Monday, November 7, 2011

The Expectations Game

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Election Day is tomorrow.  And as is typical of these low turnout affairs, it’s now a matter of managing expectations.  Over the past few months, the New Jersey GOP has been putting out mixed messages about what they hope to accomplish in this election.  Let’s put these expectations in context.
When the new legislative map was first unveiled in April, it was clear that neither party could launch a “referendum” type campaign.  The map locked down too many districts for one party or the other.  The Republicans saw a few opportunities to pick up seats and claimed they would try to make lemonade out of what were very sour lemons.
Over the summer, the GOP leaked some internal polling “data” showing that Gov. Christie was very popular in key battleground districts while Pres. Obama was very unpopular there.  The underlying message was that, even if they couldn’t turn the election into a statewide referendum, they could do it district by district.
As anyone who closely studies voting behavior understands, the electorate doesn’t cast their vote as proxies for other offices.  It’s extremely rare that a sizable number of votes for legislator are cast specifically to show support for or opposition to a sitting governor’s agenda.  And they never think about the president; voters are smart enough to distinguish between DC and Trenton.
Certainly, voters’ opinion of the governor comes into play, but that is part and parcel of their general partisan inclination.  Unless a governor’s actions cause voters to change their normal voting choice or come out to vote when they typically wouldn’t, there is no referendum.
New Jersey’s 1991 was one such exception.  But it’s important to remember that voters were also specifically punishing the legislators who supported Gov. Florio’s tax hikes as much as they were expressing anger at the governor himself.  And that election featured a new legislative map friendlier to Republicans, to boot.
So, by the end of summer, Gov. Christie was saying that there was no way much was going to change due to the new legislative map.  Then a few weeks ago, he suddenly said that the GOP would make history!
It turns out the governor’s definition of history is a bit underwhelming.  Basically, if Republicans could hold on to the seats they already have, the election would be historic.  To back this up, the state GOP put out a memo showing that the governor’s party has lost legislative seats in the first midterm elections of 7 of the past 8 governors.
Putting aside numerous mathematical errors in the memo, the state GOP doesn’t take into account the fact that the governor’s party usually picks up seats as a coattail effect during the governor’s initial election. In this context, a loss of seats in the midterm can be viewed as something of a course correction.
Analyzing these two-cycle changes in legislative seats (governor’s election year plus midterm), we find that 4 of the past 7 governors have actually seen their party experience a net gain of seats.
Let’s go back to Gov. William Cahill, the first governor elected under the current legislative structure of 120 seats.  His fellow Republicans gained one seat during his election in 1969, but lost 26 seats in the 1971 midterm – for a net loss of 25 seats.
Gov. Brendan Byrne’s Democrats picked up an astronomical 39 seats when he was first elected in 1973.  This was on top of the 26 they picked up in the prior election, so it’s not surprising that Democrats wouldn’t be able to hold all these gains.  They lost 17 seats in the 1975 midterm, but that still left the legislature with 22 more Democrats than it had before Byrne was first elected.  Democrats picked up another 3 seats during Byrne’s re-election but lost 10 in his second midterm.  In the end, Byrne left office with his party holding 15 more legislative seats than it did before he was elected.
The 1981 election brought New Jersey a new legislative map and a record close race for governor.  Tom Kean eked out a 1,600 vote win and his fellow Republicans picked up 6 seats in the legislature under a brand new map.  They picked up one more seat in an ensuing special election but lost 3 in Kean’s first midterm.  This netted the Republicans a 4 seat gain compared to where they stood before Kean was elected.  Kean’s party picked up 12 seats and control of the Assembly during his landslide 1985 re-election, but lost 6 seats during his second mid-term election.  Kean ended his tenure as governor with 9 more Republican seats than before he was elected.  [Note: the initial version of this column included incorrect numbers for Kean's second term.]

