Thursday, June 30, 2011

Farewell, Old Friend

In just a few hours, NJN as we know it will go dark. I, for one, will miss it. It played an integral role in developing my awareness of what it means to be a New Jerseyan - and a New Jersey pollster.

My first political memories seem to revolve around television. On a hot summer day in 1974, my little brother and I sat in front of the TV in our grandparents’ Camden row home. I was only 9 years old, but my grandfather said, “You’ll want to remember this. It’s history.” On the screen was President Nixon, announcing his resignation from office.

I became more aware of politics as time passed. I read the local papers, the Philadelphia Bulletin where my father worked on the production side and the Courier-Post. I tracked the 1976 presidential race, followed the headline-making exploits of Philadelphia’s indomitable mayor Frank Rizzo, and was vaguely aware that my local Congressman, Jim Florio, wasn’t particularly enamored with Camden’s mayor Angelo Errichetti, who was later convicted in the Abscam sting.

But, at the age of 12, I still didn’t know much about the governor of New Jersey. In fact, I’m not sure I could have even named Brendan Byrne at the time.

That changed in the spring of 1977. Florio, along with nine other Democrats, decided to challenge the incumbent. I was interested to see how my congressman would do. So on primary night, I turned to the one source that continually reported the vote results – NJN. And I haven’t stopped watching since.

NJN introduced this South Jersey boy to New Jersey. And it wasn’t just the news. I was fascinated by documentaries on New Jersey’s history, natural resources, and culture that you couldn’t find anywhere else. This could be something as monumental as “Ten Crucial Days” – documenting how New Jersey played perhaps the most pivotal role of any state in our country’s eventual independence. Or it could be highlighting the Garden State’s natural wealth, from the Highlands to the Pinelands to their recent show on the Raritan River. Or it could be something as simple as Homeless Tails – the short segment that provided a forum for animal shelters from across the entire state to find homes for their strays.

Those who follow the Monmouth University Poll, know that we focus on understanding the state’s quality of life as much as we track political approval and election races. Perhaps moreso. As a pollster who focuses on New Jersey, I see in stark numbers how our state is divided into camps drawn to the two major cities across our borders. As a state, we need to do everything within our power to overcome our natural tendency to balkanize.

Obviously, NJN alone could never provide the cohesive state identity that New Jersey sorely lacks. But its influence went far beyond the absolute number of viewers for any given broadcast. What was shown on NJN had a multiplier effect in other media.

I found it interesting that no South Jersey Democrat voted in favor of the transfer, while their erstwhile coalition partners from Essex and Hudson counties did. I think those of us who hail from the southern part of the state are more sensitive to this issue of state identity. For many in the north, anything that happens south of Union County is of little relevance.

NJN made sure it covered every part of the state in equal measure – and that policy makers in every part of the state had equal access to its airwaves. If you were asked to do a remote interview for the news broadcast, you had your pick of studios in Trenton, Newark or Pomona. In other words, less than an hour’s drive from any point in the state. [As of right now, it looks like NJTV and its contributing producer will have studios in Fairfield, Paterson, and New York City(!) – the closest of which is a 2 hour drive from Camden and a 3 hour drive from Cape May.]

As I mentioned, my first memory of NJN was watching primary night coverage. I’m proud to say that, 34 years later, I was able to contribute to that coverage on their final election night broadcast. During the years I have appeared on NJN, I’ve come to know a top-notch team of professionals, both in front of and behind the camera, who were committed to telling the story of New Jersey.

I hope its successor, NJTV, fully appreciates the legacy it inherits.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Christie Slipping Among Independents

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

A new player entered New Jersey’s crowded polling market and confirmed the recent decline in Governor Christie’s approval ratings.  The big story of this poll is his possible slippage among independents voters.

The latest poll was conducted for Bloomberg news by Selzer  & Co, a well-respected Iowa polling firm with a pretty solid track record polling their home state’s hard to pin down presidential caucus.

The poll found Christie has an “upside down” job approval rating among all adults – 44% approve to 51% disapprove.  This is in line with the Quinnipiac Poll’s 44% to 47% results earlier this month and the Monmouth University/NJ Press Media Poll’s 47% to 49% result last month.

