons’ pollster) conducted polls for The Hill website in 20 House races during the last two weeks of the campaign. Of those, they overstated the Democratic candidate’s performance in 16 races – including 5 cases where they miscalled the eventual winner. They got the victory margin right in 3 races and overstated the Republican candidate’s performance in just one instance. The average partisan bias in those 20 polls was 6.4% Democrat.

For the record, Monmouth University issued 7 House race polls in the closing two weeks with no overall partisan bias - 0.1% Republican, to be exact (3 of our polls understated the Democrat’s performance and 4 understated the Republican’s edge).

Furthermore, internal campaign poll memos may claim to represent accurate poll results, but give absolutely none of the information necessary to judge whether the poll is valid. In a huge bit of irony, a number of campaign pollsters recently issued an open letter decrying the media for reporting independent polls that “contain inadequate information on how they were conducted.”

Putting aside the astounding hypocrisy, they have a point. The media should be equally critical of independent polls. A legitimate polling organization should be willing to reveal the full question wording, description of likely voters, and basic information on the demographic composition of the sample for every election poll it releases.

Of course, that may open a poll to criticism on whether its sample’s partisan composition is accurate. And that’s certainly a debatable point. But I find that such critics routinely overestimate how many independents should be in a sample of likely voters (especially if their preferred candidate is winning the independent vote). Which leads us to rule #2.

2. Stop reporting the large number of unaffiliated registered voters in New Jersey as if it means something.

All too often, media reports describing the electorate include a statement to the effect that the “largest number of voters, though, are not affiliated with either party.”

So what? These people don’t vote unless it’s a presidential year! It would be much more accurate to say that the vast majority - typically about 75% - of voters who will show up in any given off-year election are registered as either Democrats or Republicans. That’s why elections tend to be about turnout more than about winning over undecided voters. Only in very competitive races do truly unaffiliated voters make a difference.

It’s a poorly managed campaign that focuses on all unaffiliated registered voters. So the media shouldn’t either?

That’s just my two cents.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Who Do You Trust?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Our latest Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Press Media Poll asked New Jerseyans how much they trust their leaders to reform state government. Governor Chris Christie has an advantage over other officials on this metric, but not by as much as some might think.

The governor garners “a lot” of trust from 32% of the public – including 52% of Republicans, 35% of independents, and 15% of Democrats. However, a similar number – 29% – say they have no trust at all in him, including 46% of Democrats, 23% of independents, and 13% of his fellow Republicans.

Both parties in the legislature fare even worse. Only 14% of all New Jerseyans have a lot of trust in the reform credentials of Democratic legislators and an identical 14% feel the same about legislative Republicans. And, legislators of both parties inspire a lot of confidence among just one-third of their fellow partisans – 35% for Democrats and 36% for Republicans. Conversely, legislators get a “no confidence” vote from about 1-in-3 New Jerseyans – 29% for the Democrats and 36% for the Republicans.

We also threw mayors and town councils into the mix, finding 20% of the public have a lot of trust in the reform efforts of their local officials versus 26% who have none.

Then we took this a step further and looked at how many people had pretty much no trust in any level of elected official. These cynics number 11% of the adult population. On the other side of spectrum are 4% who have a lot of trust in almost everybody.

The bottom line is that New Jerseyans are somewhat jaded when it comes to politicians’ claims that they will fix the system. And even Chris Christie, who probably has more credibility on this issue than any governor since Brendan Byrne, does not generate automatic support in this area.

The governor has spent the past few weeks laying out an ambitious reform agenda affecting ethics, pensions, and now income taxes. This is on top of the property tax “toolkit” measures he announced months ago.

There’s a note of caution in these poll results. The governor does not have carte blanche from the public on his approach to government. His budget cuts, while acknowledged as necessary by many, are spreading financial hardship. The error in the Race to the Top application, and the governor’s subsequent handling of the fallout, has dampened some of the goodwill he gained from the passage of a 2% property tax cap in July.

Therein lies the crux of the issue. The governor’s job approval rating made a notable uptick after he signed the cap. Garden State voters did not think that this was the be-all end-all of property tax reform, but just the first step in a very long journey to fix the state’s number one problem.

By any measure, fixing property taxes is the issue by which the public has said it will judge Governor Christie’s success. And New Jerseyans, for the most part, have indicated they will support him as long as it appears that he is working toward that objective.

The first half of President Obama’s term provides a good object lesson. Sure, he signed landmark health care legislation and kept the banks afloat, but he didn’t do what he was elected to do – turn the economy around and put people back to work. More importantly, he was perceived as taking his eye off that ball by concentrating on other issues. And now he can’t get anything done with Congress. These perceptions are the main reasons why his approval rating has moved steadily downward.

Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie has laid out a huge agenda of action items that need legislative approval. The public already thinks the governor and legislature are not able to work together. Putting more bills on the docket, when he hasn’t even gotten a hearing on the toolkit bills he proposed early in the summer, doesn’t appear likely to change that impression. And missteps by the administration on Race to the Top have emboldened the Democratic leadership to oppose him.

The governor has been using his visibility in the national media and local town hall meetings to get the public on his side. He hopes that public support will provide a bulwark against his legislative opponents – a strategy that was used effectively by Ronald Reagan. However, Chris Christie may be putting too many irons in the fire. He risks losing the public’s support – and attention – if they don’t see a light at the end of the property tax tunnel.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bullying Leader or Leading Bully?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Much has been made of New Jersey Governor Christ Christie’s initial harangue over the state’s loss of Race to the Top funds.  The governor lambasted federal bureaucrats and the Obama administration for not accepting revised information, although subsequent evidence indicates that such information was never provided by the state.

The governor’s political opponents say this incident was just another manifestation of Christie’s bullying personality.  Those more sympathetic see the governor’s self-titled “rants” as the product of a refreshing leadership style.

There is little doubt that Chris Christie approaches his job with a much different style than his predecessors.  One question on the punditry’s mind is how the public perceives this style.  Is Christie seen as a leader or a bully?

The Quinnipiac University Poll attempted to address this question by asking voters straight out:  “Would you describe Governor Christie as being more of a bully or more of a leader?”  Their June poll found New Jersey voters split at 44% for leader and 43% for bully.  By August, opinion had shifted to 51% leader and 39% bully.

One striking thing about those numbers is how closely they match the governor’s overall job performance rating, which was 44% approve to 43% disapprove in the June poll and 51% approve to 36% disapprove in August.  In fact, the results are nearly identical.

