Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Kean Revelation

It’s official.  The Christie camp is actively stoking the fire of the “will he, won’t he” rumor mill.  Up to now, Chris Christie could plausibly claim that “outsiders” were responsible for the ongoing saga of a 2012 run.   No more.
The ball game changed when former Governor Tom Kean told the National Review that Christie is reconsidering whether to run for president.   This refutes Christie’s vociferous public denials about interest in a run made as recently as last Thursday.
Kean is arguably the most popular and well-respected New Jersey statesman of the past generation.  He is also a confidante of the current governor. Kean knows that any statement he makes on the record will be treated with exceptional gravitas.
Unless he made a major error in judgment, Tom Kean would not have stated that Christie was considering a run unless (a) he heard it first hand from Christie, (b) he believed it to be true, (c) he was led to believe that the Christie camp wanted this information to find its way into the public domain.
Now, any one of these assumptions may be wrong.  However, Tom Kean has to understand that is what the public will think when he makes such a statement.
There are other signs that Christie is seriously reconsidering.  But even before the Kean revelation, a TV ad put out by the Christie booster group, Committee for Our Children’s Future, had less to do with effecting policy change in New Jersey and more to do with bolstering the governor’s national reputation.
Tonight’s policy speech at the Reagan Library (hello!) may give us a better clue.  But there are some pitfalls to this gavotte whether Christie is actually considering a run or not.
It’s oft stated that those with presidential ambitions don’t get to pick their time, the time picks them.  Christie may never get another opportunity like the one that presents itself now. On the other hand, running for president now and losing, could spell the end of his political career.
If he doesn’t win the nomination, he will be seen as someone who can’t live up to expectations.  If he doesn’t beat Obama but makes it close, he may still be seen as a potential contender in 2016.  However, he will have spent so much time away from New Jersey that he may undermine his chances for re-election as governor in 2013, which would then scupper his national reputation.  Specifically, he will have lost more elections than he won in his political career.
So, the question right now is what kind of gambler Christie is.  Does he go all in on one roll of the dice and run for president now?  Or does he hold back his stake on the greater probability of extending his political career, but with the very real prospect that he might not get another shot at president?
Let’s assume the latter.  In this case, he is in danger of overplaying his flirtation with the national Republican Party.  There comes a point when your suitors lose interest.  I think Chris Christie is coming close to that point.  If he keeps playing coy beyond that, it may actually lead to outright resentment.
Christie probably could have extended the dance a little longer, as long as the rumors were sourced to people outside his inner circle.  Now he can’t.  We must assume that Tom Kean was given the green light to reveal Christie’s current thought process. 
If he’s not really considering a presidential run, then shame on him for playing Tom Kean (or shame on Tom Kean for playing us).  Otherwise, he needs to make his decision now.
If Christie gets in the race, he will find – like so many so-called “saviors” before him –that many of his enthusiastic supporters will step back and tell him he’s on his own.  Their job was to get him into the race and that job would be done.
Furthermore, nominations are not won on national reputation, but by how well you do in the early contests. The experience of one of his closest advisors, Mike DuHaime, on the Giuliani campaign in 2008 shows that you can’t start the race in Florida.
James Carville is reported to have said that New Jersey has a very selfish electorate.  Well, that may be true in some regards, but we don’t expect to have shaken hands with the candidate we will vote for in a presidential primary.  That’s the reality in Iowa and New Hampshire.
It’s all about organization and feet on the streets in the early states.  But even if Christie can put an organization together in those states in the next 60 days, he will not have been there personally.  He will have to spend every single hour between now and January glad-handing the locals in those states.
As recently as last week, Chris Christie said he has no fire in the belly for that kind of campaign.  If that’s really the case, then he does the national GOP and his constituents in New Jersey – as well as himself – a disservice by actively encouraging this never-ending story.
[UPDATE 4:10pm -- The Christie camp is saying no way, without disavowing kean's statements.  But of course, it would be unseemly to shoot down our elder statesman.  So we are left with two possibilities:  (1)  Kean was given the go ahead as a way to build more drama around the Reagan speech.  But this would have been a dumb strategy.  The rumors were floating nicely on their own without Christie having to take any responsibility for them.  This would have been gilding the lily.
(2) The other possibility is that Kean strayed off the ranch.  Or had a senior moment perhaps?  In any event, Kean's statement was the first real signal from the inner circle that Christie was considering a run.  That increased his national supporters' simmering hopes to a rolling boil.  So now, Christie has to throw a lot of ice on the rumors.  And that can lead to confusion, resentment, etc.  Something Christie doesn't want leading into tonight's speech.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Legislative Election Outlook