One of the first things I look for with new polls that differ from other findings is the partisan composition of the sample.  Unfortunately, not every pollster releases this – although any reputable pollster should have no problem including this important information with their poll results.   Fortunately, Selzer did include this data (for both their weighted and unweighted samples no less – kudos to them!). 

Their weighted sample of partisan identifiers (i.e. “In politics as of today, do you consider yourself a D/R/I?”) splits 30% Democrat, 24% Republican and 44% independent.  That 6 point Democratic advantage is a much narrower gap than most other polls show.  My tracking of the party identification question over the past year finds it hovering somewhere between a 12 and 14 point Democratic advantage – similar to the partisan split on the registered voter rolls.  If anything, this latest poll should be more advantageous to the Republican governor.

So why the big dip in Christie’s approvals when compared to Monmouth and Quinnipiac? 

The biggest difference in the three polls is an apparent erosion of support among politically independent residents.  [Note: there is some danger in comparing sub-samples across different polls due to different question wording and weighting techniques, but the results bear watching.]

In Monmouth’s May poll, Christie garnered positive reviews among this important voting bloc by a decent 53% to 41% margin.  In Quinnipiac’s poll a few weeks later, this edge was a much narrower 47% to 44%.  The Selzer poll now shows independents evenly divided on the governor’s job performance – 47% approve to 47% disapprove.

There are some caveats for those concerned only with how this will effect Christie's re-election chances.  These polls sampled all adults or registered voters.  The Selzer poll does include a breakdown for those saying they are very likely to vote in this year's legistaive election.  But since this "likely voter" group includes 62% of all adults as opposed to a more realistic 20-25% it doesn't deserve much attention.  At any rate, it's too soon to predict who is likely to vote in 2013 when Christie is up for re-election.

It’s also important to keep in mind that all these polls were conducted before the governor’s pension and benefit victory and a poll next week could produce very different results.  [Although just released, the Selzer poll was actually conducted last week.]

But the bottom line is that Christie’s job approval has been wavering – in spite of Piers Morgan’s claims* to the contrary during his obsequious CNN interview – and independents hold the key.

[*By the way, check out the Star-Ledger’s terrific new PolitifactNJ fact checking site.]

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Primary Day Outlook

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Today is primary day in New Jersey.  Here’s a rundown of the contested seats, including my picks for most intriguing match-up and likeliest upset, plus a non-legislative race worth watching.

Turnout should be about 7% – somewhere between 350,000 and 370,000 voters.  While that may seem low, consider that there is little reason for most voters to show up.  Of the 240 legislative nominations available, only 31 challengers are running against the party organizations’ picks.  This includes just 9 Senate seats and 15 Assembly districts (excluding the Democratic challenger in the 7th who has withdrawn, but whose name will appear on the ballot).

Here’s my run-down.

Most Watched Primary District 20 (D)
Democrats for Change
, an organization affiliated with the Elizabeth School Board has fielded a full slate of challengers in the Democratic primary, Jerome Dunn for Senate and Tony Monteiro and Carlos Cedeno for Assembly.  Some say Governor Christie is tacitly backing this challenge.  While he may be just a teensy bit ambivalent about Senator Ray Lesniak, he’d be extremely happy to see Assembly Majority Leader and former state Democratic chairman Joe Cryan go down.  The NJEA has targeted Lesniak over his support of school vouchers, but are not going after the Assembly incumbents (Cryan and Annette Quijano). 

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned in this race is the impact of redistricting.  While this district remains solidly Democratic in the new map, the addition of Hillside has increased the black population of this district from 27% to 31% 43% (the Hispanic population went from 43% to 41% 38%).  There are no African-Americans on the incumbent slate, while the Senate challenger is.  The Hillside mayor has endorsed the challengers.  While this race is competitive and well-funded on both sides, I see the incumbents staving off the challenge.