Jim Florio, the man Kean beat, came to office in 1989 with 4 additional Democratic seats.  His party lost one seat in an interim special election and another 31 in the midterm on the back of voter anger over tax hikes, for a net loss of 28 seats during his term.
Christie Whitman is the only governor of the past 40 years who never saw her party gain seats.  She governed under a legislative map that slightly favored Republicans, but not by nearly the number that the GOP picked up in the anti-Florio backlash.  Her party lost 8 seats when she was first elected in 1993, one seat in an interim election, another 2 in her first midterm, 2 during her re-election, 3 during her final midterm, and another one in a special election.  Republicans maintained their legislative majority throughout the 1990s, but by 16 fewer seats than they had before Whitman was elected.
A new legislative map in 2001 helped Jim McGreevey come into office with a net gain of 14 Democratic legislators.  However, rather than lose some of those gains in a midterm correction, Democrats were able to pick up 5 more seats in 2003.  This gave McGreevey’s party a net 19 seat gain during his abbreviated tenure.
Democrats picked up another 2 seats when Jon Corzine was elected in 2005 and held even during his 2007 midterm.  This is the smallest net legislative change of any governor’s administration, but it is a gain nonetheless.
That brings us to Chris Christie.  His Republicans were able to pick up one Assembly seat when he was first elected in 2009, but lost one Senate seat in a special election last year.  So he’s at “square one” regarding tomorrow’s election.
Looking back on the past 40 years, neither a gain nor a loss of Republican seats would be particularly historic.  Both outcomes have happened about equally, although more governors have in fact gained rather than lost seats if both their initial election and midterm years are combined.
On the other hand, if Republicans can hold onto the 49 seats they have now, it would indeed be historic.  Chris Christie would be the first governor since the legislature went to 120 seats to experience neither a net gain nor a net loss in the two-cycle number of seats his party controls.  And given the current legislative map’s limitations, I bet that’s exactly the type of history he’s shooting for.
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Bizarre fact:  Eleven legislative candidates nominated by either Democratic or Republican primary voters will not appear on the ballot tomorrow.  An astounding four of those are from the 8th district.  Democrat Carl Lewis was kicked off the Senate ballot.  His two Assembly running mates were placeholders and subsequently substituted on the ballot.  And incumbent Patrick Delany resigned his seat over the summer and was replaced.  That means that 8th district voters will only see two names on the ballot out of the six candidates they nominated in June.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

New Jersey Legislative Forecast

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

New Jersey goes to the polls seven days from now. 

Well, actually very few New Jerseyans will go to the polls seven days from now.  Statewide registered voter turnout will fall below 30% for the first time since records have been kept.  So many seats are considered a lock that many incumbents won’t even demonstrate a minimal level of respect for voters by answering the media’s candidate questionnaires.

Considering how irrelevant voters are to the process I have decided to save us all the effort and announce the winning margins for all 120 legislative seats a week ahead of the election.

But seriously folks…  The following is an analysis of where the races stand based on prior voting patterns and developments during this fall’s campaign.  It is very similar to the town-based district partisan advantage I published shortly after the new legislative map was announced in April.

On the Senate side, 15 seats will likely be won by more than 30 point margins (10 Democrat and 5 Republican).  Look for the Hudson County seats to top 60 point margins.  Another 9 seats (2D/7R) will be won by 21 to 30 point margins; 11 districts (8D/3R) by 13 to 20 point margins, and 2 districts (1D/1R) by 8 to 12 point margins.  The remaining 3 seats should be won by Dems in 2 to 7 point margins.  [See below for specific district breakdowns.]

For the Assembly calculation, I added the total votes for each party’s candidates to determine the margin.  This does not take into account potential differences in votes for individual candidates of the same party.  While some individual victories may be close, I am not forecasting any split party Assembly delegations.

On the Assembly side, 12 districts (9 Democrat and 3 Republican) will be won more than 30 point margins.  Another 9 districts (1D/8R) will be won by 21 to 30 point margins; 8 districts (6D/2R) by 13 to 20 point margins, and 6 districts (4D/2R) by 8 to 12 point margins.  Democrats should win another 4 districts by 2 to 7 points and Republicans one district by the same margin. [See below for specific district breakdowns.]

