Monday, October 24, 2011

Who is OWS and why should we care?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Does the Occupy Wall Street movement represent anything other than the protesters who have taken to the streets in New York and elsewhere?  Public opinion data indicates that they are tapping into widespread frustration with the political system, even if they don’t reflect the political ideology of most Americans.  And that makes this a movement worth watching.

So what drives those who are actively taking part?  One pollster, Democratic consultant Doug Schoen, actually waded into the throngs occupying lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and interviewed nearly 200 protesters.  While his methods didn’t necessarily adhere to the most rigorous polling practices, the results are suggestive.

Half of those interviewed are under the age of 30, but 1 in 7 are age 50 or older and most are employed.  In other words, this does not appear to be a “student” movement., although about half said this is the first time they got involved in any political activity.

Politically, 1-in-3 protesters identified with the Democratic party.  The remainder said they were independent or left of center.  However, this does not translate to unstinting support for the incumbent president.  More of the protesters interviewed actually disapprove than approve of the job Barack Obama is doing. 

They were also divided on whether TARP was necessary to help the economy.  They largely agreed, though, that the wealthiest Americans need to pay “more of their fair share.”  And a good number say they want to exercise the same kind of influence in the Democratic Party they feel the Tea Party has in the Republican Party.

The second question is whether these protesters speak for a larger segment of the population.  The answer to that is both yes and no.  A recent poll by the Associated Press found that 37% of Americans say they support the Occupy Wall Street movement.  By comparison, 28% say they support the Tea Party.

Although public support specifically for either movement is in the minority, it does appear that these groups have tapped into mounting public frustration with government.  Nearly 6-in-10 (58%) Americans say they are “angry” at the current state of U.S. politics.  That’s up from 49% at the beginning of the year.  Conversely, less than half (47%) of the public is “hopeful” about our political system, which is down sharply from 60%.

A recent Monmouth University poll asked New Jersey residents how different groups have benefited from current Washington policies.  At the bottom of the list was the middle class – only 1-in-10 felt this group has benefited a lot – even worse than either the poor or the wealthy.  At the top of the list was Wall Street, with half saying this group has benefited from government policies.

A recent study by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini found that the wealth of “ultra-high net worth individuals” grew by 11.5% in 2010.  On the other hand, the U.S. Census reports that "real" median household income is 6.4% below where it was just before the recession.  Another study indicates that incomes have fallen more since the economy officially began to recover in June 2009 than they did during the recession itself.

While most people aren’t aware of these statistics, the public feels there is a widening disparity fueled in part by government action or the lack thereof.  Polling indicates a growing frustration among the general public that politicians from both parties ignore at their own peril.  Both the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements are manifestations of this unsettled mood. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

2011 is No Referendum

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Governor Christie is becoming a pretty good public opinion analyst.  Earlier this week, he noted that the Occupy Wall Street movement is not unlike the Tea Party, saying that both grew out of an “underlying problem… that people feel like government is unresponsive and dysfunctional.”  His view is an accurate read of current polling data.

That demonstration of public opinion acumen follows Christie’s dead-on analysis of the upcoming legislative elections: "In the end, I don't think these Legislative elections are a referendum on Barack Obama or on me. I think they are a referendum on each one of these individual candidates in these individual districts."
Legislative elections are rarely referenda on the governor, 1991 being a notable exception.  And they are never a referendum on the U.S. President (despite some GOP backroom chatter trying to get us to think otherwise).  Heck, sometimes they are not even a referendum on the legislature!