Most Intriguing Matchup District 33 (D)
Hudson County and political intrigue are synonymous.  Senator Brian Stack has long been a thorn in the side of the Hudson County Democratic Organization.  His alliance with Governor Christie is considered to be one of the main reasons that the Republicans failed to get their legislative map during redistricting (i.e. they insisted on sending Bayonne into a district with Newark in order to protect Stack, even though tie-breaker Alan Rosenthal made it clear that he wouldn’t agree to any district split by a large body of water).

One Assembly seat opened up with redistricting.  Stack and the HCDO agreed to a compromise candidate, Jersey City Police Detective Sean Connors.  This selection was a bit of payback.  Connors had challenged Senator Nick Sacco in the 32nd district in 2007, expecting Stack would support him in a challenge for the Freeholder board the following year.  Instead, Stack decided to make peace with the HCDO and Connors was left out in the cold.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, another pro-Christie/anti-HCDO Democrat, now feels that she is getting the cold shoulder from the HCDO (and the intrigue is upped by a reported IT security breach at City Hall).  She is supporting her Council colleague, Ravi Bhalla, in a one-man challenge to Connors.  (The other candidate is incumbent Ruben Ramos, another Hobokenite.)

Stack’s comments about this challenge have been lukewarm – he wished Zimmer could support the ticket, but understands her decision – suggesting that he may be okay with either Connors or Bhalla as his running mate in November.  My pick is that Connors wins.

Likeliest Upset – District 27 (R)
One of the more fascinating storylines of this year’s redistricting process was what would happen to former Senate President and Governor Dick Codey.  Early speculation was that both Democrats and Republicans would look to put him in a less friendly district.  In the end, his district picked up a few GOP-leaning towns in Morris County, but remains a comfortable win for him in November.

This explains why Republican Party leaders could not recruit a real heavy hitter to take on Codey.  They settled on Essex Fells Councilman William Sullivan.  However, he has a challenge from Tea Party candidate Bill Eames, who has raised a bit of money.  While the addition of the Morris towns to this district will not hurt Codey much, they do pose a problem for the Republican organization candidate in a primary (Morris does not confer party lines on the ballot).  Moreover, Eames has been endorsed by the North Jersey Tea Party group, who also endorsed the popular Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll in the neighboring 25th district.  I’m going out on a limb and picking Eames in the upset here.

Bad Blood Award – District 25 (R)
Senator Tony Bucco faces a challenge from Morris Freeholder Director – and Wharton mayor – and public school teacher – William Chegwidden.  Their feud is partly based on Bucco’s decision to back his own son for an open Assembly seat in 2009 over other candidates waiting in the wings.  Chegwidden has taken the slight to an all out challenge.  He will lose (as will John Siercho, who is running independent of Chegwidden for an Assembly seat against incumbents Carroll and the younger Bucco).

Bizzare Resume Award – District 1 (R)
A full slate of challengers is being led by Thomas Greto for Senate, joined by Peter Boyce and Paul Halley for Assembly.  Greto ran for state legislature once before.  But it was in Pennsylvania in 1994.  And his campaign was cut short by his arrest and a jail term for deceptive business practices.  According to reports, Greto also declared bankruptcy in 2008.  He is running on a platform to “get businesses going and growing.” 

Aside from the, er, interesting resume of the senate candidate, this race is the first real test of party discipline for Cape May County GOP Chair Michael Donohue.  [The district includes a large portion of Cumberland County as well as a few Atlantic towns, but is considered mainly a Cape May district.]  Donahue himself ran for Assembly a few times and was unhappy with the party support in those races, so he ran a slate of Freeholder challengers in last year’s primary.  His candidates won and he subsequently took over the reins of the county party. 

Donahue has fielded a decent slate of candidates – former municipal judge David DeWeese for Senate, Cumberland County Freeholder Sam Fiocchi and Stone Harbor Mayor Suzanne Walters for Assembly – although they have yet to raise any significant money.  He is looking for a big win in this primary to cement his leadership.  But since this tends to be one of those politically interesting pockets of New Jersey, it’s not clear how big a win it will be

Other contested races:

District 2 (D) – Perennial candidate Gary Stein (governor, Congress) will lose to party-endorsed Alisa Cooper and Damon Tyner.