As such, I see the Senate staying steady at a 24 to 16 Democrat edge, and the Democrats picking up one seat in the Assembly for a 48 to 32 seat advantage,

This forecast is based largely on past behavior and the incumbent protection constraints of the current legislative map.  As last weekend’s snowstorm proves, all forecasts should be taken with a huge grain of salt.  However, the extent to which actual results vary from this forecast will determine bragging rights on November 8.

A few districts bear special discussion.

District 38:  Defending Senator Bob Gordon, and his Assembly running mates, has been priority #1 for state Democrats.  If you’ve been hearing New Jersey Democratic operatives use the term “Tea Party” with Rainman-like redundancy, this district is the reason why.  Their strategy is to paint the GOP nominee, Bergen Freeholder John Driscoll, as out of the moderate mainstream.  This is one place where Gov. Christie has lent his presence on the campaign trail in order to counteract those charges.

The new legislative map dealt a real blow to the incumbents, slicing off half their existing voter base in the redistricting shuffle.  The 8 lost towns accounted for more than two-thirds of the Democrats’ plurality in recent elections and remained solidly Democratic during Chris Christie’s 2009 victory.  At the same time, the core towns left in the 38th saw their Democratic margin cut in half from 2007.  The district’s new towns gained from the 35th (Glen Rock and Hawthorne) and the 39th (Oradell, River Edge and New Milford) also voted much more Republican in the 2009 legislative races than they did in 2007.  New towns from the 37th district (Bergenfield, Maywood, Rochelle Park) remained firmly Democratic, although it’s important to note that their state senator was running for Lieutenant Governor at the time.  Bottom line: without Chris Christie at the top of the ticket to drive GOP turnout, the Democrats should be able to hold onto all three seats here.

District 2:  Republicans currently hold the Assembly seats, but the real battle is at the top of the ticket.  GOP Assemblyman Vince Polistina is hoping to knock off incumbent Democratic Senator Jim Whelan.  Democrats have a 9,000 voter registration edge here, but as past history has shown, this is not enough to ensure a D victory.  Whelan’s prospects improved when Atlantic City mayor Lorenzo Langford ended his independent bid for the seat.  Atlantic City returns accounted for about 40% of Whelan’s plurality in 2007.

The new legislative map cost this district 5 towns, with Galloway being the big prize.  While Whelan won those towns in 2007, they voted heavily for the GOP Assembly in recent years.  The towns added to this district (Buena, Buena Vista, Folsom, and Somers Point) are friendlier territory for Democrats.  This has been a pretty muddy fight, with Whelan and Polistina accusing each other of feeding at the public trough.  When races become this dirty, the attacks tend to cancel out and the status quo is maintained.  Whelan will hold on to his Senate seat and the GOP will retain the Assembly here.

District 14: It’s probably a historic relic to keep this district in the “competitive” category.  Voters in this district – which includes a sizable number of state government workers – are used to retail politics.  Former GOP legislator Bill Baroni was a master of the meet-and-greet approach and handily won what should have been a solidly Democratic district throughout the past decade.  The current Senate incumbent Linda Greenstein learned this lesson well and has spent years shaking hands to become Baroni’s successor, first in the Assembly and now in the Senate.

The GOP selected Richard Kanka, a man with some name recognition, to challenge Greenstein and have put some resources into this race.  But the fact that Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried pulled out of the Assembly race this summer is a signal that they have lowered their expectations.  Republicans were counting on a big turnout from Fried’s hometown, which the new map added to this district along with East Windsor, Hightstown and Spotswood.  These new towns replaced South Brunswick and West Windsor, the former having been a major stronghold for Greenstein, especially when she won the 2010 special election for this seat by more than 7 points.  This town shift made the district look more competitive on paper, but East Windsor and Robbinsville came from ultra-safe Republican districts where Democratic was depressed.  I would expect that more “D” voters will now turn out in these towns and the Democratic slate will win by a margin close to the upper end of the 2 to 7 point range forecast.