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Asbury Park Press, Courier News, Courier-Post, Daily Record, and Home News Tribune.

The entire New Jersey Legislature is up for election this November; all 40 seats in the Senate and 80 seats in the General Assembly.  This means that control of the legislature is up for grabs.  Voters will decide whether to endorse the current configuration of state government – with split party control between the legislature and the governor – or call for a new direction by handing control of both branches of government to the Republican party.
You may think that.  And bless your heart if you do.  But you would be wrong.
Yes, Democrats and Republicans are competing for nearly every seat in the legislature except two.  [As of this writing, a federal court has ordered Democrat Carl Lewis’ name off the 8th district Senate ballot and there is only one Republican running for the two available Assembly seats in the 20th district.]   Another 26 independent candidates have thrown their hats into the ring, as well.  But at the end of the day, no more than 130 out of 264 candidates on the ballot have a realistic shot at being sworn in as one of New Jersey’s 120 legislators.
The recently instituted legislative map drawn up during the redistricting process this spring made sure of that.  The new map turned out to be a boon for incumbents, but it offers little choice for voters.
That means only three districts are generally considered to be competitive this year.  These include the 2nd district 2 in Atlantic County, which has a Democrat in the Senate and two Republicans in the Assembly, and two Democratic-held districts – the 14th in Mercer and Middlesex and the 38th in Bergen.
Because of this overall lack of competitiveness, the 2011 mid-term election is not going to be a referendum on Governor Christie in the traditional sense.  Certainly, the governor’s policies form the backdrop for the election and he will be a potent presence, particularly when it comes to raising campaign contributions.  But there will be no coordinated, statewide effort to base campaign strategy on a single message around the governor.
Campaigns in the few competitive districts will be fought on local issues.  The governor will be a presence to the extent he impacts those local issues.  So in the 2nd, state control of the Atlantic City Tourism District will predominate.  In the 14th, home to a large number of state workers, the focus will be on pension and benefit reforms.
There have been some murmurs that a greater number of districts are at play this year simply because many voters are new to their districts.  For example, shifts in voter registration caused by redistricting have given some hope for additional seats.  These include GOP-held districts 8, 11, and 16, where Democrats outnumber Republicans on the registration rolls by 4,500, 10,100, and 5,300 voters, respectively.  However, past voting history makes any Democratic pick-ups here unlikely.
Districts where Democrats have no more than a 10,000 voter registration edge are considered to be pretty safe bets for the GOP.  Senator Jim Whelan in District 2 is considered more threatened this year in part because his district went from an 11,000 to a 9,200 Democratic registration advantage with the new map.
Republicans, on the other hand, win practically every district where their party has more registered voters than the Democrats.  District 1 is the only exception.  Despite being outnumbered on the voter rolls in the state’s southernmost district, the relatively conservative incumbent Senator Jeff Van Drew has proven coattails and will likely lead his two Democratic Assembly mates to victory again this year.
Democrats really need to have at least a 20,000 voter registration advantage before they can start counting their Election Day chickens.  District 7 is one exception, where Republican State Senator Diane Allen has been able to turn her individual popularity into easy wins in a heavily Democratic district, but without coattails for her Assembly running mates.
This threshold is one of the reasons why District 38 is now considered competitive for Republicans.  The Democratic registration advantage here dropped from nearly 22,000 voters to just over 12,000 under the new map.  On the other hand, this is also the reason why District 14 may not be as competitive as Republicans had hoped – registered Democrats continue to outnumber Republicans by 21,000 voters here.
So we are left with an election where turnout will be decidedly low.  The Democrats’ 8 seat majority in the Senate and 14 seat majority in the Assembly will not change by more than a couple of seats in each chamber, if at all.
The direction New Jersey government was heading before the election is likely to be the same direction it continues along afterward.  For good or for ill.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Considerations

