Friday, December 23, 2011

Redistricting Commission Combines 8 and 9

First, let’s drop the pretense that districts 5 and 9 were combined.  They weren’t.
John Farmer said that he went into this process believing that the delegation should be split 6-6 and that the most likely candidates for merger were the Democratic 8th (Pascrell) and 9th(Rothman).  He said that former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts convinced him that the voters – or at least those in north Jersey – should decide whether the state’s delegation should be 7-5 or 6-6.  To do this would mean combining districts 5 and 9.
So, then why did Farmer vote for a map that combined 8 and 9?  Let’s look at the numbers for the new District 9 (which is supposed to be the old District 8).  Of the total population of 732,658 in the new district, 54% are currently represented by Rothman and 43% are represented by Pascrell.  (Another 3% are represented by Scot Garret in the 5th). 
Remember – this is supposed to be Pascrell’s district, but less than half of his current constituents live in “his” new district.  [This would have given Alan “Continuity of Representation” Rosenthal conniptions.]
In the new 5th – which is supposed to be the “combined” district – 80% of then population is currently represented by Garrett and just 20% is represented by Rothman!  Yes, you read that right.  Four-fifths of this so-called “fair fight” district is from the current Republican district.
So how did Farmer justify calling the new 5th the combine district rather than the new 9th?  Umm, because Rothman’s current hometown was part of the move to the 5th – even though the VAST majority of Rothman’s constituents are now in “Pascrell’s district.”
Another fallacy espoused by Farmer is that the new 3rd is now a competitive district.  Umm, how do you figure that one?  I don’t even need to run the numbers to know that taking out Democratic stronghold Cherry Hill and replacing it with the Republican town of Brick makes this already Republican-leaning district less competitive, rather than more.  Sure, they threw in a few more Delaware River towns, but the claim that this district is competitive is patently false.  I’m left wondering if Farmer had his own stats person to validate the Republican’s numbers, or if he simply took the GOP claim at face value.
Now, let me make this perfectly clear – I am not criticizing John Farmer’s decision to side with the GOP.  I’ve seen the Democrats’ map.  It looks eerily similar to the Republican one.
The 7th and 12th districts in both maps are much more compact than the current configurations, although both leave the 6th – shown by independent analysis to be one of the least compact districts in the country – as a bizarre coastal snake.  Both maps added Brick to the 3rd, although the Dems made it less compact in order to keep it competitive.
Albio Sires district underwent drastic changes in geography in both maps, with both side lopping off the non-contiguous Middlesex County portion of the current 13th and moving it further into Hudson.  Both maps also included the little “Plainfield hook” on the northern end of district 12.  [By the way, Rush Holt got a nice gift in this map – a safe and relatively compact district.]
Both maps fetishly preserved Chris Smith’s hometown of Hamilton (i.e. the place where he rents an apartment) Robbinsville (where he owns a dwelling - according to a staffer who emailed me after seeing this column) in the 4th, but the Republicans got closer to making this into the costal district that it should be. 
The Democrats District 5 is only slightly better than the GOP’s from a community of interest standpoint, but they fell into the unfortunate east-west vertical map drawing on districts 11 and 7 that has epitomized the bad maps of the past.
So, I really have little criticism of Farmer’s eventual choice.  It certainly is not an ideal map, and I’m not ready to say that is a good map.  But it certainly is a better map than the one we have now, and perhaps slightly better than the one submitted by the Democrats, where they perhaps overreached by creating more competitive districts in both the 5th and the 3rd.
My one complaint is that John Farmer should be honest about the map.  He said at the opening of today’s vote that his intention at the outset of this process was to look for a map that gave the state delegation a 6-6 split and combined the two northeastern Democratic districts.  That’s exactly what he voted for and he should be willing to admit it.

