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.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Interpreting the School Budget Vote

Yesterday, New Jersey voters did something they haven’t done in more than 30 years: defeated a majority of school district tax levies. [Note: I’m calling them “levies” here because that is more accurate. Voters don’t really have a say on the spending portion of the operational budgets of their local schools. They only get to vote on the amount in property taxes that the district proposes levying for the year.]

They also turned out in record numbers. The final statewide vote count hasn’t been compiled, but it is somewhere north of 20% of all registered voters. [Update: Turnout was more than 1.2 million voters. That's 24% as a percentage of all registered voters (26% if you exclude districts that don't put the levy up for a vote)! It was 13.5% in 2009.] That may not sound like much, but the previous high for school elections, going back to at least 1976, was 18.6%. 1976 was also the last time a majority of school levies failed. That year, 56% went down. This year, it looks like 59% have been tossed out by voters.

A Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll released last week found that 29% of registered voters – if they did vote – would support their local school levies, while 37% would oppose them. Based on a sampling of county returns, it looks like that 8 point margin may hold up in the final statewide vote. [Update: The gap closed to 48% for to 52% against -- a 4 point margin.]

There are some other interesting findings as well. Taking Middlesex County as just one example, compared to the April 2009 election, turnout in this one county was up by 65%. The number of “No” votes went up by 90%. But the number of “Yes” votes also went up, albeit by a lower 40%. In other words, turnout increased on both sides of the issue.

So what does this all mean?

Chris Christie and his supporters have claimed victory, saying that New Jersey voters sided with the governor in his battle with the state teacher’s union, the NJEA. However, the governor urged voters to defeat budgets in districts where the teachers made no concessions – and a good number of these actually passed. On the flip side, in the few districts where teachers actually agreed to wage freezes or other concessions – the districts one would expect to be rewarded if voters were out to show support for the governor – a good number (anywhere between 6 and 13 depending on what you count as a "concession") of the school budget levies failed.

The NJEA claims that the school vote was a repudiation of the governor’s draconian cuts in school aid which forced school boards to raise property taxes in order to maintain needed programs and services. Maybe, but polls also indicate that the public expected teachers to be willing to take pay freezes and pay for their benefits.

Local school boards say the vote was the product of a rush to make drastic cuts in a short time frame with few available tools to lessen the pain for both the educational system and the taxpayers. They may be partially right, but polls consistently show that voters believe there is a whole lot of waste in school spending to begin with.

So, here’s what we know about the New Jersey public:
1. They think the size of the cuts in state aid to local schools is unfair.
2. They think the teachers’ unions should be willing to come to the table and agree to a wage freeze and benefit contributions.
3. They don’t want educational programs cut.
4. They don’t want their property taxes raised.

All of these are reasons why Garden State voters voted yesterday. They are the reasons why more people than usual turned out to vote “No.” And they are also the reasons why more people than usual turned out to vote “Yes.”

Anyone who claims with certainty that any of these reasons is the main factor behind a majority of school levies going down yesterday is just blowing smoke.

However, one clarion message did emerge from yesterday’s vote. And the governor got it right when he said today, "[New Jerseyans have] had enough. They want real, fundamental change."

New Jersey voters get very few chances to actually make a statement at the ballot box (considering all our “safe” legislative districts). We’ve seen in the past year, though, that when given a real opportunity to vote for change, they’ll take it. April 20, 2010 was one of those times.

I don’t think yesterday’s vote can be seen as a whole-hearted endorsement of Governor Christie’s policy choices. But it seems clear that he has single-handedly raised the public’s awareness and interest in what’s going on in the state. And for that accomplishment alone, he deserves kudos.

In so doing, though, he has also raised expectations. The message from yesterday’s vote is that it’s time for everyone – governor, legislative leadership, unions, etc. – to drop the childish name-calling, come to the table, and get to work putting New Jersey back on the right track.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Conflicting Polls on the Teachers' Union? Not Really.

