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.