The folks at Quinnipiac were kind enough to provide additional information on the job approval and leader/bully questions from the August poll.  Their results show that fully 86% of those who approved of Christie’s job performance called him a leader (just 5% chose bully) and 84% of those who disapproved of Christie saw him as a bully (only 10% chose leader).  That’s a very high correlation.

The morning the June poll was released, New Jersey 101.5 radio host Jim Gearhart discussed it on the air.  One caller identified himself as a participant in the Quinnipiac poll.  He thought that a little bullying on the governor’s part was actually a good thing for the state.  However, the caller chose “leader” in response to the poll question because he felt that the other answer would be interpreted as a negative opinion of the governor.

This participant’s choice in response is what some pollsters call an “expressed belief” – that is, answering a poll question to send a message rather than answering it literally.  Based on the strong correlation between the approve/disapprove question and leader/bully question, this one participant was probably not alone.

[Coincidentally, ABC News pollster Gary Langer just posted a blog on this concept with regard to public “belief” that Barack Obama is Muslim.]

Another concern that Jim Gearhart raised that morning is whether “leader” and “bully” are necessarily mutually exclusive concepts for voters.  We can’t tell from the Quinnipiac poll because the choice was presented as “either/or.”  However, the Eagleton-Rutgers Poll also released results this month which shed some light on the leader versus bully debate.

Eagleton-Rutgers presented poll participants with eight different terms and asked them to rate how well each describes Governor Christie (i.e. very, somewhat, or not at all well).  Among those terms were “Strong Leader” and “Bully.”

Their results found that 36% of New Jersey voters felt that strong leader describes Christie very well and another 34% somewhat well – a total of 70%.  On the other hand, 25% said bully describes the governor very well and 24% somewhat well – a total of 49%.

Obviously, there must be some overlap between the two.  Dave Redlawsk at Eagleton was kind enough to provide me more details on his poll.  Just 4% of New Jersey voters think that both strong leader and bully describe Christie very well.  Interestingly, this 4% result is identical to the percentage of participants in the Quinnipiac poll who both approved of Christie’s job performance and saw him as more of a bully than a leader.

If we expand our pool to those who feel that both characteristics (leader and bully) are at least somewhat apt descriptions of the governor, we get up to just around 30% of all participants in the Eagleton poll.

This suggests that the majority of New Jersey voters see “leader” and “bully” as mutually exclusive concepts when it comes to assessing their governor.  Whether this exclusion is tied intrinsically to one’s overall opinion of the governor or is truly a difference in the underlying concepts is a matter of debate.

The cautionary tale here is that the meaning of poll questions may be different for those of us who write the questions than it is for those who answer them.  Bottom line:  Be careful of taking the results of poll questions too literally.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Adventures in Campaign Message Polling, part 2

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

I recently wrote that a publicly released campaign poll memo was from a message testing survey, with the results presented out of context. I’ve had some experience with message testing polls, specifically working with non-profit organizations on crafting communication strategies.

My most recent experience with message testing polls, though, was as a respondent. A few weeks ago, I was called on my home phone to participate in a message testing poll conducted on behalf of a local campaign. With a plethora of campaign polls now underway, this recent experience provides a good lesson on what goes into a message testing survey – and why the media should be wary of reporting any results from an internal campaign poll. [It also provides a good lesson on the difficultly of avoiding at least a little bias creeping into partisan polls.]

The first question is how my name got chosen for this poll. Simply, I vote in every general election and so I am very likely to turn out for this off-year election. Furthermore, as an unaffiliated (i.e. independent) voter, I’m part of the “persuadable” electorate for whom campaign messages are specifically crafted.

After establishing that I didn’t work for a political or media organization, the poll interviewer’s first question was whether I thought my local area is headed in the right direction or on the wrong track. This was followed by a generic horse-race question, i.e. whether I was likely to vote Democratic or Republican for the local offices up for election this November. This is a standard question to establish a baseline, since most voters use party ID cues as their primary vote decision tool. It was also the first of three times I would be asked to state my vote intention during the course of the interview – a key characteristic of message testing polls.

The next set of questions asked me whether I have heard of the incumbent officeholders up for re-election and what my overall opinion of them was. Again, this is standard stuff – incumbent elections are typically referenda on the current officeholders. The next question then presented head-to-head matchups for each office, but this time naming the two candidates for each office. This was my second shot at expressing a vote choice, because any change from the generic party ballot question asked earlier could indicate underlying strengths or weaknesses of the named incumbents.

The next questions asked me to name my top local issue and assess my local government’s performance. The purpose of these items is to uncover any unknown issues before the poll measures the impact of potential messages already drafted by the campaign.

We then moved on to the meat of the matter. The interviewer read some fairly long positive descriptions, i.e. messages, about both candidates for each of the offices on the ballot. After which I was asked again about my vote choice – for the third time.

Two things are important to note here. First, an internal poll “memo” which releases the results of this third question without mentioning the context would be misrepresenting actual vote intention of the existing electorate – because the poll respondents had more information about the candidates than typical voters have – and that information was coming one side only.

Second, this is the point where I figured out who sponsored the poll (i.e. the challengers). As hard as this pollster tried to be balanced in wording the positive descriptions for both party’s candidates, the descriptions for one slate of candidates had just a little more “zing” in the wording. This subtle difference could have an unintended impact on the results of the third vote choice question.

To be fair, the word choice may not have been the pollster’s. I’ve worked with partners who insist that a particular word or phrase “needs” to be included in the question. Sometimes, you are successful in talking them out of it, and sometimes you just go along in order to move the project forward.

Question wording is at the core of the art of polling. It deserves as much scrutiny as the demographic composition of a sample and the poll’s margin of error. This is why reputable pollsters release the full wording of all the questions they ask. And it’s why the media should never report a poll where the pollster refuses to release the complete questionnaire.

Back to the survey interview. The final set of questions – before closing with basic demographic information – presented some negative information about the incumbents (confirming my suspicions about the sponsoring party). I was asked whether knowing this information would influence my vote. Again, this is standard stuff.

Interestingly, very few messages were tested in this poll. In a competitive high-profile race, each campaign will test a variety of pro and con statements to narrow down their communication strategy to the most effective messages. In this instance, only one or two messages about each incumbent were tested. This indicates a race where the decision may not be which messages to choose, but whether spending any resources will be worthwhile and, if so, how to identify the most pliable segments of the electorate.

By the way, this was a pretty good message testing poll given the election in question. The interviewer was of very high quality and the questionnaire was well-crafted, my observations about the positive candidate description imbalance notwithstanding.