A trio of polls were released last week on Governor Chris Christie’s budget, particularly focusing on school aid cuts and state unions. According to at least one report, these polls were “seemingly at odds” with one another (also here). But if you look at what the three polls actually asked, they really tell separate pieces of a cohesive – but nuanced – story.

The Eagleton Poll (and here) found 57% of New Jerseyans feel that school aid should not be cut and 72% are opposed to “making it easier” to lay off teachers to solve local budget problems.

The Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll found 68% of the public see the cuts as being unfair to some groups (with teachers being among the top “victims”) and Governor Christie is seen as the more negative party in the NJEA dust-up, and ultimately more responsible for the impending teacher layoffs.

The Rasmussen Poll found 65% of likely voters favor having school employees (including teachers, administrators and other workers) take a one year wage freeze to help make up for the deficit in state funding.

I really don’t find anything too contradictory in those results. Public opinion is rarely black and white (as national polling about the health reform debate dramatically illustrates). The real difference in these three polls is that each chose to cover a different facet of the issue.

Both the Eagleton and Monmouth polls asked residents about their opinion of the governor’s proposed budget and how it will affect them personally.

Eagleton also asked quite a few questions about what areas of the budget should or should not be cut and what, if any, tax increases the public is willing to accept in order to avoid those cuts (none, apparently).

Monmouth’s survey included questions on impressions of Christie’s budget in comparison to Jon Corzine’s first budget (trends are a wonderful tool for providing context) and a focus on communication with the general public, including the NJEA battle and reaction to key terms used to describe the budget (e.g. “tough” and “fair”).

Rasmussen’s poll asked four questions, mainly focused on state worker concessions to deal with the budget crisis.

In terms of election polling, Rasmussen has a very good track record and, by my reckoning, had the most accurate final pre-election poll in last year’s gubernatorial race. [And admittedly, Monmouth, along with Zogby, YouGov, and Democracy Corp, came up with the wrong end of the stick in the final days of that campaign. Eagleton did not issue a final election poll.]

But election polling and policy polling are as different as meteorology and climatology. Both start off from the same theoretical premise, but election polling rises and falls on a pollster’s ability to selectively sample and predict the behavior of a subset of the total population. The heart of good policy polling is question wording. [That's why it’s really important to read the actual poll questions on controversial policy issues before reporting the results.]

Differences in question wording can be just a matter of perspective. Simply put, each pollster comes to the field from a different background, e.g. political scientist, policy or communication researcher, partisan strategist, and so on. These hats inform both the topics they choose to cover and how they word the questions.

The pollster’s agenda also informs what segments of the population are considered worth including in the measurement of public opinion on a policy issue. Do they survey the entire general public affected by the issue or just likely voters who can inflict electoral consequences? [Update: Coincidentally, pollster.com's Mark Blumenthal addresses this very issue in his National Journal column today!]

Regardless of the pollsters' varying agendas, these three polls taken together tell a much more complete story than any of the polls separately. You just have to do a little work to put the pieces together.

The notion that the public wants their taxes lowered but recoil from cutting valued services and programs is a phenomenon we’ve seen for years.

So why is it any more difficult to fathom that the public believes the state payroll is a drain on resources and wants the unions to make concessions, but at the same time feels that the governor’s “in your face” approach may not be the best way to go about it?

Another seeming contrast is the recent Public Mind poll that found New Jerseyans evenly divided – 35% favorable to 35% unfavorable – in their opinion of the NJEA and Rasmussen’s result that 66% of the public think the union is more interested in “protecting their members’ jobs” than in “the quality of education.”

Hmm, a union is seen as being more interested in helping their members than in helping their members’ employers. Unusual?

[Side note: Considering how many teachers will be laid off because the unions are unwilling to negotiate concessions, one has to wonder what these poll respondents were actually thinking when they said the union is protecting jobs. My guess is that the question simply taps the employee/employer dichotomy. ABC News pollster Gary Langer has a must-read post about the perils of taking question wording too literally.]