District 7:  Republican Diane Allen has held on to the Senate seat in what has been a Democratic district by force of her own popularity.  The Democrats have consistently won the Assembly seats.  Redistricting has led Republicans to believe they may have an outside shot at finally picking up an Assembly seat here.

This district lost Merchantville, Maple Shade, Westampton, and Mount Holly in the new map.  But the big blow to Democrats was the loss of Pennsauken, which not only cost them voters but an incumbent Assemblyman to boot.  These towns were replaced by five municipalities from solidly Republican districts: Bordentown City and Township, Fieldsboro, Moorestown, and Mount Laurel.  This town shift moved what was a 5,000 vote plurality for the Democrats in 2007 to a hypothetical 1,000 vote edge.  However, since the new towns were in uncompetitive districts, we would expect the South Jersey Democratic GOTV machine now to be hard at work in these new towns.  Expect the Assembly Democrats to get about a 5 point win here, while Diane Allen cruises to a near 20 point victory.

District 1: Everything about this district says it should be solidly Republican.  And yet, Democrat Jeff Van Drew has been a winner here for the last few election cycles.  Even when he wasn’t on the ballot in 2009, District 1 voters were urged to vote for the “Van Drew Team.”  And they did.

The new legislative map actually handed this district some more Democrat-friendly towns in Cumberland County.  I expect that all three Democratic incumbents will be returned to office on Tuesday.  I included this district here though, because I think the results may be closer than expected, specifically on the Assembly side.  Usually in New Jersey legislative elections, the two members of a party’s Assembly slate get roughly the same number of votes.  One recent poll indicated that Matt Milam is running behind fellow incumbent Nelson Albano.  Couple this with the fact that the (fairly) new Cape May County GOP chairman is itching to score a victory, and it could be an interesting night in the southern end of the state.

It’s also worth keeping an eye on Districts 11 and 16.  These are considered to be safe Republican districts but they were radically redrawn in the new map so that a sizable chunk of voters are unfamiliar with the incumbents.  The Democrats are hoping to make a statement here by challenging for at least one of the Assembly seats in each district.

One of the Democratic candidates in District 11 was endorsed by the Asbury Park Press in one of the few places where a newspaper endorsement carries some weight.  It’s also one of the few districts in the state where challengers have raised more than $100,000.

District 16 used to be an almost entirely Somerset County district.  With the new legislative map, the majority of its residents now come from towns in Hunterdon, Mercer, and Middlesex counties.  Still, the Republican Party stuck with its two Somerset-based incumbents and named a Somerset freeholder for the open seat.  On the Democratic slate is a South Brunswick councilman (see District 14 above), a Hunterdon teacher, and a Somerset attorney.  They have also hit the $100,000 mark in fundraising.

And in the interest of fairness, I should mention the other district where a challenger slate reported at least $100,000 raised in their 29 day finance reports.  That would be District 27.  The GOP had hoped to challenge here but their preferred nominee was knocked off by a Tea Party backed candidate in the primary. It would add some swagger to Republicans if they could knock off Dick Codey.  But this is Dick Codey we’re talking about.  In other words, Fuhgeddaboudit!

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Senate Forecast by District
D >30 points:  19, 20, 28, 29, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 37
D 21-30 points:  5, 18
D 13-20 points:  3, 4, 6, 15, 17, 22, 27, 36
D 8-12 points:  1
D 2-7 points:  2, 14, 38
R >30 points:  8, 10, 23, 24, 30
R 21-30 points:  9, 13, 21, 25, 26, 39, 40
R 13-20 points:  7, 12, 16
R 8-12 points:  11

Assembly Forecast by District
D >30 points:  20, 28, 29, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 37
D 21-30 points:  5
D 13-20 points: 6, 15, 17, 18, 19, 36
D 8-12 points:  3, 4, 22, 27
D 2-7 points:  1, 7, 14, 38
R >30 points:  10, 24, 30
R 21-30 points:  8, 9, 21, 23, 25, 26, 39, 40
R 13-20 points:  12, 13
R 8-12 points:  11, 16
R 2-7 points:  2