Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Same Old Song

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

"The Democratic map, I believe, was a more conservative, less disruptive map," Alan Rosenthal said tellingly on Sunday in justifying his choice of a new legislative map for New Jersey.

"Less disruptive."

After all the basic federal parameters were met (equal population, contiguity of borders, and retention of current minority-majority districts), minimal disruption was always going to be the main discretionary factor that Dr. Rosenthal would use to guide his decision.

In the end, it led to a map that appears to be even less compact than the current one. A map that increases the number of county-splitting districts (when there are already too many in the current map). A map that effectively shifts one-third of New Jersey's municipalities into new districts. But in terms of political consequences, it’s pretty much same old, same old.

And that’s what Alan Rosenthal wanted. Minimal disruption means keeping incumbents from having to face each other. It’s what Rosenthal referred to as "continuity of representation" in his first public remarks as a commission member (and what I then called the "money card" among his list of priorities).

The 11th member is always going to be guided by his or her own area of expertise.

Princeton professor Donald Stokes – the independent member in 1981 and 1991 – developed his partisan fairness argument. Alan Rosenthal emphasized continuity and stability.

You don’t become the nation’s foremost expert on state legislatures without developing some pretty strong ideas about what makes for a good legislature. For Dr. Rosenthal, continuity of leadership is a desirable attribute. Continuity means you have an experienced group of legislators who really know how to operate the levers of powers. In this view, electoral competitiveness is anathema as it could lead to too much volatility.

Others hold different views of course, but Alan Rosenthal was appointed the 11th member of the legislative reapportionment commission. If you wanted to win, you had to meet his standards.

The Democrats understood this. Guided by the astute counsel of Bill Castner, they made sure to dot every “i” put before them – even when they thought Rosenthal was wrong. [The short-lived Buono/Vitale match-up was likely drawn just to illustrate that one of Rosenthal’s requested changes would lead to unintended consequences for incumbents.]

On the other hand, the Republicans stuck to their guns throughout. You can’t really fault them. As soon as Dr. Rosenthal announced the standards by which he would judge the final map, it was clear there was little, if anything, the Republicans could do to get a map that gave them even a fighting chance. You can understand their reluctance to submit a map that fully met Rosenthal’s standards.

That’s why I’m still left wondering how Alan Rosenthal’s name even made it on the list of potential tie-breakers Republicans submitted to the Chief Justice. If your party needs a major shake-up of the current legislative map, why would you ask for a tie-breaker with a 40 year long paper trail detailing how much he values continuity and stability?

Alan Rosenthal is unquestionably a fair man. He gave each side a fair hearing – but within the confines of his determined standards. When he developed those standards, he probably didn’t realize that they could only lead to one outcome.

Even at the end of the process, he said, “It’s a map, I believe, that gives the minority party a chance at winning control of the legislature.” That claim, though, is simply not supported by the statistical evidence. When you break down the numbers, this map practically guarantees the Democrats a legislative majority for the next 10 years.

To begin with, nearly every incumbent is safe. Focusing just on the Senate, at least 27 of the 40 districts are likely to elect or re-elect legislators by margins that are within 5 percentage points of what the victorious party is generally accustomed. A few districts will draw in a significant number of new towns that have voted for the opposite party, but these are still safe districts. Think in terms of a 15 to 30 point win rather than a 25 to 40 point win. These include districts 15, 16, 20, and 26.

[Click here for a breakdown of the initial partisan vote advantage in each district.]

Perhaps the biggest shift affects former governor and senate president Dick Codey (D-27). He goes from a district where he had a 40 point advantage to one where he starts out with about a 10 point natural partisan edge. Given his personal popularity, though, expect him to do better than that come November.

The map also fortifies Democrats in South Jersey. Districts 5 and 6 will become slightly less Democratic (but still safe) in order to bolster incumbents elsewhere. That allows for Republican leaning towns in Gloucester County – which have been giving the Democrats fits – to be dispersed across districts 3, 4, and 5.

A key objective was to strengthen Fred Madden (D-4). Not only will the 4th be more Democratic in general, but incumbent GOP Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco, who was preparing to take on Madden, saw his hometown moved into Senate President Steve Sweeney’s district.

In other parts of the state, Diane Allen (R-7) has been winning handily in what has been a Democratic district. She’ll be on even safer ground in the reconfigured 7th. That leaves Linda Greenstein in the 14th as the only Senate race that could realistically be competitive. The new towns in her district are fairly evenly divided between the parties. But so is her current district. And she just won that handily in a special election.

On the Assembly side, there is also little to no potential for change. While Democratic Senator Jim Whelan’s position in the 2nd has been strengthened, it’s still likely that the GOP will retain the two Assembly seats there. However, the Republicans will probably lose the seat they hold in the 4th.

There are only four districts where the Republicans may have a shot at picking up an Assembly seat. These are 7, 14, 27, and 38. The Democrats have the numerical advantage in these districts and will win most of these seats by 5 to 8 points. But they are close enough that a solid GOP candidate may claim one here or there.

So, my prediction for how this will play out in November is a 24-16 Democratic win in the Senate and a 46 to 34 edge in the Assembly. Practically the same configuration as it is now.

It’s all there in the map.

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