Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Little Love for the “Representative from My District”

It’s a truism that Americans rate their own Congressional representatives more positively than the institution as a whole. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll released last week bears that out.

Congress as a whole received an abysmal 17% job approval rating in the poll. Other polls released over the past few weeks showed between 14% and 26% of Americans approving of the Capitol Hill’s performance, with fully 70% to 80% registering disapproval.

Those numbers are low, but not entirely unprecedented. In the run-up to the 2008 election, Congressional approval ratings in the teens and low twenties were fairly common. And Congressional approval is rarely all that high any way. From the 1980s through the mid-1990s, positive opinion of the legislative branch hovered in the upper thirties to low forties. By the late 1990s, those numbers frequently topped the 50% mark, but went on a quick decline in the mid-2000s.

Unlike the other recent polls, though, the NBC/WSJ poll also asked respondents to “rate the congressman or woman from [their] district?” Those results were 45% approve to 41% disapprove. While that is certainly better than the 17% to 77% rating for Congress as a whole, the results still seemed low.

So I did a quick search. The “my member of Congress” question is not asked as frequently as the institutional job performance question, but the trend line indicates that the NBC/WSJ result is among the lowest recorded in national polls, since at least the mid-1970s (see chart below).

For most of the past 30 years, generic approval of the job done by “the representative from my district” lingered in the low 60s. We’ve seen that generally decline over the past five years – with one positive spike in 2007. The trend also indicates there was a great deal of volatility between 1991 and 1994, although “my member” approval rarely dipped below 50%.

Moreover, I found only two instances where the approve/disapprove gap was nearly as small as the 4 point margin in the recent NBC/WSJ poll: a Times-Mirror Poll from March 1992 (45% approve to 37% disapprove) and an ABC/Washington Post Poll from October 1994 (49% approve to 43% disapprove).

Both of these prior polls are instructive. The 1992 result was registered a few months before the election that saw Bill Clinton defeat incumbent George H.W. Bush during an economic downturn. Clinton’s victory was unusual because – unlike his modern predecessors – he had no coattails. His party actually lost a handful of seats in the House of Representatives that year.

And then we all know what happened in the next election cycle. The 1994 midterm saw the Republicans pick up a whopping 54 seats to gain control of the House.

So will 2010 be like 1994?

There are some who look at the party ratings – Republican approval ratings are worse than the Democrats – as evidence that this year won’t be like 1994. However, the Republicans were also polling lower than the Democrats in 1994. An ABC/Washington Post poll right before that election gave Congressional Democrats a net negative 14 point rating and their GOP counterparts an even worse net negative 26 point rating.

At the end of the day, voters elect individual members of Congress, not the party. A number of incumbents are consistently successful in overcoming their party’s negative ratings. But trouble is definitely brewing when the “my member” job approval number drops below 50%.

The question now is whether passage of the health care reform bill will change the outlook for this November. That depends on whether independent voters see the bill as good or bad for themselves. Up until now, their opinion has been mainly negative. But passage of landmark legislation can have a strange effect on voters.

Independents say they want bipartisan action, but at the end of the day, they’ll take any action over inaction. On Sunday, the Democrats seemed to demonstrate that they can actually get something major accomplished, and some voters may give them credit for that. Polls coming out in the next few days and week will tell us whether that is the case.

But the prospect that this deal could help Democrats is why the Senate reconciliation process will be a political football. It’s not so much that voters are concerned about the individual “fixes” in that legislation. The Republicans realize that undermining the Senate Democrats’ bargain with their House colleagues could douse any burgeoning positive opinion for the majority party generated by passage of the bill.

That may not be the best way to make policy, but it’s certainly a good way to gain political advantage.

The graph above is based mainly on CBS/New York Times and ABC/Washington Post poll results since the early 1990s. Prior results are adapted from a chart in “Public Support for Congress” by Kelly Patterson and David Magleby in Public Opinion Quarterly (v56, 1992). Note that the line does not represent every data point available. For ease of presentation in the chart, poll results were averaged for those months when multiple polls were issued.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Hard Sell

This post originally appeared as a guest column for In The Lobby.

Governor Christie laid out his initial budget plan on Tuesday in his typical take-no-prisoners manner. The pain train is rolling down the tracks.

The soft sell has never been part of his repertoire. His message was clear and so was his intent. What is not clear is whether he will be able to sell it to the public.

Here’s why.

Yes, the public was anticipating big cuts to state services and local aid. In fact, a good number of residents were demanding it. But when you look at the bottom line, some may wonder whether they got what they expected ... and whether the pain has been fairly spread – particularly when it comes to education funding.

This is as much an accounting issue – and lack of public awareness about the budget process – as it is about any of the specific cuts.

To the extent that the public has been paying attention to the budget process over the past few years, they have been told that the last governor, Jon Corzine, reduced state spending from $34.6 billion to $29.0 billion by the time he left office this year.

Governor Christie says the state appropriations portion of his budget for the 2011 fiscal year will be $28.3 billion.

Huh? There are all these massive cuts, but state spending is going to be reduced by less than $1 billion!

But there’s more! Christie’s budget also includes another $1 billion in state spending that will be covered by anticipated federal stimulus funds. This brings his spending total to $29.3 billion.

Whoa? That’s more than Corzine spent, right? Not quite.