There is also an interesting side note to this story. I confirmed the identity of the poll sponsor through an Internet search of the firm name and a review of Election Law Enforcement Commission expenditure reports. When I called representatives of both the pollster and party organization to corroborate, they were noticeably flustered. One said he’d call me back, but never did. The other answered my questions mainly with “um” or “er.”

Their reaction underscores the fact that campaigns tend to treat their internal polls as state secrets. Typically, they don’t want anyone outside the campaign organization to know what their poll results reveal. Indeed, they usually don’t want anyone to get wind of the fact they are polling at all. All of which makes any publicly released internal poll immediately suspect.

So, my advice to the media is if a campaign is suddenly eager to release poll results to a wider audience of “interested parties,” consider the motive. And then just file it away.

[Note: I wish campaign pollsters would be more forthcoming with their contact information at the end of the interview, since their conduct reflects on the whole profession. However, I decided not to identify the sponsor of this poll since their practices were sound and the primary purpose of this article is to foster a more critical eye toward the public release of internal campaign polls rather than “out” any particular campaign.]

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Is Obama in Need of Some Tom Foolery?

Cross-posted at New Jersey Newsroom

One of the hardest things for a president to do is to stay in touch with the concerns of everyday folk. It’s just the nature of holding a public office, but there are certainly degrees of distance. It is easier for a state legislator to mingle among the masses than it is for a governor. And it is much easier for a member of Congress to grab a bite in a local deli than it is for the President of the United States. Every public official is treated with some deference, but the higher up the political food chain, the more likely it is that encounters with the public will lack some authenticity.

I viewed the live news coverage of Barack Obama’s visit to the Tastee Sub Shop in Edison, New Jersey last week with this in mind. I watched as he disembarked from Air Force One to greet Governor Christie and Mayor Booker – shaking the former’s hand for a prolonged 34 seconds! [I’ve looked at the footage a few times and I’m still not sure who refused to let go.]

I watched as his motorcade pulled up to the shop, blocked from view by a strategically placed delivery truck. I watched people gathered behind barricades yards away wondering whether the President had arrived. Not very riveting stuff.

A while later, a news pool camera came to life and Obama spoke for a few minutes to selected members of the press corp. He talked about the meeting he just had with a handful of local small business owners and called for passage of tax credit legislation to aid small businesses. Then he was whisked off to New York to tape an episode of The View and headline a fundraiser.

So, on his trip to New Jersey (population 8.7 million), President Obama apparently spoke with a grand total of eight state residents: the governor, the mayors of Newark and Edison, and five small business owners. And according to reports, the president, typing on his Blackberry, barely acknowledged the crowds lining Plainfield Avenue during his drive from Marine One’s landing site a few miles from the shop.

Some have questioned the purpose of this presidential visit. If he really wanted to push for passage of the tax credit bill in question – which stalled in the Senate the following day – wouldn’t a high profile event with public statements by small business owners been more effective? We don’t even know what those five business owners said to Obama during that private meeting in Edison.

But maybe we should consider for a moment that generating support for legislation may not have been the president’s primary motivation for this visit. In a recent interview, Obama biographer Jonathan Alter said that the president is not avoiding the isolation of the office “as well as he needs to.” This trip may have been an effort to break through that isolation.

But why come to New Jersey at all? Considering the logistical hassle and cost to taxpayers, wouldn’t it have been cheaper to bring those five business owners to the White House? Cheaper, yes. More effective, maybe not.

By all accounts, it is difficult to be entirely honest with the leader of the free world when you meet him. Nearly everyone who has a presidential encounter reports being awestruck in some way, even if they vehemently disagreed with the incumbent’s politics. It follows that the rank and file citizens President Obama meets in his occasional excursions outside the White House are not always completely candid with him. Inside the White House, that likelihood diminishes even further.

We don’t know how frank those New Jersey business owners were during their short time with the president. But I’ll bet that they were more forthcoming sitting among cartons of chips and cases of soda than they would have been in the Oval Office. And the more often a president comes in contact with the public, the more likely he is to run across people who will speak openly with him. Unfortunately, this happens less and less given the security demands of the modern day presidency. [As I type this, I am looking out my window at the grounds where Woodrow Wilson mingled with voters during his 1916 re-election campaign.]

This is why it is increasingly important that presidents (and other elected officials) make sure their circle of advisors includes at least one or two people who are free to speak their mind without fear of repercussion. As to Obama, Alter claims that there are “very few people” within the White House who “are willing to tell him hard truths.” So maybe the president is in need of a court jester, a.k.a. Tom Fool (after Thomas Skelton, one of the last persons to hold the official title of “licensed fool”).

Jesters were de rigueur for the nobility through the early Renaissance. Unlike the common conception of them as simply clowns, jesters were valued members of a monarch’s court. While their prime responsibility was to entertain, jesters were also respected as sounding boards on important issues of the day. Basically, the jester was given license to speak his mind and was frequently the only advisor the monarch could trust to give an honest evaluation of the situation.

Of course, the “licensed fool” has some modern-day analogies – Stephen Colbert comes to mind. But all of these contemporary jesters exist outside the inner sanctum of power. If I may take this idea in a more serious direction, it is important for any leader to have an honest sounding board. And even if a president is surrounded by strong nay-saying counselors, they are also removed from the everyday concerns of citizens by virtue of their position in the halls of power.

Certainly, public opinion polls have been used to fill the void – and the current president appears to use them more than his predecessors. But poll results are cold measures in many ways detached from the concerns of the real people that underlie the percentages.

The conundrum is how a president keeps tabs on the public mood in an authentic way. Maybe the president should consider establishing an official advisor or council of advisors, drawn from the heartland of this country, whose sole purpose is to tell it like it is.

Or perhaps it’s time to bring back the court jester. No world leader should be without one.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

State Pension Reality Check

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ.

Numbers matter. Poll results, budget deficits, health statistics. Attach a number to any issue and it becomes reality. But sometimes a reality check is in order.

When this year’s budget was first unveiled, the administration touted the closure of a nearly $11 billion structural budget gap. There was some debate over that claim because it involved spending that had not been appropriated for years. The front office switched gears later in the budget process and focused on the their reduction of state expenditures by $3 billion from the prior year – a widely accepted fact that is certainly worth crowing about.

The grander claim of an $11 billion deficit solution continued to surface, though, driven perhaps by the national media’s interest in New Jersey’s Republican governor. I believe such a claim is basically “untrue,” because it implies that the structural issues contributing to this gap have been solved. They haven’t.