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Another redistricting process is upon us.  Earlier this year, a state commission approved a new map for New Jersey’s legislature that emphasized incumbent protection.  This map ensures that no more than one or two seats in either chamber will change parties this November and all but guarantees that Democrats will control the legislature throughout the decade.

Now the state’s Congressional districts are on the table.  The Congressional redistricting commission – comprised of six Democrats, six Republicans and an independent chair chosen by the other 12 members – holds the first of at least three public hearings today.

The stakes for New Jersey are different for this current process.  The legislative commission controlled the fate of every seat, and thus the overall partisan makeup – and competitiveness – of the legislature.  The Congressional commission has responsibility for only 12 seats in the entire House of Representatives.

Those who followed my commentary on the legislative process know that I advocated for a greater number of competitive districts in that map – enough to make the majority party earn their leadership positions in each election cycle, but not too many as to invite volatility.  A certain degree of competitiveness in a legislative map is good for the state as a whole.  It makes the legislature more accountable to its citizens.

If you were expecting me to argue the same for the Congressional redistricting process, though, you would be wrong.  The influence of any state’s delegation is based largely on their influence with the upper echelons of Congressional leadership.  Absolute seniority in itself is not important, but some degree of longevity is necessary for members of our delegation to establish those important relationships.

Since few other states use competitiveness to guide their redistricting process, New Jersey would be put at a disadvantage if it did.  Even if it made a concerted effort, our commission could probably only create 3 to 5 truly competitive districts – out of 435 nationwide.  While that might boost voter turnout in those districts, it would do little to increase the influence of New Jersey as a whole. Influence that we sorely need, considering how little we get back in federal spending for every tax dollar we send to Washington.

To be clear, I am no advocate of incumbent protection for its own sake.  Incumbents must earn, and re-earn, the trust of a compact, cohesive, contiguous and identifiable community of interest.  It is on this score that our current Congressional map fails miserably.   I urge the commission to direct its efforts to redressing this problem.

New Jersey’s Congressional map is one of the most gerrymandered in the country according to independent analysis.  This will come as no surprise to anyone who followed the 2001 redistricting process, when both Democrats and Republicans colluded to protect every member of New Jersey’s delegation.

That is unlikely to happen this year simply because all incumbents can’t be protected.  Due to our state’s slow population growth relative to the rest of the country, our number of House members will be cut from 13 to 12 in this process.  While this may be bad news for the odd man out, it offers the perfect opportunity to re-assess whether New Jersey’s Congressional districts are providing adequate representation for the state’s varied communities.

The New Jersey Constitution offers no guidance on the Congressional mapmaking process.  After meeting federal requirements – such as population equality, contiguity and adherence to relevant sections of the Voting Rights Act – the commission, and the chair in particular, is free to establish whatever standards it chooses.

I urge the commission to focus on and develop working definitions for two standards: compactness and communities of interest.  Using these standards as guiding principles will help remedy some of the ills of the current map.

Compactness goes to the heart of what is wrong with the current map.  It is also one of the easiest to remedy since it is quantifiable.  There are, of course, numerous ways to calculate district compactness, but all of them rely on some ratio of the district’s perimeter to its total land area.  Basically, these calculations look at either dispersion – how long and narrow a district is – or indentation – how many times the district boundaries zig and zag.

Each measure has pros and cons, but taken together they give us a general sense of how ideally compact a district is.  An independent analysis by Azavea, a GIS software company based in Philadelphia, utilized four of the better-known measurement tools to assess the compactness of U.S. Congressional districts.