P.S.  I'm not sure whether I can claim a "win" for predicting Farmer's preference here.  I said a fair fight 5 v. 9 would appeal to him.  That's what he claimed we got, so I would be right by that standard, but that's not what the numbers say we got.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

How Iowa Will Sink Ron Paul

Sure, I know Iowa’s nearly two weeks away.  But I’m taking next week off, so I thought I’d go out on a limb and make some predictions now about the January 3rd caucuses.
Barack Obama will win the Democratic caucus in a landslide.  OK, that was too easy.  Let me take a stab at the Republican race.
For a while, it looked like Newt Gingrich was the one to beat, but the latest state and national polls show his popularity sliding.  As I observed in a previous column, all the other ABM (Anybody but Mitt) candidates enjoyed five to six week upswings in their poll numbers followed by sharp drop-offs.  Gingrich reached the six-week mark about 7 days ago – and right on cue, his poll numbers started to tumble.  [I’m beginning to think that an ADD epidemic has struck one-fifth of the GOP primary electorate.  The predictability of their fickleness is uncanny – and unnerving.]
Gingrich will continue to go down, and no matter what share of the vote he takes in Iowa, if he doesn’t win it, he will have performed below expectations.  And that is what will be focused on – performance against somewhat arbitrary, and often erroneous, expectations.
This brings us to Ron Paul.  He is surging in Iowa (and experiencing a slight but noticeable increase in his national support).  Among the four Iowa polls out this week, he leads the pack by 3 to 6 points in three polls (Insider Advantage, Iowa State U, PPP) and places second to Mitt Romney by 5 points in one (Rasmussen).
Are the polls accurate - will Ron Paul win Iowa?  It’s really too early to tell.  Iowa caucus polls are notoriously unstable even in the final weeks.  We saw this for both parties’ caucuses in 2008.  It wasn’t until the final Des Moines Register poll conducted just days before the last caucuses that we got a fairly accurate read of what would happen.
Dave Peterson from Iowa State’s Harkin Institute, one of the academics behind that poll, remarked, “I think Paul probably under-polls.”  I actually think it’s the opposite in this case – Paul is now over-polling, mainly because the demographic mix of voters in these Iowa caucus polls may unrepresentative of actual caucus-goers.
Keep in mind that approximately 610,000 registered Republicans and 705,000 registered independents are eligible to show up at the GOP caucuses.  In 2008, just 119,000 did.  In 2000, the turnout was about 88,000.  In other words, much less than 10% of the eligible electorate will show up.  Determining who they are for a poll is not easy
For one, most of the public pollsters rely on self-reported intentions of caucus attendance.  Unlike primaries where turnout records are publicly available, the Iowa Secretary of State does not maintain caucus attendance – the parties do.  If you want past turnout reports you have to buy those lists directly from the parties at a steep cost.  Furthermore, past caucus attendance is really not a good barometer of current intentions (again, unlike primaries).
Polling the Iowa caucuses is notoriously difficult.  Which brings us back to Ron Paul.  He does extraordinarily well among younger (i.e. under the age of 45), independent voters.  The released cross-tabulations from two polls demonstrate this.
The Insider Advantage poll shows Paul with nearly half the vote among “likely caucus goers” under the age of 30 and leading with 30% among those age 30 to 44.  He runs even with Romney (22% each) among those age 45-64, but Romney pulls ahead among those age 65 and over with Paul dropping to 5th place.  Among self-identified independent voters, Paul leads with 28%, compared to 19% for Rick Perry and 17% for Romney.  Among Republican partisans, Paul enjoys a narrow 22% to 20% edge over Romney, with Perry (15%), Gingrich (15%), and Michele Bachmann (11%) close behind.
The Iowa State Poll paints a similar picture.  Paul garners a clear majority of the vote among those under the age of 45.  However, Newt Gingrich has the lead among older voters.  It’s worth noting that the Iowa State Poll did two things that are different from most other polls.  They used a very long field period, starting their interviews on December 8, when Gingrich’s popularity was still at its height. They also used a panel sample – in other words, they re-interviewed a subset of the voters they spoke to in their November poll.  It’s unclear what impact the use of a panel has on their results, but the extended field period certainly does not capture the exceptional fluidity of this race.
I think that these polls may be inflating Paul’s support because they over-represent a segment of the electorate that is less likely to turn out.  Keep in mind that the caucuses are a long process.  You have to listen to hours of speeches from representatives of each candidate before you get to cast your vote.  And you have to do this on a cold Iowa workday.
Who’s more likely to show up under those conditions – younger, independent-minded voters or older, partisan stalwarts?  Exactly.  Now, this runs counter to what some other astute observers have opined.
I'm not saying there won’t be young voters at the caucuses.  It just won’t be as many as the polls suggest.  According to the 2008 Iowa exit polls (or technically “entrance” polls), 27% of GOP attendees were under the age of 45.  The Insider Advantage poll has this group at 40% of the electorate and Iowa State has them at 37%.  An October Des Moines Register poll noted that seniors are less likely to self-report intended caucus attendance than they have been in past years.  While I accept that, I'm not sure if young independents will be as motivated to come out as the more recent polls suggest (young conservatives may be a different story). 
The real issue here is partisan identity.  In the 2008 exit polls, 13% of GOP caucus goers identified themselves as “independent.”  However, voters of this affiliation make up 30% of the Insider Advantage sample and 38% of the Iowa State sample.  Even without a contested Democratic caucus to draw away some independents (as can be argued happened in 2008), there is no way that independents will make up anywhere near that proportion on January 3rd.
In the end, I predict – and here’s where I go out on a limb – that Mitt Romney will win Iowa with about 27% of the vote.  Ron Paul will come in a close second, but since many polls show him with a lead, he will be seen as having underperformed.  I also think the third place finisher will be Michele Bachmann (perhaps due to an influx of young conservatives).  She will not be far ahead of Gingrich and Perry in total votes, but her “surprise” showing will be the story of the caucus.
So with the media focused on Romney’s win (“Is he invincible?”) and Bachman’s better than expected performance, Ron Paul’s strong effort will likely get squeezed out of the media coverage.  And that’s what really matters as attention turns to New Hampshire and the South.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