Indeed, a recent analysis by the non-partisan – and well-regarded – Office of Legislative Services estimates that next year’s budget deficit could top $10 billion. They arrive at that conclusion by looking at the same “on-the-books” programs and obligations that were used to estimate the current year’s $11 billion gap. So, it was more than a little interesting when Governor Christie said the OLS numbers were “completely fake.”

State treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff clarified the administration position. He said the OLS figures were “wildly inflated” because they assume “that New Jersey is going to return to its spending habits of 2008 and 2009. Those spending commitments were frankly unsustainable and out of control.”

The treasurer added that all parties “need to come to terms with the fact that fiscal ’11, the budget plan that we just adopted, represents a new baseline for New Jersey.” Fair enough.

The problem is that OLS includes those commitments in its fiscal analysis because the programs are still on the books, a fact that the treasurer implicitly conceded in a later interview.

The OLS numbers are a reality check. Those statutory obligations still exist, which the governor was asked about in his first national Sunday morning television appearance on ABC’s This Week.. Specifically, host Jake Tapper asked Governor Christie whether he wiped these programs off the books via “executive fiat.”

Regarding the pensions, the governor said that he was “going to go after current employees” this fall. Ah – a new reality.

It is no secret that the pension obligation will continue to grow, even after a required $500 million contribution is included in next year’s budget. Furthermore, there is mounting evidence that the state will never be able to meet its retirement obligations for current employees. [Jason Method’s piece in the Asbury Park Press on this is a must read.]

The governor has signaled that he is going to tackle this head on before the next budget. The fight is not going to be easy, but win it and the OLS deficit estimates will almost certainly come down. Until then, the numbers are anything but “fake,” especially to the workers who expect to receive these benefits and to the generations of taxpayers who would have to foot that bill.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Adventures in Campaign Message Polling, part 1

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ.

The political blogosphere recently took note of a poll in New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional district purporting to show first-term Democratic incumbent John Adler with a surprising 17 point lead over GOP challenger Jon Runyan. The poll was conducted for the Adler campaign by their own pollster, but even campaign pollsters have to produce reliable estimates if they want to stay in business. Regardless, this poll – or to be more accurate, the memo that described the poll results – raises some red flags.

First, only 3% of likely voters say they are undecided about their choice. Really? In June, when most voters probably cannot name either party’s nominee?. Second, the vote choice question was posed as a 3-way race, including Adler, Runyan and a third candidate running under the “NJ Tea Party” banner. This candidate – whose name recognition has to be near zero – received 12% of the vote in this match-up.

The poll memo reads more like a campaign fluff piece (e.g. “[Adler’s] record of independence and accountability has put him in an excellent position to win this race.”) than an insightful polling memo. Now, I’m not saying that the poll findings were fabricated. For one, the pollster, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, is a well-known Democratic firm that is unlikely to jeopardize their reputation by generating poll numbers out of whole cloth. In fact, I’m inclined to believe the results were probably valid. The problem is that they were reported out of context.

Unless the Adler campaign has money to burn on conducting polls solely for the purpose of leaking them to the public, these results were from a longer poll that also tested all sorts of messages and strategies for the Adler campaign. The purpose of an early summer poll is to try out a variety of messages in order to identify the most effective ones for use in the campaign.

What we don’t know about this poll is at what point in the interview this three-way vote choice question was presented to respondents. I have my doubts that this was the first time in the interview that survey respondents were asked to name their vote choice. There were likely some questions about candidate characteristics that preceded this question.

So why does the order of the questions matter? Because questions asked later in a poll allow respondents to use information they heard during the course of the interview to inform their answers. At this point, the poll results no longer reflect the mind-set of typical voters because the poll respondents now have information – i.e. messages – that most voters don’t.

This is why message testing polls rarely get released to the public. Indeed, most reputable pollsters prefer it that way. Unfortunately, their concerns are occasionally overridden by a campaign manager who sees some strategic advantage in releasing the poll results.

One reason a campaign may release an internal poll is to demonstrate to potential donors that they have a viable shot at winning. Considering the healthy state of Adler’s campaign coffers, that’s clearly not a concern. So what advantage did the Adler campaign see in selectively releasing poll results?

First, we need to consider why the campaign even bothered to include an unknown, unfunded third party candidate in one of their vote choice questions. Especially since there will be three independents candidates on the ballot for this race in November. [Side note: There were four, but the state Democrats’ executive director, Robert Asaro-Angelo, successfully challenged Robert “Weedman” Forchion’s petition. This, of course, raises questions about Angelo’s contention that he never heard of the Tea Party candidate listed on that very same ballot.] [UPDATE: Rob Angelo contacted me re this statement. He admitted that he misspoke, since he obviously reviewed the names of all independent candidate filings in June.]

So, why did the Adler campaign only test the Tea Party candidate? Because it makes sense in the current political environment. While we can make a pretty strong guess as to the “Libertarian” candidate’s likely vote total in November, the impact of running under the Tea Party banner is a big question mark.

According to the Adler poll results, a Tea Party candidate may indeed peel off votes from the Republican nominee. But this is by no means a certainty. Why? To start, no one knows who the Tea Party candidate is.

And that gets us to why these numbers were released. Remember, these poll results represent one potential outcome in a context where Adler’s pollster had complete control over information presented to voters. In other words, the message testing effects measured in campaign polls do not always play out so neatly in the real world.

More importantly, a message will certainly not work if no one knows about it. And that is the case with the Tea Party candidate. So, what’s a good way to get a candidate’s name out? Show him exceeding expectations in a poll.

The message testing poll becomes the message! The Greenberg firm issued a memo to “Interested Parties” and sure enough, the story hits the internet, including The Hill, Chris Cillizza’s “The Fix” column in the Washington Post, the National Journal’s Hotline, and PolitickerNJ.

Interestingly, the poll memo was not released to newspapers, at least not to those in Adler’s district. Did the campaign think these media outlets wouldn’t be “interested?” Doubtful. The reason why the poll was released only to internet sites geared to the chattering classes was a strategic one. The intent was to let Tea Party-inclined voters “know” they have a viable option in New Jersey’s 3rd district Congressional race and to suggest to potential GOP donors that Runyan is a shaky investment. The internet is the best way to get that buzz spread with a less critical eye, especially with the burgeoning Tea Party community.

The chosen “interested parties” did their job and disseminated the campaign’s message, any caveats in their reports notwithstanding. Of course, this may backfire in the long run. Tea Party activists have been denouncing the candidate, with stories now focused on whether the Tea Party candidate is a plant. This poll is seen by some as part of a larger Democratic plot.