District 5 (R) – On the Senate side former Camden city administrator Keith Walker has the line against George Gallenthin, whose business property was recently the subject of an eminent domain attempt.  On the Assembly side, William Levins and Ari Ford have the line against perennial off-the-liner Donna Ward.  The party-endorsed candidates should win easily, but no one really cares since this is Norcross territory come November.

District 7 (R) – Senator Diane Allen faces a familiar challenger from the right, Carole Lokan-Moore.  Allen beat Moore 83% to 17% in the 2003 primary.  Take the over at 60 points this time around.

District 14 (R) – Robbinsville Mayor Dave fried and former Cranbury Mayor Wayne Wittman will see off a challenge from jewelry store owner Bruce MacDonald.

District 16 (R) – There are no challenges here.  But since incumbent Denise Coyle pulled out of the race without setting up a Committee for Vacancies, the party finds itself short a candidate in this GOP stronghold.  They are asking Republican voters to write in Somerset Freeholder Jack Ciattarelli (not an easy thing to do, since I just had to look up the spelling of his last name myself).

District 27 (D) – Former Millburn Councilwoman Ellen Steinberg is running off the line for Assembly.  Millburn used to be in the GOP-lock 21st district, where Steinberg ran on the line for Senate in 2001 and successfully off the line for Assembly in 2003.  She will not be able to repeat history against incumbents John McKeon and Mila Jasey.

District 28 (D) – Incumbents Cleopatra Tucker and Ralph Caputo (who moved hometowns after redistricting in order to stay in the Assembly) should easily see off a challenge by Michael Frazzano.

District 31 (D) – Senator Sandra Bolden Cunningham will see off restaurateur Bruce Alston

District 32 (D) – Nick Sacco easily defeats 9/11 conspiracist and perennial candidate Jeff Boss for Senate, while mortgage broker Francisco Torres fails in his Assembly challenge.

District 35 (D) – Redistricting opened up two Assembly seats in this Democratic-lock district.  The party nods went to Paterson Councilman Benjie Wimberly and Shavonda Sumter, who ran Jeff Jones successful bid to unseat two-term mayor Joey Torres last year.  Torres brother, Samuel, is hoping to exact some revenge in an off the line challenge.  He won’t.

Districts 34/35/38/40 (R) – I’ve lumped these districts together.  GOP Strong, a Passaic based dissident organization, is running Assembly slates in these four districts along with a Senate candidate in the 38th.  This feud goes back to 2006, when now-Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R-40) wrested control of the scandal-plagued Passaic County GOP from allies of former chair Peter Murphy.  The grudge continues to this day.  The 38th race also features a perennial candidate Wojciech Siemaszkiewicz (who, fortunately, is not a write-in).  In all four districts, the party line candidates will win.

Non-Legislative Race to Watch – Gloucester County Freeholder (R)
The Republicans have made some noise recently in Gloucester County, considered to be under the political control of the Camden County/Norcross Democratic machine.  The biggest surprise was Governor Christie’s win here in 2009.  This was followed by a gain of two Freeholder seats in 2010, after what had been a decade of total Democratic control.  However, the county GOP has had some problems with discipline.  Their picks for the 3rd legislative district in 2009 lost to two Tea Party candidates in the primary.  The party basically disowned one, Lee Lucas, due to extreme views.  The other, Bob Villare, is the organization endorsed candidate this time around.

In this year’s freeholder race, there is a very competitive primary which is a proxy battle for party leadership.  Incumbent Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco has sided with the dissident faction against county chair Bill Fey’s slate.   DiCicco scored a surprise victory in 2009 on Christie’s coattails, but faces an uphill battle to retain his seat due to redistricting.  Could he be positioning himself for a post-legislative position?  And is the Gloucester GOP in resurgence or was 2009/2010 just a blip?  This one bears watching.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chris Christie’s Female Troubles

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

New Jersey political observers are aware that Governor Christie’s job rating has taken a tumble in the past month. All three pollsters who regularly track his “job approval” found similar declines in public opinion.