You see, Christie points out that Jon Corzine’s total budget spent $32.2 billion, if you include $2.3 billion in federal stimulus money that the former governor did not put on the books.

So, if we include the stimulus funds in both budgets, then Christie’s budget reduces state spending by $2.9 billion – or 9% – from the 2010 fiscal year. (This, of course, assumes there will be no supplemental appropriations made during the coming year – which would be a first!)

So, now that’s settled.
Hold on a second, you say. What about that gaping $10.7 billion dollar deficit we kept being told about? Doesn’t this budget fall short to the tune of $7.8 billion?

Well, yes and no. You see, the $10.7 billion figure was based on the assumption that the state would actually fulfill its legal obligations to fully fund the school funding formula, fully fund the property tax rebate program, and fully fund our existing pension obligations.

The truth of the matter is we haven’t done any of those things since the administration of George McClellan (I’m just guessing here). The so-called structural deficit is a bit of a canard. Just because the law says we have to fund these programs doesn’t mean that it happens.

As a side note, is anyone else scratching their heads over the continued underfunding of our current pension obligation in Christie’s “no gimmicks” budget? I know he’s pushing hard for pension reforms, but when does underfunding current annual obligations cease to be a “one shot” to balance the budget? Just curious.

That being said, it’s probably best for the governor if he drops the structural deficit issue from his rhetoric. The public is already sold on the problem and conflicting numbers only serve to confuse the situation. He’ll have enough trouble convincing the public that a $29 billion budget for FY11 actually represents a $3 billion decrease from FY10.

Most significantly, Governor Christie will be called on in the coming weeks to explain why cuts in school aid make up more than $800 million of the $3 billion reduction. This will be the line of attack used by his opponents, because it’s likely to present the best chance of undermining public support for his entire budget. The governor has to be ready for it.

And then, we’ll have to go through this entire process again next year, when – barring some economic miracle that starts filling the state coffers – Christie has to figure out how to make up for the $1 billion in federal stimulus money that will disappear.

Now that’s going to take a real hard sell.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Attitudes about gay marriage in New Jersey

I was asked to write this analysis for a Gannett New Jersey feature, including Asbury Park Press, Daily Record, Home News Tribune, and Courier News. It appeared in Sunday's papers.

What is public opinion on gay marriage? That question was certainly at the forefront of New Jersey’s recent legislative debate on the issue. But a better question may have been whether the public actually has an opinion on gay marriage.

Polls taken on same-sex unions over the past few years, both nationally and in New Jersey, have been fairly consistent in their findings. When asked about the issue, the gut-level public reaction is divided. However, as a policy issue, most people aren’t all that concerned one way or the other.

New Jersey polls over the past six years show that support for gay marriage has drifted between 41 and 50 percent. At the same time, opposition has hovered within a nearly identical 40 to 50 percent range. At different times, supporters have outnumbered opponents by a few points and at other times, it’s been the other way around. The bottom line is that neither side of the issue has been able to claim a clear majority here in the Garden State.

It’s worth noting that both state and national polls do show strong majority support for civil unions. Basically, the public is solidly behind extending marital rights to same-sex couples. It’s just that some are uneasy about using the term “marriage” to describe those unions.

Even so, many people don’t hold their views on gay marriage all that deeply. This was born out by a near universal blip in the polls last year caused by a bizarre event.

There was a flurry of polling about gay marriage last spring that suggested a big jump in support for same-sex marriage. Between the spring of 2006 and late April 2009, a Quinnipiac Poll of New Jersey voters measured an 8 point increase in gay marriage support. Nationally, the ABC News/Washington Post and CBS News/New York Times polls saw support jump by 13 and 15 points, respectively. Polling organizations that waited until May 2009 to poll on gay marriage, though, saw smaller increases (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics up 6 points) or none at all (USA Today/Gallup actually went down 2 points). [See here for national polls.]

So what momentous event occurred in April 2009 to cause this shift in opinion? It was the Miss Universe contest, when Miss California, Carrie Prejean, announced that she was personally opposed to gay marriage. The ensuing media storm was fast and furious, with the number of press articles on gay marriage doubling during those weeks. Based on the polls, public opinion initially reacted negatively to Ms. Prejean’s position, but quickly returned to its prior standing once the media attention died down.

At the end of the day, few people, especially New Jerseyans, hold deeply-rooted opinions on this issue because they do not feel that either allowing or banning same-sex marriage would affect their own lives. Every Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll conducted during last year’s campaign for governor found no more than one percent of voters reporting that gay marriage was a burning issue for the state. This was reinforced by a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released after the election that found only two percent of the public who said that gay marriage was the most important issue facing New Jersey and just another 15 percent who said it was among a handful of issues they consider very important.

Tellingly, that same Rutgers poll asked people how they would react if the legislature had passed a gay marriage bill. The majority said they would simply live with it.

New Jersey arguably has a greater diversity of cultures and lifestyles than any other state in the union. Our state motto "Liberty and Prosperity" could probably use a rewrite. Certainly, our present fiscal predicament undermines the validity of the current slogan, but my concern is more about better reflecting the Jersey mindset.

My nominee for a new Garden State motto is "Live and Let Live." And public opinion on same-sex marriage is simply one case that illustrates that point.