However, the question remains whether this poll – or more accurately the selective results in the campaign’s memo – should have been reported in the first place. When a campaign simply claims that their candidate is ahead by 17 points, no journalist in his right mind would report it. However, when a campaign has their pollster slap together a memo that purports to show a “51 to 34 percent” lead, suddenly the information is valid.

A good rule of thumb, no poll should be reported – in any venue – unless the pollster is willing to provide the entire set of questions and responses. Otherwise, it’s little more than propaganda, or worse. It’s a little too late for this poll. The Adler campaign achieved its intent – getting out a campaign message under the guise of hard fact.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Homebuyer Credit or Taxpayer Gift?

So what’s the deal with the New Jersey homebuyer tax credit? This program would give homebuyers in the state a tax credit worth up to $15,000 spread over three years. The bill (A1678) passed the legislature with overwhelming bi-partisan support and landed on the governor’s desk on June 10. Yet, Chris Christie has yet to sign it.

On New Jersey 101.5’s “Ask the Governor” program this week, Christie said he likes the idea, but will only sign it if he can figure out where the money is coming from. Proponents of the bill say it will spur construction and create jobs, which will increase revenues in both the realty transfer fund and income taxes, which will offset the cost of the program. A look at the numbers behind the program casts serious doubt that this will be the case.

The program sets aside $100 million from the property tax relief fund as a tax credit for people who purchase a home after the program goes into effect. Of this amount, $75 million is set aside for the purchase of newly constructed homes and $25 million for existing home sales.

Wow! $100 million sounds like it will go far, doesn’t it? Not really. The program would give these purchasers a credit of $15,000 or 5% of the sales price, whichever is lower. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the typical home price is $250,000. That would give the average homebuyer a credit of $12,500.

The $100 million in the kitty would provide tax credits to just 8,000 homebuyers. Hmm, sounds less impressive now. It’s a shame the legislature didn’t know this before they passed the bill, you say. Actually, they did (or at least the Senate did). The Office of Legislative Services provided a fiscal impact statement in late May that laid out just such a scenario – in fact, theirs was even more conservative.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s see how this would actually work if the program was in place. Remember the pot is divided 75/25 between new and existing construction. Using my generous estimate, that equates to 6,000 purchasers of new homes and 2,000 purchasers of existing homes who would qualify for the credit.

There were about 12,000 building permits issued for new homes in New Jersey last year. Even if some went unsold, at least 10,000 new homes were purchased last year. There is some debate on the impact that the now-expired federal tax credit had on those sales numbers. Let’s make a hypothetical assumption that one-third of those sales were driven by the tax credit and two-thirds would have happened anyway because people needed to move. In other words, we could expect that about 6,500 newly built homes will be sold in New Jersey this year without any tax credit.

Now, proponents say that the availability of a state tax credit will spur more buyers into the marketplace and thus increase demand. Let’s accept that premise and estimate that demand doubles and 6,000 homes are sold within the first six months of the program.

Well, what happens after the credit program is shut down? Do those buyers stay in the market and keep housing demand high? If we look at the experience of the federal credit program, the answer appears to be “No.”

The numbers are even more astounding if we look at how the credit will apply to sales of existing homes. According to state figures, more than 110,000 existing houses were resold last year. That translates to about 300 a day. This means the $25 million pot for existing home sales tax credits will be snapped up within a week of the program going into effect. One week!

Considering how lengthy the sales and mortgage process is, a homebuyer’s likelihood of closing on their purchase within the seven day window this credit program is available will be more a matter of luck than planning. “Mr. and Mrs. Jones, here are the keys to your house, and congratulations - you just won $15,000!”

This analysis raises a number of doubts about the economic impact – or ripple effect – of the New Jersey homebuyer tax credit. First of all, if the purpose is to spur economic activity in the form of construction jobs, then why isn’t it limited to new home sales only?

But even if the entire pot was dedicated to new home sales, it doesn’t seem to be large enough to keep demand high for enough time to ride out the current slump in the housing market. If I were a builder, I don’t think I would be hiring more workers on the dubious potential of this program.

And finally, why is the program so generous at $15,000 a pop? The federal program gave an $8,000 credit for first-time homebuyers and a $5,000 credit for current owners. These amounts appeared to be adequate to keep the housing market from dipping lower than it did.

Of course, none of this says anything about whether a tax credit of any sort is particularly smart economics. Some analysts claim that the New Jersey housing market is still overvalued and that prices need to come down further before buyers will return. Basically, they argue that the tax credit program has interfered with the open market and delayed a necessary price correction. Perhaps that’s why the eight Assembly members who voted against the bill happen to be among the most ideologically conservative in the legislature.

In any event, it’s difficult to see economic benefit in taking $100 million dollars in taxpayer money and giving it to 8,000 homebuyers for doing what they would probably have done anyway. Given New Jersey’s current fiscal crisis, maybe the state would be better off using the money to build a few hundred houses itself and sell them for a profit.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Are Nate Silver’s Pollster Ratings “Done Right”

This originally appeared as a guest column on

The motto of Nate Silver’s website,, is “Politics Done Right.” I’m not sure that his latest round of pollster ratings lives up to that moniker.

As most poll followers know, Nate shot to fame during the 2008 election, taking the statistical skills he developed to predict baseball outcomes and applying them to election forecasting. His approach was pretty accurate in that presidential race (although it’s worth noting that other poll aggregators were similarly accurate – see here and here).

Nate recently released a new set of pollster ratings that has raised some concerns among the polling community.

First, there are some questions about the accuracy of the underlying data he uses. Nate claims to have culled his results from 10 different sources, but he seems to not to have cross-checked those sources or searched original sources for verification.

I asked for Monmouth University’s poll data and found errors in the 17 poll entries he attributes to us – including six polls that were actually conducted by another pollster before we partnered with the New Jersey Gannett newspapers, one omitted poll that should have been included, two incorrect election results, and one incorrect candidate margin. [Nate emailed me that he will correct these errors in his update later this summer.]

Mark Blumenthal also noted errors and omissions in the data used to arrive at Research2000’s rating. I found evidence that suggest these errors may be fairly widespread.

In the case of prolific pollsters, like Research2000, these errors may not have a major impact on the ratings. But just one or two database errors could significantly affect the vast majority of pollsters with relatively limited track records – such as the 157 pollsters out of 262 pollsters on his list who have fewer than 5 polls to their credit.