NJ Congressional Redistricting Speculation

So here we go again.  Another New Jersey redistricting commission will sequester itself in New Brunswick’s Heldrich Hotel.  This time, Congress is up for grabs.  What will happen?  Who knows?  But we can speculate.
The outcome of Congressional redistricting is much harder to predict than this year’s legislative process.  For one, the New Jersey Constitution has a number of standards that limit how the legislative lines can be drawn (e.g. keeping municipalities whole), whereas it offers absolutely no guidance on the Congressional map.  Also, this year’s legislative tie-breaker, Alan Rosenthal, showed his hand early in the process, laying out a series of standards that pretty much locked him into choosing the Democratic map.  The Congressional tie-breaker, John Farmer, has avoided making any public pronouncements of the standards he will use.
The process begins with the commission’s Democratic and Republican teams each presenting a map for Farmer’s consideration.  It is certain that these initial maps will show 7-5 splits, 7 districts that favor their party and 5 that favor the other party.  Surprise, surprise!
Both sides will justify their maps under the guise of partisan “fairness.”  This is the principle that the distribution of Congressional districts should match the partisan inclinations of the statewide electorate.  Of course, this also means is that none of the districts should be competitive (which is basically what happened during the 2001 process).
In other words, the Democrats will argue that the state leans more Democratic, so they should have more districts.  The Republicans will do the same for their side.  Regardless of whose analysis is wrong or right, the fairness doctrine as a primary consideration lacks merit, because frankly it matters very little to New Jersey’s influence in Congress.  How exactly does it help the state if one extra Representative (out of 435 total) belongs to one party or the other?
Indeed, it could be argued that a 6-6 split actually gives our state its best chance at having influence.  Given the number of times control of the House has changed hands over the past few years, always having 6 members in the majority actually increases our chances of placing members high on the Congressional power list.
At any rate, Dean Farmer has indicated that he may be unwilling to entertain the fairness argument as an opening salvo.  He has publicly stated that the bulk of New Jersey voters are independent.  To be clear, this shows a misunderstanding of New Jersey’s electorate and how our lack of electoral competition discourages partisan voter registration.   However, I agree with what appears to be the underlying reason he has made these comments – the “fairness” doctrine simply should not be the primary consideration when redrawing New Jersey’s Congressional districts.
I have already laid out my general views on the matter, both in print and in testimony to the Commission.  New Jersey as a state has one of the least compact (i.e. most gerrymandered) Congressional maps.  In fact, New Jersey’s 6th District is considered one of the top ten offenders in the country.  Until we fix this lack of compactness and the consequent splitting of communities of interest, the people in each district will lack effective representation, regardless of “partisan fairness.”
For the sake of the state as a whole, I would like to see a map that does the following (these are general guidelines): 
Move District 1 slightly south to pick up more of Gloucester County and swing District 2 a little north to take in the parts of southern Ocean County that are in the Philadelphia media market.
Make District 3 primarily Burlington with bits of western Camden and southern Mercer so that it is almost entirely in the Philly media market.
Slide District 4 east so that it is a northern Ocean/eastern Monmouth district.
Consolidate District 6 into mostly northwest Monmouth and Middlesex.