Their analysis found that New Jersey’s congressional map as a whole is the 4th or 5th least compact in the country according to 3 of these 4 measures.  It ranked 14th worst on the remaining measure. The worst offender in the state is the current 6th district which snakes its way from Belmar on the coast, working its way inland to end at Plainfield.  It ranks among the 10 least compact districts in the country on 3 of 4 compactness measures.  New Jersey’s 13th and 12th districts are not much better.

The reason why compactness is so important is that a lack of it can serve to divide and dilute the representation of communities of interest.  What is a community of interest?  It is not self-evident.  The commission needs to develop a working definition that is practical and can be justified to the public when the final map is revealed.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, 24 states have some reference to community of interest in their redistricting laws or guidelines, including six constitutional provisions and eight by statute.  Only about half of these, though, make any attempt to describe what characteristics should be considered in a community of interest.

California’s new redistricting process, approved by voters last year, offers one of the more extensive descriptions of community of interest.  In addition to preserving city and county boundaries to the extent possible, the California commission is directed to minimize the division of any:

“contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests… Examples of such shared interests are those common to an urban area, a rural area, an industrial area, or an agricultural area, and those common to areas in which the people share similar living standards, use the same transportation facilities, have similar work opportunities, or have access to the same media of communication relevant to the election process.” 
By the way, California’s law explicitly excludes partisan voting patterns and incumbency as community of interest considerations.
These guidelines are too broad to be practical, but the New Jersey Commission can develop its own priorities.  For example, “commonality of communications,” as the Alabama guidelines put it, should be an important consideration.
While it’s unclear how many people will be reading newspapers by the end of this decade, current newspaper circulation areas offer one possible guideline for defining communities of interest.  Keeping districts squarely within either the Philadelphia or New York media markets is another consideration.  Districts that straddle both, such as the current 3rd, dramatically drive up the cost of political campaigns.

Zip codes are another important guide for what defines common communications in a community of interest.   For example, Somerset County’s Franklin Township lies in both the 6th and 12th districts. On the face of it, such a split would not be egregious, since the northeastern part of the town is closer to New Brunswick, while the remainder is geared south and west into Somerset County.  The problem is that the current dividing line follows no rhyme or reason vis-à-vis those communities.

I know this all too well because I live there.  For most of the past decade, I lived in Congressman Frank Pallone’s 6th district, which wraps into part of northeastern Franklin.  During that time, I received plenty of franked mail from Congressman Rush Holt in the 12th but none from my own representative, since the mail is sorted by zip code.  Preventing that type of division should be a no-brainer.

Last year, I moved less than a mile up the road.  I am still represented by the same state legislators and the same mayor, and even the same municipal ward councilman.  But I suddenly find myself in a different Congressional district!  Eli Manning could stand in my front yard and toss a bomb to my neighbor that would land in an entirely different Congressional district.

In fact, New Jersey’s 12th district is most egregious in this regard.  It cuts into at least eight different municipalities, sometimes multiple times.  The commission should place a limit on how many partial towns can be drawn into any single district.

There are many other considerations that can be used to define and prioritize communities of interest.  The commission should use these hearings to obtain adequate public input on those priorities and develop a set of working definitions – to be shared with the public – that will guide the preservation of communities of interest during this process.

In any event, this commission should not fall back on Potter Stewart-like explanations of compactness and communities of interest, as every other commission has in the past.  “I know it when I see it” is neither an acceptable rationale nor a useful guideline.

Guidelines for compactness and communities of interest should be just that: guidelines.  These metrics do not have to hamstring the commission, but they should be sufficiently quantifiable in order to keep the new districts within acceptable – and publicly justifiable – parameters.

Any explicit guidelines are better than none at all.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Informed Opinion on Education Reform Poll?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Last month, Monmouth University and NJ Press Media released a poll on education reforms proposed by the Christie administration.  It has produced a whirlwind of blogosphere commentary from a few folks who took exception to the poll’s results.