Some observers have called on Nate to demonstrate transparency in his own methods by releasing that database. Nate has refused to do this (with a dubious rationale that the information may be proprietary) - but he does now have a process in place for pollsters to verify their own data. [If you do, make sure to check the accuracy of the actual election results as well.]

I’d be interested to see how many other pollsters find errors in their data. But the issue that has really generated buzz in our field is Nate’s claim that pollsters who either were members of the National Council on Public Polls or had committed to the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) Transparency Initiative by June 1, 2010 exhibit superior polling performance. For these pollsters, he awards a very sizable “transparency bonus” in his latest ratings.

One of the obvious problems with his use of the bonus is that the June 1 cut-off is arbitrary. Those pollsters who signed onto the initiative by June 1, 2010 were either involved in the planning or happened to attend the AAPOR national conference in May. A general call to support the initiative did not go out until June 7 – the day after Nate’s ratings were published.

Thus, the theoretical claim regarding a transparency bonus is at least partially dependent on there also being a relationship between pollster accuracy and AAPOR conference attendance. Others have remarked on the apparent arbitrariness of this “transparency bonus” cutoff date Nate claims that regardless of how a pollster made it onto the list, there is statistical evidence these pollsters are simply better at election forecasting. I don’t quite see it.

His methodology statement includes a regression analysis of pollster ratings that is presented as evidence for using the bonus.

The problem is that even in this equation, the transparency score just misses most researcher’s threshold for being significant (p<.05). More to the point, his model – using dummy variables to identify “transparent” pollsters, partisan pollsters, and internet pollsters – is incomplete. The adjusted R-square is .03. In other words, 3% of total variance in pollster raw scores (i.e. error) is predicted by the model.

Interestingly of the three variables – transparency, partisan, and internet – only partisan polling shows a significant relationship. He decided to calculate different benchmarks that award transparent polls and penalize internet polls (even though the latter was based on only 4 cases and not statistically significant). And oddly, he does not treat partisan pollsters any differently than other pollsters, even though this was the only variable with a significant relationship to rawscore.

I decided to look at this another way, using a simple means analysis. The average error among all pollsters is +.54 (positive error is bad, negative is good). Among “transparent” pollsters it is -.63 (se=.23) and among other pollsters it is +.68 (se=.28).

But let’s isolate the more prolific pollsters, say the 63 organizations with at least 10 polls to their names who are included in Nate’s first chart. Among these pollsters, the 19 “transparent” ones have an average score of -.32 (se=.23) and the other 44 pollsters average +.03 (se=.17). The difference is not so stark now.

Firms with fewer than 10 polls to their credit have an average error score of -1.38 (se=.73) if they are “transparent” (all 8 of them) and a mean of +.83 (se=.28) if they are not. That’s a much larger difference.

I also ran some ANOVA tests for the effect of the transparency variable on pollster raw scores for various levels of polling output (e.g. pollsters with more than 10 polls, pollsters with only 1 or 2 polls, etc.). The F values for this test range from only 1.2 to 3.6, and none were significant at p<.05. In other words, there is more error variance within the two separate groups of transparent versus non-transparent pollsters than there is between the two groups.

I can only surmise that the barely significant relationship between the arbitrary transparency designation and polling accuracy is pointing to other more significant factors, including pollster output.

Consider this - 70% of “transparent” pollsters on Nate’s list are have 10 or more polls to their credit, whereas only 19% of the “non-transparent” ones do. In other words, Nate’s “bonus” is actually a sizable penalty levied against more prolific pollsters in the latter group. “Non-transparent pollsters happen to be affiliated with a large number of organizations with only a handful of polls to their name – i.e. pollsters who are prone to greater error.

For comparison, re-ran Nate’s PIE (Pollster Introduced Error) calculation using a level playing field for all 262 pollsters on the list. I set the error mean at +.50 (which is approximately the mean error among all pollsters).

Comparing the relative pollster ranking between the two lists produced some intriguing results. The vast majority of pollster ranks (175) did not change by more than 10 spots on the table. Another 67 had rank changes between 11 to 40 spots on the two lists; 11 shifted by 41 to 100 spots, and 9 pollsters gained more than 100 spots in the rankings because of the transparency bonus. Of this latter group, only 2 of the 9 had more than 15 polls recorded in the database.

Nate says that the main purpose of his project is not to rate pollsters’ past performance but to determine probable accuracy going forward. But one wonders if he needs to go this particular route to get there. Other aggregators use less elaborate methods – including straightforward mean scores – and seem to be just as accurate.

His methodology statement is about 4,800 words (with 18 footnotes). It reminds me of a lot of the techies I have worked with over the years – the kind of person who will make three left turns to go right.

This time I think Nate may have taken one left turn to many. We’ll know in November.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

New Jersey Property Taxes Far and Away the No. 1 Pet Peeve

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Gannett New Jersey newspapers on June 13, including the Asbury Park Press, Courier News, Courier-Post, Daily Record, and Home News Tribune.

What do New Jerseyans answer when asked to name the most unfair tax they pay? If you said property taxes, you are correct. If you said something else, I’d like to be among the first to welcome you to our state.

In public opinion polls stretching back nearly 20 years, New Jersey’s property tax consistently ranks as the most detestable when stacked up against the federal income tax, state income tax, and state sales tax. In a September 2009 Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll, 59 percent of state residents chose property taxes as being the least fair. This is similar to the 61 percent who said the same in 2005, which was up slightly from the prior decade – 54 percent in 1994 and 47 percent in 1991.

The bottom line is that no other tax in New Jersey comes close to raising the public’s ire as much as the property tax. In fact, property taxes are the number one reason people give for wanting to move out of New Jersey.

In a poll we conducted earlier this year, 80 percent of homeowners told us that, if they had to choose, they would like to see their property tax bill reduced rather than their state income tax bill. And that even included a majority of those who currently pay more in state income taxes than they do in local property taxes!

To be fair, we in New Jersey are not alone in detesting our property taxes. An Elon University poll of residents in supposedly low-tax North Carolina last year found 49 percent who said that local property taxes in that state were unfair. This result was nominally higher than the 46 percent who rated North Carolina’s personal income tax as unfair. And this sentiment even extends overseas. A YouGov poll taken in Great Britain in 2007 found that 67 percent rated their local council tax – their property tax equivalent – as unfair, compared to 41 percent who said the same about the income tax.

At its core, there is something about how property taxes are levied that just irks people. While income taxes are based on wealth, property taxes do not take into account one’s ability to pay. And that just strikes people as unfair, regardless of how much their property tax bill is.