Consolidate District 12 into Mercer and southern Middlesex/Somerset.
Make District 7 mainly a Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex district and expand District 11 north.
Expand District 10 into Union and make District 13 more contiguous by adding a little more of Hudson, Elizabeth and Newark.
Expand District 8 east, which basically means that the northern part of District 9 and the eastern part of District 5 would be combined.
I think these general guidelines would go a long way to increasing the representativeness and responsiveness of our Congressional delegation.
Now, I certainly don’t know whether any of this is in line with Farmer’s thinking.  A cloak of secrecy has been maintained over the entire process.  But from his few public statements, I think it is unlikely that Farmer will approve a map that give either side an easy majority in the delegation.  Furthermore, I think his preference for reducing New Jersey’s delegation from 13 to the required 12 will be to force a Democrat v. Republican “fair fight” rather than an intraparty face-off.  Finally, I think he will seek a map that reduces the likelihood that any of the state’s most influential members from either party will be significantly threatened.
To start with, Donald Payne (D-10) is safe under the Voting Rights Act – you can’t break up a district where a minority group comprises a majority of the voting age population.  Albio Sires (D-13) is also safe.  While his seat does not technically meet the threshold of being majority-Hispanic in voting age population, it is in total population.  It would be politically untenable to alter his district significantly.
The southern seats (Districts 1 through 4) are also safe, because they all have to march north.  It should be noted, though, that under my preferred scenario above, Jon Runyan (R-3) could find himself in a more competitive district.
Farmer is unlikely to be amenable to a map that significantly harms Frank Pallone (D-6) or Rush Holt (D-12) because they are likely to have influence in leadership if the Democrats regain control of the House in the near future. 
On the Republican side, influence is less clear.  Chris Smith (R-4) is the most senior member of New Jersey’s delegation, although he has had some conflicts with his leadership.  Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) also has longevity (both personally and in his family’s roots to the earliest governance of the American Republic) – so while he may not be the most influential member he is likely safe. 
Leonard Lance (R-7) is a relative newcomer, serving only his second term.  While this may make him vulnerable in terms of seniority, he is seen as having potential for future leadership in his party.  Furthermore, putting him at risk would mean pitting him against Holt or Pallone (see above).  So Lance is likely safe.
This leaves Scott Garrett (R-5), Bill Pascrell (D-8) and Steve Rothman (D-9).  Garrett was first elected in 2002 and is a darling of the Tea Party wing of his party.  This means he has no allies at the table in the redistricting process.
Pascrell and Rothman were first elected in 1996.  That actually gives them slightly more seniority than Rush Holt.  However, neither appears to have the same level of influence that Holt does.  Rothman did garner attention by being the first major Garden State politico to back Barack Obama in 2008, but this doesn’t seem to have paid any influence dividends.  My sense is that Pascrell may have more friends at the table than Rothman does.
Therefore, I see a mash-up of districts 5 and 9 as the most likely outcome of this process (although it’s hard to say right now if that would end up being a lean-Democrat or lean-Republican district).
Of course, I could be wrong.  But we won’t know that until white smoke emerges from the Heldrich.  In the meantime, all we can do is speculate.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Is Gingrich the Phoenix?