The poll found broad, general support for the governor’s proposals, but with a few caveats.  When we asked questions pertaining to public awareness, we found a widespread lack of knowledge about these policies (especially with regard to charter schools).  We also found some concerns about implementation:  performance-based pay is a good idea, but using the current standardized tests as the metric on which to base that may be unfair.  And finally, we found that one of the arguments used by reform proponents – that it would close the achievement gap – does not necessarily hold water with the general public.

I initially chose to let the poll stand for itself.  Polling results frequently draw criticism when the results undermine a particular strategic perspective.  For example, Governor Christie was not happy with a poll we conducted early in his term that showed New Jerseyans expressing skepticism about his ability to bring about change (which was less about Christie and more about their jaded view of Trenton).  And individual election polls have been criticized at times by candidate’s campaigns – sometimes from both parties in the same cycle.  It’s understood.  Negative polling results can impact campaign contributions and undermine the storyline you are trying to put forward.

In most cases, the critics will question the poll’s methodology, say they see it differently, and move on.  That’s fair.  It’s all part of being the messenger about where the public stands on important issues of the day, a role I take very seriously. 

That’s usually the end to it.  Rarely does a critic try to misrepresent the poll or how it was conducted.  In fact, that has only happened to me twice.  This education poll is one of those times.  Unfortunately, I feel I must now respond directly to those criticisms.

To start, most of the criticism has come from people without expertise in the field of survey research.  Some has, which I will treat more seriously.  But it’s important to note that all of these critics, including some who are academic researchers, have taken very public normative positions on education policy.  Normative is one of those great social science words.  It simply means they already have a clear opinion about how things ought to be.  When normative values get applied in a research setting, they lead to bias.

The Monmouth University Polling Institute, on the other hand, has a record of measuring public opinion “as it stands” without bias.  For example, one of the charges levied against this poll centered on the question about tenure.  The criticism is that we used a colloquial definition of tenure rather than a legal one.

Well, that’s the point!  If you are trying to measure extant public opinion you need to use colloquial language.  This is especially important when it is not clear how well the public already understands the issue.  In these situations, most pollsters will look to see how other pollsters have handled it.

Our own search turned up a few poll questions on tenure, including one from the well-respected national Phi Delta Kappa survey conducted each year by the Gallup organization.  Their question defined tenure for public school teachers as “after a two- or three-year period, they receive what amounts to a lifetime contract.”  A Time magazine poll also used the word “lifetime” to describe tenure.

Based on my experience, I felt that the word lifetime could be a bit loaded in this context.  Our team spent a great deal of effort searching for something that reflected a more common definition of tenure, such as this entry in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of an official position, usu. one in a university or school: carrying a guarantee of permanent employment until retirement.”

I decided to word our poll question as: “After working in a New Jersey public school for three years, a teacher is either given tenure or let go.  A teacher who gets tenure after this trial period is basically given a permanent job unless they engage in serious misconduct.”

I think the improved fairness of my question was borne out by the results.  In our question, 42% approved of tenure compared to 26% to 28% in the polls that defined tenure as a “lifetime” appointment.

Critics also took issue with way we described how a teacher can lose tenure since the question didn’t use statutory language regarding dismissal, i.e. for “inefficiency, incapacity, or conduct unbecoming a teaching staff member or other just cause.”  Again, the poll’s intent is not to measure the public’s opinion on the theoretical concept of tenure, but what they think of it in practice.  And considering the data available on tenure dismissal in the state (see: PolitifactNJ), only a handful of teachers have ever been dismissed for “inefficiency” – far fewer then are probably dismissed for this reason in any other profession (a good empirical question in itself).

As such, I stand by the question wording as an accurate measurement of public opinion on current tenure practices, to the extent the public is aware of them.  Even still, I am confident that using the legal language to describe dismissal conditions would have had little to no effect on the end result.

Our poll included a follow-up question, asking people if they would support a change to “limited tenure” which requires periodic evaluation and potential loss of tenure.  Even though this is technically not “tenure” by the dictionary definition, it is a common term used in public discussions of this proposal.