The big difference between New Jersey and other places seems to be the all-consuming nature of the issue. During last year’s campaign for governor, the number one issue Garden State voters wanted addressed was – you guessed it – property taxes. I doubt that is true in any other state.

It may be useful to compare New Jersey public opinion today to California in the late 1970s. Back then, a Field Poll found that 70 percent of Golden State residents said their state and local taxes were too high, with 60 percent laying most of the blame on property taxes. In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, which placed a 2 percent cap on property tax increases. Two years later, 70 percent of the state still said their taxes were too high, but this time they tabbed the state income tax as the primary offender.

The message from the California experience seems to be that you’ve got to either reduce spending on services or wind up shifting the burden somewhere else. And it’s interesting to note that even 30 years after Proposition 13 capped annual property tax increases at 2 percent, 29 percent of California residents still say their property taxes are too high.

This is certainly food for thought as Governor Christie and others push for a 2.5 percent property tax cap here in New Jersey.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

New Jersey's Primary: What's it Mean for November?

So what does the outcome of New Jersey’s Congressional primaries mean? The Tea Party movement certainly made a statement, but there is a lot more to the message voters sent on Tuesday. Basically, voters of all stripes are frustrated, but that frustration was voiced in different ways by Republicans and Democrats.

On the GOP side - assuming Anna Little holds on in the 6th district - the Tea Party can claim only one clear winner. However, nearly all their candidates had stronger outings than are typical for challengers to the party organization’s anointed picks.

Typically, a House incumbent facing a primary challenge in New Jersey will garner a majority of 85% or better. This year, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) and Frank LoBiondo (R-2) were held to about three-quarters of the vote, while Chris Smith (R-4) fell just shy of 70%, and freshman incumbent Leonard Lance (R-7) eked out a 56% majority against three challengers. Scott Garrett (R-5) was the only Republican incumbent to avoid a challenge.

In nearly every other Republican contest, the party-line candidate was held to 60% or less of the vote: 1st - Dale Glading 55%; 3rd – Jon Runyan 60%; 6th – Diane Gooch 50%, 12th – Scott Sipprelle 54%. Only Roland Straten, a sacrificial lamb in the 8th, exceeded 80%.

Clearly there is some disagreement within the Republican Party base about who should bear their standard. But, contrary to most media reports from Tuesday, these near-upsets were not due to low turnout.

More than 245,000 New Jersey voters cast ballots for Republican House candidates on June 8. To put that in perspective, votes cast in GOP House primaries between 2002 and 2008 ranged from 132,000 to 193,000. [The larger number was driven by a hotly contested 3-way race for the U.S. Senate nomination in 2002.] This was, by most measures, a very strong Republican turnout for a primary without a statewide office at stake. [See NJ House turnout trend tables below.]

The fact that 10 out of 13 GOP House primaries were contested (including 4 out of 5 incumbents) is just another indication that voters want to send a message. In a typical year, only one or two GOP Congressional primaries attract more than one candidate (although that number did jump to 7 in 2008). The increased turnout seems largely attributable to these challengers.

For example, Chris Smith typically garners 16,000 to 20,000 votes in an uncontested race. Faced with a challenger, he was only able to increase his total to just over 21,000, while Alan Bateman tallied nearly 10,000 votes.

And, while Leonard Lance increased his vote total from 10,000 in 2008 (when 7 Republicans were vying for an open seat) to 17,000 this year, his predecessor, Mike Ferguson, garnered similar numbers in his uncontested primary races.

On the Democratic side, the story is much different. Only 3 incumbents faced challengers, and 2 won with typically large 86% margins – Rob Andrews (D-1) and Albio Sires (D-13) – while freshman John Adler (D-3) was held to 75%. The remaining five Democratic officeholders ran unopposed.

But there still were a total of 5 contested Democratic House primaries this year, when 2 or 3 is the norm. And yet, Democrats could only manage to get 158,000 of their voters to the polls. Democratic turnout for House races in the prior four cycles ranged between 184,000 and 278,000 (the higher number coming in 2008).

This is exactly the kind of disappointing primary turnout that foreshadowed Jon Corzine’s defeat in last year’s race for governor. After the euphoria of 2008, Democratic voters seem forlorn.

One interesting example is in the 1st district. Between 2002 and 2006, Rob Andrews could count on at least 18,000 votes when he ran unopposed. With a challenger this year, the vote total – including Andrews and his challenger – was less than 16,000. Steve Rothman’s (D-9) 14,000 votes was also a few thousand shy of what he typically gets.

Other Democratic incumbents, Frank Pallone (D-6), Donald Payne (D-10), and Rush Holt (D-12), pulled in numbers similar to their prior races. Only Bill Pascrell (D-8) at 13,000 votes performed slightly better than in past contests. [One caveat: Without a statewide office at stake, uncontested House primary turnout can be driven by down-ballot races, which generate varying levels of interest by district]

So what does this all mean for November?

On one hand, the Democratic base shows very little enthusiasm. Advantage Republicans.

On the other hand, the Republican base appears angry and divided. If that rift can’t be healed and those with Tea Party affinities can’t be persuaded to support the GOP nominees, these voters might sit on their hands this fall. That would be good news for the Democrats.

The bottom line is that a lot of voters – for widely different reasons – are simply unhappy with the performance of their government. The question is: Do they voice their frustration at the ballot box, or do they throw up their hands and refuse to participate in a system they see as unresponsive?

That unpredictability could to lead to a wild fall campaign.

Ironically, though, it could just as easily lead to maintaining the status quo.

At least, that’s what New Jersey’s 13 Congressional incumbents hope will be the case.

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        2010 numbers are unofficial election night vote counts.
        Contested races with more than one candidate on ballot are in red.
        “nc” = No candidate on the ballot.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

More on New Jersey’s Image

Two days after the Gannett New Jersey newspapers ran a feature on New Jersey’s image (which included my analysis of state and national public opinion trends), there is a new poll from Eagleton-Rutgers updating some of those numbers. And they don’t look particularly good.

Wait a minute, you say! Didn’t today’s headlines proclaim that most New Jerseyans like the state? Yes, but the analysis overlooked the fact that these results are the lowest in three decades.