The latest Rasmussen poll has Newt Gingrich with a 21 point lead over Mitt Romney among Republican voters.  How did this happen?

Well, a few caveats.  First, there is no such “lead,” because there is no such thing as a national primary in which these candidates are competing.  At this stage of the game, the only polls that tell us anything at all about the race are those in Iowa and New Hampshire, and to a lesser extent, South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada.  Once the early contests winnow down the field, the preferences of the national “electorate” shift toward the leading contenders.  Although, I should note that Gingrich is ahead in recent polls from all of those states except New Hampshire (and Nevada where there have been no reputable polls).

Secondly, the Rasmussen poll results tend to swing much more widely on the “flavor of the month” candidate than other polls have.  So, I’m not sure that Gingrich is quite at 38% to Romney’s 17%.  But it does make a great headline, doesn’t it?

My examination of the GOP nomination preference polls over the past six months indicates that each candidate has a base of support.  For most – Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Gingrich – support levels consistently register between 5% and 10%.  For Romney, it hovers around 20%. 

According to the polling average, Romney’s support over the past six months has ranged from 17% to 25%.  Bachman’s support went as high as 14% in mid-July before tailing off.  Perry then zoomed over the 30% mark for a short time in mid-September before plummeting.  Then Cain reached a poll average of 26% in mid-October and held it for a couple of weeks before scandal caught up with him.  Now we see Gingrich averaging 27% nationally.

My rough read of these polls is that about 20% of the Republican electorate just can’t settle on a candidate.  [In the Rasmussen polls, it looks more like 30%.  I’m not sure why his sample has more of these fickle voters, but it certainly makes for more interesting results.]

The bottom line is that each of the prior “surging” candidates had a five or six week period where their numbers were ticking up, before topping off and dropping.  Newt’s numbers started to climb four weeks ago.  So the question for Newt Gingrich is whether he will peak too early (i.e. will his numbers start dropping by mid-month) or whether his rise is timed just right for a strong showing in Iowa on January 3rd.

Regardless, considering how the former House Speaker’s political obituary was written just a few months ago, his ascendance into the leading spot is shocking.  It’s even more astonishing, because he accomplished this while focusing his campaign strategy almost entirely on attacking the media, including his fellow travelers on Fox and syndicated radio.

I have to admit there’s something about his biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you approach that I admire.  It has made the press apoplectic.  “He’s using attacks on us to avoid answering substantive questions,” they say.  They’re right, of course, but what they miss is that Newt also has a point.  His criticism of how the press focuses on process over policy is generally on the mark.  And that brings us to where the GOP nomination battle stands today.

I recently did a radio interview about the polls on America Now with Andy Dean.  Dean used the analogy of college football bowl invitations to describe how Gingrich is overtaking Cain.  Basically, you have two teams with an 11 and 1 record.  One team has some quality wins but suffered one loss late in the season.  The other team had a horrible, embarrassing loss early on, but has managed to scrape out quiet wins for the remainder of the season.  Which team gets invited to the major bowl?  [I would have actually used the NCAA hoops Big Dance at-large bids, but you get the picture.]

It can be argued that Gingrich’s “sins” - both personal and political – are substantively more egregious than Cain’s.  However, since the Cain revelations are new and Gingrich’s have been known for some time, Gingrich is able to use Cain’s downfall to his advantage.

Can you spot the irony in all this?  Newt’s recent success can at least partially – if not mostly – be attributed to the “mainstream media” he has railed against.  The relevance of the Cain stories for Republican voters is largely because of how they are being highlighted in the press.  In media terms, the Cain story is sexy (excuse the pun) whereas the Gingrich story is old news.  The media have moved on because it no longer has the titillation factor (apologies again).

So if Newt can perform the unthinkable and wrest the nomination from Mitt he may have to send out thank-you notes to all those members of the press he blasted along the way.

Of course, there’s still a month to go before the first caucus.  That’s more than enough time for another Gingrich transgression to make its way into the mainstream media and scupper his chances.