The bottom line is that there is nothing contradictory in these polls. Nothing in the Monmouth/Gannett poll contradicts Rasmussen's finding that most people see the state payroll as a burden on the budget and unionized workers should be willing to take a wage freeze. [In fact, much of our past polling supports that view.] By the same token, Rasmussen's poll does not contradict our finding that the public feels the school aid cut is unfair and the governor is more responsible for the negative tone of the debate.

As someone who has worked closely with media partners on providing public opinion data, I know that nuance in poll numbers – or indeed in any data driven reporting – is not the easiest thing to get across.

Here’s a friendly suggestion for my good friends in the fourth estate. If you are faced with seemingly conflicting polls – especially when a particular set of numbers is brought to your attention by a politician’s press secretary (!) – perhaps it would be worthwhile to contact an independent polling expert to provide context to what the different polls are saying.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Round 1 Goes to the NJEA

The latest Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll contains some mixed news for Governor Christie’s budget. The public may see it as tough, but not necessarily fair. Two-thirds of New Jerseyans say that the proposed cuts will disproportionately hurt some New Jerseyans, mainly the middle class, the poor, and … teachers.

When Governor Christie unveiled his budget, he made a specific effort to single out the NJEA as one of the primary opponents to fiscal reform. He basically dared them to oppose his cuts. The governor needed to identify an enemy in his fight to cut costs, and the NJEA was it.

The New Jersey Education Association is the state’s largest teachers’ union, with more than 200,000 members. The governor rightly assumed that the NJEA’s leadership would retrench, opposing any and all changes to their current contract provisions and benefits. However, Christie wrongly assumed that he could isolate the intransigent union leadership from their membership and win over public support.

Our latest poll finds that many state residents side with the union in this fight. Overall, more New Jerseyans blame the governor rather than the local unions or school boards for the inevitable teacher layoffs next year. This is despite the fact that only a handful of local unions agreed even to consider wage freezes as an alternative to job cuts.

The governor was warned this could happen. Here’s why.

More than one-in-five New Jersey households include either a teacher or another state worker (who have also been on the receiving end of the governor’s wrath). Another 1-in-4 Garden State households do not have public employees, but they do include kids who are taught by these teachers. That means nearly half of the New Jersey public is probably predisposed to sympathize with the teachers in this fight.

The poll results bear this out. When asked who is to blame for the impending workforce cuts at local schools, 57% of those in teacher or state worker households and 45% of parents blame Christie more than any other party in the process. Only among the other half of the New Jersey public – i.e. those who don’t have a teacher, state worker, or child in their home – does the governor (36%) share the blame with the teachers’ unions (33%).

The problem may be that the governor came out swinging just a little too hard when he decided to make an example of the NJEA. Back in January, columnist Charles Stiles described Christie as “licking his chops” at the prospect of taking on the teachers’ union. This may have made some New Jerseyans uncomfortable.

Teachers educate our children, for crying out loud. Sure, there are some long in the tooth, tenured ones who are just phoning it in. But most teachers are caring, concerned individuals who happen to have their own families to feed. Right?

I’m not saying that Christie should have avoided taking on the NJEA at all. Most objective observers would agree that the union has been less than cooperative with local school boards trying to keep job losses to a minimum. But the battle needs to be engaged more shrewdly.

The public’s predisposition to sympathize with teachers was always going to be the NJEA’s secret weapon. The union leadership knew how to play up that asset, using everything from TV and radio commercials to messages – some subliminal, some explicit – conveyed in the classroom.

The war is certainly not over, but the NJEA seems to have won the first battle in the court of public opinion.

As his term progresses, Chris Christie would do well to remember the words of Oscar Wilde: “A man can’t be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Public Support for Oil Drilling in the Mid-Atlantic

President Obama surprised more than a few people with his announcement yesterday to allow oil drilling in coastal waters. The northwestern boundary of the Atlantic Ocean exploration area is reportedly within 10 miles of Cape May, New Jersey. So it’s not surprising that Garden State political leaders have an opinion on this. What may be more surprising is that their opinion is nearly universally opposed – both Democrats and Republicans alike, including Governor Christie.