The poll reports that 52% of the public rate the state as either an “excellent” or “good” place to live. That may sound decent in isolation, but how does it stack up to prior years? Here are the numbers from Eagleton’s own poll archive:
            2010     52%
            2007     63%
            2004     68%
            2003     72%
            2001     76%
            2000     76%
            1999     76%
            1994     71%
            1990     59%
            1988     78%
            1980     68%

The current 52% result is clearly an all-time low in the history of these polls! In fact, the only other time positive opinion of the state dipped below 6-in-10 was during the Florio era toilet-paper tax revolt.

Eagleton also asked about state pride and found that 50% take “a lot” of pride in being a resident of the state. There are only three other trend points for this question. The current result is fairly comparable to the 51% recorded 2003 and 52% in 2001, but lower than the 59% in 1994. Moreover, the 24% who currently say they only have “a little” or “no” pride in being a New Jerseyan is slightly higher than the 15% recorded in 2003, 17% in 2001, and 13% in 1994.

Finally, Eagleton also asked a question about where folks prefer to live. Specifically, “If you could, would you move out of your neighborhood or continue to live where [you] are now?” If they want to leave their neighborhood, they are then asked: “Would you move to another part of your town, to another town in NJ, or to another state?”

Eagleton finds that 63% of New Jerseyans would like to stay in their same neighborhood, 14% would move somewhere else within the state, and 23% move out of New Jersey. The number who would move out of New Jersey stood at 19% in 2001 and 23% in 1995 – so there really isn’t any change there.

However, the number who want to stay in their neighborhood has increased from 54% in 2001 and 56% in 1995. That means the number who would like to move elsewhere within New Jersey – currently 14% – is down from 23% in 2001 and 20% in 1995.

That finding is kind of interesting. I’m not sure if true affinity for one’s neighborhood is on the rise or we’ve started to develop a bunker mentality. It’s certainly worth further exploration.

It’s also important to point out how these results compare to a recent Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll finding that half of the state’s residents want to leave New Jersey.

This just presents another opportunity to get on my soapbox about the framing context in question wording. The Monmouth poll question asks: “As things stand now, would you like to move out of New Jersey at some point or would you like to stay here for the rest of your life?”

The Eagleton question frames the issue in terms of preference to remain in one’s neighborhood. The option of moving out of state is presented as a follow-up only to those who want to leave their neighborhood. The Monmouth question, on the other hand, focuses on the state. Also, the Eagleton question suggests a proximate timeframe, whereas Monmouth specifies moving out during one’s lifetime. Both questions contribute to our understanding of residents’ attachment to the Garden State, but do so from different angles.

As I wrote a couple of days ago, trends are wonderful for providing context in polling. And Eagleton, which has been polling since 1971, is the largest repository of public opinion trends for the Garden State.

I’m not sure why these prior results were omitted from the Eagleton press release. But to me, the trend is the crux of this story.

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Update: Eagleton Poll director David Redlawsk posted a response on his blog. He notes that another part of the context is the current economic environment. He is correct. The NJ rating question - much like the president's job approval - is as much a product of macro-trends as any item-specific evaluation. However, I'm not convinced of that as a rationale for excluding prior poll results, especially since reporting these numbers is a standard convention in our field. Context may make the analysis more complex, but it also makes it richer.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Do Other Americans like New Jersey for the Right Reasons? ‎

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Gannett New Jersey newspapers on April 25, including the Asbury Park Press, Courier News, Courier-Post, Daily Record, and Home News Tribune.

A little over 30 years ago, the nation was astounded to discover that most New Jerseyans actually liked living here.

This shockwave was set off by an Eagleton Poll report that 7-in-10 Garden State residents said their state was a good place to live. This finding was so extraordinary that the New York Times ran a banner headline. Apparently, it was difficult for people outside the state to imagine that anything in New Jersey could make it a desirable place to call home.

This national disbelief raises an important question: What do people living in other states think of us. A recent national survey conducted by the Public Mind Poll found that 47% of Americans have a favorable view of New Jersey, while only 18% have an unfavorable one. That doesn’t sound bad, but it’s not clear if they like us for the right reasons.

When ask what images New Jersey brings to mind, our beaches and coastline were the most commonly mentioned assets. So far, so good. But the second most frequent image evoked by our state is political corruption and organized crime. Umm, not so good.

The poll also found that people who had watched MTV’s “Jersey Shore” were even more likely to have a favorable view of our state than those who hadn’t seen the reality show about a group of self-styled “guidos” and “guidettes.”

Huh? One has to wonder whether other Americans have a “favorable” view of New Jersey simply because they enjoy the caricatures of our state.

Unfortunately, we New Jerseyans may be complicit in perpetuating that view. A 2002 Eagleton Poll found that 28 percent of Garden State residents actually found the HBO Mafia drama “The Sopranos” to be a source of pride for the state. This compared to 24 percent who were embarrassed by it.

Digging into the poll numbers further demonstrates the depth of our image problem. Back in 2003, the folks at Eagleton (which, at the time, included this writer) decided to take the same questions they asked about New Jersey and put them to a national sample.

Across most areas of the country, fully half of other Americans said their own state was an “excellent” place to live. Just 20 percent of New Jerseyans gave the same “excellent” rating to our state. (We can take some solace from the fact that the ratings for other Northeastern states were only slightly higher than our own. Outside the Northeast, though, the state ratings were much higher than for New Jersey.)

That 2003 poll also found that nearly 6-in-10 Americans took a lot of pride in being called a resident of their home state. Here in New Jersey, that number was somewhat lower at 5-in-10.

Overall, 72 percent of New Jerseyans rated their state as a decent place to call home, but when other Americans were asked to evaluate our state, only 38 percent felt that it would be a good place to live.

And so, we continue to endure the national bewilderment noted more than three decades ago. Why would anyone actually want to live in New Jersey?

Of course, the latest Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll shows that about half of us would, in fact, like to leave the state. But that has more to do with property taxes and the cost of living than any other aspect of Jersey life.

There’s a lot to be proud of in New Jersey. Food? The name “Garden State” was coined in the 19th century to reflect the wealth of our gastronomic offerings. And today, New Jersey offers the cuisine of nearly every world culture.

History? Forget Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington probably slept more nights in New Jersey than in any of the other 12 states.

The light bulb, motion pictures, the transistor? All invented in Jersey

Being able to access two of the greatest metropolitan areas in the world, and some of the best beaches in the country, along with pristine mountains and lakes – and all in the same day? Only in New Jersey.

Ben Franklin once referred to our state as a keg tapped at both ends. Well, old Ben knew that you only tap a keg if there’s something worthwhile inside.

Now, if we can only get other Americans to discover all the outstanding things New Jersey has to offer.

But then they might want to move here. And we couldn’t have that, could we.