Certainly, the governor is an overshadowing presence in any legislative election.  But there are no signs that this year’s contest will be a referendum in the classic sense.
Technically, a referendum is a direct vote by the electorate on a single question.  In that dictionary-definition sense, the only referendum on this year’s ballot is the non-binding one to allow sports betting in the state.
If we expand the term’s definition to its cultural context, a “referendum” can occur when a particular election is used to make a statement about a larger set of issues.  You can identify a referendum election in a number of ways.
After the fact, you can look at turnout.  A sign of a “referendum” election is when turnout is unusually high for all voters or a particular bloc of voters, or when there are noticeable swings in how people usually vote.
For example, since most Congressional seats are safe for the incumbent, the fact that control of the House of Representatives has changed hands twice over the past four years indicates there is some sort of referendum going on.  However, since it has gone back and forth between the parties, the message is unclear.  This goes back to Gov. Christie’s observation that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are really outgrowths of the same public sense that government is broken.
The 2009 gubernatorial election could have been a referendum on the Corzine administration. We saw big swings toward the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Middlesex and Gloucester counties and unprecedented turnout jumps in Monmouth and Ocean.  This suggests that many voters were thinking in terms of a referendum on Corzine, but the results did not trickle down to local races (except in Gloucester County).
The makings of a  referendum election can also be detected beforehand.  One clear sign is whether the political parties actively try to make it a referendum election.   A clue to this is whether they engage – i.e. spend money – on a comprehensive and cohesive messaging strategy.
In New Jersey right now, we see no such effort.  The Democrats are not running advertisements in the New York and Philadelphia media markets saying “We need to push back on the harmful Christie agenda.”  Republicans are not littering the state with flyers saying:  “We have to take control of the legislature to speed up Governor Christie’s reforms.”
That’s just not happening.  Follow the money.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports, there are only five districts where the challenging slate has raised more than $100,000 – districts 1, 11, 14, 27, and 38.  In each of those cases, the incumbent team has outraised the challengers by more than 2 to 1.
Only two other districts show both sides with sizable campaign warchests.  District 7 is a Burlington County split district where the Democrats have outraised the Republicans $725,000 to $436,000 and district 2 in Atlantic County is a split district where each party’s ticket has raised nearly $950,000.
Another source of money is the state party and legislative leadership committees, and their finance reports show no major expenditures on a statewide communications strategy.  If this were a referendum, we would also see the state wealth spread across many local races.  Looking at just the official state committees, funds have been distributed to only a handful of districts – 2, 3, 7, 14, and 38 on the GOP side and 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 14, and 38 for the Democrats.
Neither side is making this a referendum on Gov. Christie.  That’s because neither side could win such a referendum.  The legislative map is doing exactly what it was designed to do – lock in the status quo.  There is practically no way that either party can pick up more than a couple of seats in this election.  Thus, regardless of the outcome, both sides would “lose” a referendum vote.
This is not to say that Christie won’t be a presence in this campaign.  Republican voters like him.  Democrats don’t.  Expressing those sentiments will be a part of their vote.  But would they vote any differently for legislature if Christie wasn’t governor?
Be careful with polls that purport to show a referendum brewing.  Read the wording of those poll questions carefully.  Of course Christie is going to have “something” to do with how a person votes in this election.
The real question is whether the governor’s presence in this race is going to get a significant number of people either to change how they normally vote or to turn out when they normally would not.  And the answer to that is a resounding “No.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Anatomy of a Rumor