But how does the public feel about it? Especially among those who actually live along the coast? A study recently conducted by the Polling Institute and the Urban Coast Institute at Monmouth University provides some answers.

But, let’s take a look at the national picture first. A Pew Research Center poll in April 2009 found that 68% of Americans favor allowing more offshore drilling in U.S. waters, with just 27% opposed. This is similar to the 65% support registered by a Public Agenda poll that same month and up slightly from the 62% a national Quinnipiac poll found in August 2008. [Note: each poll used slightly different wording, but the findings are very similar.]

There are also a few state polls worth looking at. The Public Policy Institute of California has been polling on this issue for a number of years. When Californians were asked in February 2006 about allowing more drilling off their own state’s coast, only 31% were in support, compared to 64% who were opposed. That opinion shifted a little by July that same year, when support rose to 42% and opposition dropped to a bare majority of 51%. This was more in line with prior polls, where opposition was tabbed at 53% (2005), 50% (2004), and 54% (2003). PPIC’s next poll reading in July 2007 found that opinions remained stable at 41% for to 52% against.

But just one year later, that number flipped. PPIC’s July 2008 poll registered 51% majority support for drilling off the California coast, compared to 43% who opposed it. After at least five years of steady majority opposition, most Californians were in favor of drilling for oil off their own coast!

Recent polling in other coastal states reveals that most residents are in favor of drilling off their own shores. For example, a March 2009 Elon University poll of North Carolina residents found the 66% supported drilling off the Tar Heel State’s coast, compared to just 29% opposed.

In New Jersey, a Monmouth University/Gannett Poll from August 2008 found that 56% of Garden State residents supported drilling off their own coast, with 36% opposed. As a point of comparison, this result was not markedly different from the 59% of New Jerseyans who favored drilling off of Virginia’s coast and 51% who favored drilling in the Alaska wildlife refuge.

Basically, there seems to have been a shift in public opinion in favor of offshore drilling driven by the fuel price “bubble” two years ago. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be any NIMBY effect at the state level. But is that still the case when you examine the views of those who live right on the coastline?

In 2007, Monmouth University conducted a unique survey of Mid-Atlantic coastal residents – i.e. people living in census tracts along the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Virginia. More than 8-in-10 of the study sample lived within one mile of the beach and more than 6-in-10 lived within a few blocks of the Atlantic’s waters. We repeated the study in April 2009, including a question about offshore drilling (see pages 19-20 of the report).

In the 2007 survey, we found that 33% of residents living in Mid-Atlantic coastal communities supported “drilling for oil or gas in the ocean off the Atlantic coast,” while 40% opposed it. Another 27% registered no opinion (which was an explicit choice in the survey question). By 2009, some of that “no opinion” had shifted to support – specifically, 46% of these coastal residents favored offshore drilling two years later, compared to 37% who were opposed and 16% with no opinion.

[It’s also worth noting that support for placing energy producing windmills off these residents’ coastlines also increased by about 10 points between 2007 and 2009 –57% support if the turbines are visible from the shore and 82% support if the wind farms are placed beyond the horizon.]

There are some interesting state-level differences in support for offshore drilling in the more recent poll. New York coastal residents (i.e. people who live along the south shore of Long Island) were the least supportive of offshore drilling – only 37% supported it compared to 44% opposed. Maryland residents (which were basically from the resort town of Ocean City) were most in favor, by a 65% to 22% margin. A majority of coastal residents in both Delaware (52% to 33%) and New Jersey (51% to 36%) also favored offshore drilling, while opinion was more divided in Virginia (42% to 34%).*

So, on the question of offshore drilling, it appears that the opinions of New Jersey’s political leaders are not entirely in line with the opinions of most Garden State residents, including those who live in the state’s coastal communities.

[*Note: Due to different sample sizes, the margin of sampling error for results from New York and New Jersey is +/-5.5%, for Virginia is +/-6.5%, and for Delaware and Maryland is +/-9.5%.]