Both Monmouth/NJ Press Media and Quinnipiac reported net 11 point drops since February and FDU/Public Mind showed an 8 point drop in the governor’s net job rating since early April and a 17 point drop since January. [Note: “net” rating is calculated as the percent who approve minus the percent who disapprove.]

One common theme in these poll results is that the governor is experiencing a gender gap. Specifically, a majority of men tend to approve of the job he is doing while a majority of women disapprove. This finding is true in all three polls. This is considered especially newsworthy because the issue of funding for family planning services (which the governor vetoed last year) is again on the state’s policy agenda. Observers wonder whether that issue has, or will, hurt the governor given the divergence in public opinion by gender.

I tend to be cautious when reading anything more than partisanship into most gender gap results. We live in a highly charged partisan world. Except for rare occasions, Democratic-leaning voters love Democratic officeholders and hate Republican ones, while GOP voters feel just the opposite.

Women are more likely to think of themselves as Democrats rather than Republicans on political issues. In most polls that I’ve reviewed, both state and national, about 60 to 65 percent of self-identifying Democrats are women while just under half of Republicans and independents are women.

Given this skew, the gender gap in a politician’s rating is often masking general partisan preferences. There will always be some sort of gender gap as a baseline for any partisan politician. Indeed, recent polls are not the first time New Jersey's governor has experienced a gender gap in his own ratings. The issue for Chris Christie is whether this gender gap is moving and in what direction.

Examining the last five Monmouth University/NJ Press Media Polls, going back to April 2010, we found the governor started off his administration with a fairly wide gender gap. He had a net +16 job rating from men but a -22 rating from women. This poll was taken shortly after he unveiled his initial budget.

This gap started to narrow throughout the ensuing year. Christie’s net rating among men remained fairly stable at first before dipping earlier this year, going from +16 in July 2010 and +18 in September 2010 to +10 in February 2011. On the other hand, his standing among women steadily improved to -14 in July, -3 in September, and +1 in February.

All that changed with our May poll. While the governor’s net rating among men decreased just slightly to +8, it dropped considerably among women to -12. That indicates a growth in the governor’s gender gap not only among Democratic women, but among independent women as well – a key swing bloc in New Jersey’s electorate.

So how does the family planning issue figure into all this? It’s difficult to say definitively, but the current state of public opinion suggests that other issues are on the minds of Garden State women than social issues per se.

First of all, Christie’s gender gap was already closing and continued to close after he vetoed the family planning funds last year and participated in a Right to Life rally on the State House steps earlier this year. So, it’s unlikely that his current drop in public opinion among women has much to do with those specific issues.

Furthermore, hot button social issues tend to be important in gubernatorial elections only for challengers or when there is an open seat. Incumbents get judged by the job they do on state-specific issues. As such, I think the most likely cause of Christie’s widening gender gap are pocketbook issues related to education and social services.

Back in February 2011, in the first weeks of the governor’s term, we asked New Jerseyans how upset they would be with Christie if a number of things happened or did not happen on his watch. For items such as “property taxes remain high” and “the amount of political corruption has not changed,” there was no gender gap. Nearly identical numbers of men and women said they would be very upset if Christie did not address these issues.

For two items, though, we did find clear gender gaps. More women (61%) than men (45%) said they would be very upset with the governor if “programs that help the poor are cut.” And we found an even bigger gender gap on education. Significantly more women (71%) than men (51%) said they would be very upset with the governor if “funding for schools is cut.”

Interestingly, that’s exactly what Governor Christie did in his initial budget. And the predicted public reaction to those large cuts in education and social services was reflected in the large gender gap in his job approval right after that budget was announced. However, women started to warm to the governor as he settled into office. That is, until his second budget was unveiled earlier this year.

While the new budget does not exact more cuts on schools, it does not restore the funding slashed last year. And to make matters worse, the pain of the cuts has not been offset by promised property tax relief.

So, while a veto of family planning funds may have some leverage for Democrats among women voters, it’s not necessarily because it is a “female issue.” It is simply part of an overall perception among Garden State women that education and programs for the needy have been cut too much with little to show in the way of benefits to the state as a whole.

It’s a perception that Governor Christie will have to work to change as he looks toward reelection in 2013.