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

He meant it.  The answer was “no” all along.  But Gov. Christie made a couple of claims during the Q&A part of his press conference that bear further analysis.  He said that the press was careless in how they reported this and that no one believes he stoked the media hype.  I agree with one part of that but disagree in part with the other.
First, it’s clear that the press still doesn’t understand what “reconsidering” meant to Christie.  He was not reconsidering turning his “no” into a “yes.”  He was reconsidering whether he would turn his “no” into a “maybe.”
I know this may be hard for some to understand, but Christie’s thought process is not always black and white.  There are grey areas.  The events of the past week gave the governor pause about whether he should simply entertain the possibility of running for president.  He said he never moved off his “no” and I for one believe him.
Here’s how we know.  In the “maybe” stage of a presidential campaign, your advisors start putting out feelers to key donors and campaign operatives across the country, particularly in the early primary states.  This did not happen.   Many of those key people made ON THE RECORD statements that they never heard from Christie’s circle.  That means he never truly reached the “maybe” stage in his thinking.  Got it?
Now, how about the idea that Christie – or more accurately his inner circle with the governor’s tacit approval – didn’t help fan the flames of the speculation that he was a “maybe”?  Well, that’s another story.
Over the past year, any report that surfaced citing unnamed sources who claimed Christie may reconsider was immediately shot down by a definitive on-the-record statement by someone in Christie’s inner circle, usually Bill Palatucci.  That was true up until a week ago – the morning of the speech at the Reagan Library in fact – when the governor’s brother was the last advisor to speak on the record about Christie’s lack of presidential ambitions for 2012.
And then those sources went dark.  We didn’t hear from them again until today.  Perhaps they were on a retreat at a Tibetan monastery and missed all the fun?  But while they were silent, the same reporters who were quoting them on-the record to dispel the Christie rumors were suddenly using unnamed sources “close to the governor” to keep the speculation going.  Coincidence?  Maybe.  And then again, maybe not.
Regardless, we already saw signals that the Christie camp wanted someone – i.e. the deep-pocketed donors that he was about to hit up on his cross-country fundraising tour – to get the impression he might not be a solid “no.”  The TV ad by a supportive 501(c)4 and the Tom Kean revelation are all indications that the Christie camp wanted to keep that chatter alive.
I really can’t fault the governor for that.  You raise a lot more money as a presidential possibility than as just the governor of New Jersey.  The boatloads of cash he presumably raked in for other candidates will only help him further his political career when he calls in a favor down the road.  And he is bringing some of that money back to the state GOP coffers to bank for his 2013 re-election bid.  I don’t have any problem with governor wanting to prime the pump.  It’s just that his camp’s active participation in fostering this speculation was probably unnecessary.
So, if the governor’s inner circle wanted that speculation to continue, how was the press careless in its reporting?
Up until the Reagan Library speech, Christie probably had not really entertained a move to “maybe” status.  The speech changed that.  It’s certainly understandable given the setting and the national attention it garnered.  So he asked his advisers for some time alone to consider whether he even wanted to start the exploratory wheels rolling.  Fair enough.
That was the point, though, at which the anonymous source reporting flew into high gear.  It seems as soon as one media outlet got an unnamed source to confirm the governor was “reconsidering,” all the other outlets fell over themselves to get an unnamed source of their very own.  [By the way, kudos to those New Jersey news outlets that had access to reliable anonymous sources but did not succumb to the pressure to use them.]
In that frenzy, I don’t feel that these reporters were as skeptical about their sources as they should have been.  I’ve talked to a lot of New Jersey reporters during the past week and I do believe they followed all the proper journalistic procedures about using anonymous sources.  I am fully confident that these sources had proven to be reliable in the past and were in a position to know what the governor was thinking.  [Unlike many of the national reporters, who might as well have been talking to Kevin Bacon for as close as their sources actually were to Christie.]
Among those who did rely on unnamed sources, I don’t sense there was enough skepticism about their sources’ motivations.  Why did these sources need to go off the record?  Anonymous sources can have a variety of motivations.  They may want to prove to reporters that they have access to information – everyone likes feeling important.  They may actually have access to information that the public needs to know (think Watergate).  Or they are using the press to float a trial balloon.
We can probably knock out the first two and focus on the third.  Fair enough.  These sources felt it was in Christie’s strategic interest to keep this story alive.  But what exactly did they say to these reporters?
Obviously, I don’t have access to reporters’ notes, but from their published articles, it appears that the most knowledgeable sources were choosing their words very judiciously.  Christie was “reconsidering” his earlier no.  That was it.  No more, no less.
Furthermore, Christie apparently had conversations with other Republican leaders about his run.  No surprise there.  But the sources must have framed that information in such a way that reporters got the impression that these leaders were actively trying to get Christie into the race.  I suspect the words were parsed very carefully and reporters under pressure to “get the story” may not have spent as much time dissecting the language as they should have.
So when Christie said no to 2012 once and for all, he used the opportunity to call the media’s reporting “careless.”  And while he didn’t mention Josh Margolin by name, the governor honed in on the New York Post “exclusive” that included a statement that Nancy Reagan was “prodding” him to get into the race.   
What’s interesting about this particular instance is that Josh Margolin has had a good relationship with the governor.  The governor was a major source for The Jersey Sting, the book Margolin wrote with former Star-Ledger colleague Ted Sherman.  Christie even headlined their book launch party in March.  So if anyone was going to get real inside information about this story, it would be Margolin, right?  That’s what we all thought, but apparently not, since the governor called that part of his story “careless.”
Now, I may be wrong about any or all of this (although I doubt it). But the point is, if the media gets carried away with relying on anonymous sources whose motivations may be questionable, they shouldn't be surprised if those of us who follow this stuff closely become highly skeptical of what we are reading.