There is widespread support – 77% in fact – for changes to the tenure system that would make it easier to dismiss underperforming teachers.  Here are some interesting facts about that statistic.  These changes to tenure are supported by a whopping 71% of teacher households and 73% of those who actually approve of the current tenure system.

In our press release I wrote, “It appears that New Jerseyans want some type of job protection for teachers, but broadly support modification to the current system.”  I don’t know how you argue with that considering that teachers themselves support these changes.

Critics of this poll have focused on minor wording issues without considering the larger context within which this opinion is formed.  During an extended economic downturn with persistently high unemployment, 4-in-10 New Jerseyans feel that teachers should benefit from an extraordinary level of job protection – and I use extraordinary in the sense that this is something that no other profession enjoys.  And fully 3-in-4 New Jerseyans feel that teachers should have at least better job protection than most other workers.  That should be somewhat surprising, and heartening to these critics, given the current economic climate.

There are many ways to ask about tenure, and I strove to provide a definition that was fairer than other polls I have seen.  I am open to discussing other ways to approach this issue.  And if this was the nature and tone of all the critiques, I would have welcomed the debate.

Unfortunately, the poll was also subject to a number of other attacks that were ill-informed and downright malicious.  Since those attacks have gone unabated, I feel it is important to respond on behalf of the reputation Monmouth University’s Polling Institute has earned in New Jersey.

In some cases, critics oddly misinterpret questions that actually support their normative view.  For example, standardized tests would be a major component in determining tenure and merit pay under current proposals.  One critic saw our poll results as saying “people think standardized tests are reasonably accurate at measuring student abilities.”  The results show quite the opposite, which actually bolsters the argument against merit pay!  Just 38% give a positive response of excellent or good to the accuracy of the tests, compared to 59% who give a negative response of only fair or poor.  [By the way, the “only fair” or “just fair” construction is textbook polling procedure to delineate between two positive responses and two negative responses in a balanced response set].

Furthermore, the critic takes issue with the same question as it relates to how these tests reflect teacher competence.  He writes: “Implied within that question is that student achievement and good teaching are a 1 to 1 ratio.”  Well, I’m not sure what he was reading, but the question we posed pretty clearly asks if people think there is a direct correlation between student test scores and teacher ability – and a clear majority (62%) do not!  So, I’m left scratching my head at the charge.

Critics have also charged that the headline of our press release was misleading.  It stated that the public “supports” proposed education reforms.  The data show that the public does support these ideas.  And anyone who has followed opinion in New Jersey knows that the public has become increasingly supportive of all measures that promote greater accountability and choice.  It would certainly have been misleading if we wrote that the public “demands” or “calls for” these reforms.  Instead, we accurately reflected that the public expresses “support” for these proposals as they are generally understood by the public.  No more, no less.

The real problem is when critics lower themselves to base accusations that we conducted a “push poll,” which shows a clear misunderstanding of that term.  Or try to plant rumors with the media that nefarious forces were behind the poll questions.  That’s where the criticism steps over the line.

As I mentioned before, this is one of only two times that displeasure with a poll I conducted reached a level where critics actively tried to misrepresent the poll.  The other time in question, the criticism came from members of the Tea Party.  This was in response to a poll that showed their candidate not doing as well as they believed she was.  That poll turned out to be right on the mark, by the way.

The criticism aimed at this poll is more disappointing because these advocates are doing so on behalf of our teachers.  I know they don’t represent all teachers, including the NJEA members who teach my own child.  However, because their actions reflect on the teaching profession, one hopes that they would engage in a more productive dialogue regarding public opinion on these reforms, and indeed on the reform proposals themselves.

As the poll results indicate, public opinion on education policy is not always well informed and at times is misinformed.  But it is the public’s present opinion on this issue; the opinion that policymakers listen to.

So here’s my advice to critics who disagree with the poll results.  Spend more time working to change public opinion rather than disparage the poll that measures it.