Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Hampshire Vote Reveals Romney Challenges

[Acknowledgements:  The data for this analysis was made available by NBC News, where I was an exit poll analyst on primary night.]

Mitt Romney pulled off something no non-incumbent presidential candidate has done before:  won both Iowa and New Hampshire.  Victories in South Carolina and, more importantly, Florida could pretty much set the seal on this year’s GOP contest.
However, the New Hampshire exit poll indicates some potential challenges that lie ahead if Romney does indeed emerge as President Barack Obama’s opponent.
The first challenge is rallying the base behind him.  The good news:  two-thirds (66%) of New Hampshire GOP voters said they were satisfied with their choice of candidates.  Back in 1996, when Republicans were preparing to take on President Bill Clinton, fewer – 54% – said they were satisfied with the field.
The bad news:  6-in-10 Republican primary participants voted for someone other than Romney.  And as reported on MSNBC last night, 55% of those voters said they would be dissatisfied if Romney ended up the nominee.  [As a side note, many more Romney supporters would be upset if their guy lost the nomination to Rick Santorum (60%), Newt Gingrich (64%), or Ron Paul (72%).]
This is not particularly unusual since the competition is still active.  Partisans tend to get behind their nominee after the dust settles.  The real issue is whether less resolute Republicans – i.e. libertarian-minded voters – will do the same.  According to the exit poll, the problem may not be winning over supporters of Gingrich, Santorum & co – these voters are about evenly divided on whether they would be happy with a Romney nomination.  The bigger challenge would be convincing Paul voters, 68% of whom who would be dissatisfied if Romney was the Republican standard bearer.  The threat of a libertarian third party candidate poses real trouble.
One positive sign for Romney is that he did well among independent voters in New Hampshire.  This group was larger than in past contests.  A whopping 44% of voters on Tuesday said they were registered independent – or undeclared as it is called in New Hampshire.  In 2008, this group’s share of the Republican primary vote was lower at 34%.  And before anyone claims that this is because many independents voted in the Democratic primary last time around, note that undeclared voters made up just 27% of the New Hampshire GOP primary electorate in 1996 when the Democratic primary was uncontested.
It’s important to remember that independents who vote in a Republican primary – no matter how large a group they may be – are not representative of independent voters in a general election.  It is still good news for Romney, though, that he did well among these non-partisans – getting 32% of their vote to 30% for Paul.  In Iowa, Paul won the self-identified independent vote outright at 43%.
There are some other intriguing tea leaves in the New Hampshire exit poll results.  Republican primary voters said they want the next president to focus more on cutting the federal deficit even if it hampers job growth (60%) than work to create jobs if it widens the budget gap (40%).  That priority is not too surprising.  The Granite State has a 5.2% unemployment rate, the fourth lowest in the nation.
Independent voters elsewhere, especially in a general election, will be more concerned about jobs.  And Mitt Romney did well among New Hampshire voters who prioritized jobs over the deficit, winning 44% of this group.
One dark cloud, though, is that Romney is about to get hit hard on job creation.  A Super PAC supporting Gingrich has released a documentary about Romney’s career at Bain Capital – focusing on the jobs lost when Bain acquired and disposed of a number of other companies. They plan to use this in attack ads in South Carolina, which is up next on the primary schedule.
As NBC’s Chuck Todd observed, if you had asked six months ago whether Romney’s GOP opponents would be attacking the Massachusetts health care plan or his time as a corporate investor…  Well, you get the picture.
That means that Romney’s biggest problem now could be that his fellow Republicans are doing the Obama campaign’s work for them.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Democrats’ Gay Marriage Gambit

New Jersey’s legislative leadership announced today that their first bill of the new session will be legalizing gay marriage. 
Senate President Steve Sweeney, who abstained on this bill during the last days of Jon Corzine’s administration, now says he made a mistake.  Further, he says that his decision calculus two years ago was politically driven, but this time it is not.  Really?
I’m not saying that Sen. Sweeney has not had a change of heart on the issue.  I believe he has.  But to bring it up now, when it is all but certain that Gov. Christie will veto the bill makes it hard to overlook the political implications of making the governor go on record.
There were three key messages espoused by proponents at today’s press conference.  Each had a political undercurrent.  Let’s break them down.
Civil unions are a failed experiment” – This is an appeal to public opinion.  Polls show that New Jerseyans have become more supportive of gay marriage over the past few years.  An Eagleton-Rutgers Poll released in October found 52% of state residents saying gay marriage should be legal.  Some analysis I did a few years ago on the strength of this support indicates that majority support levels are soft and susceptible to shift.
So, public support for gay marriage is not definitively in the majority yet.  However, the same Eagleton poll found that support for “marriage equality” is decidedly in the majority at 61%.  If gay marriage advocates can convince the public that the only way to achieve this equality is through “marriage” they are on track to solidifying public support.
It’s a civil rights issue” – This is an appeal to the Democrats’ own base.  Two years ago, the gay marriage bill passed in the Assembly but garnered only 14 affirmative votes in the Senate.
Sen. Sweeney indicated that he will have the 21 votes needed for passage, but it’s uncertain if he will have any more than that.  And when Sen. Loretta Weinberg announced that Jen Beck “was going to try to be here” at the press conference, it suggested that the Republican senator’s support would be necessary.
Back in 2010, it was believed that Beck would be among a small group of GOP legislators to support gay marriage. She ended up voting no after then-Governor-elect Christie instructed his fellow Republicans not to saddle him with pressure from the right to repeal gay marriage as he entered office.
Beck had a change of heart last year and said she now supports gay marriage.  It’s probably only a coincidence that she made her support known after the new legislative map plonked Asbury Park in her district.
Beck has bucked from the GOP voting bloc before, specifically on women’s health center funding.  But in that case, her vote was not needed for passage.  If she really is the 21st vote on gay marriage, then you better believe the governor’s people will put a full court press on her to keep this bill from coming to his desk.
And that’s where the civil rights message comes in.  Two of the “no” votes in 2010 came from Ron Rice and Shirley Turner, two African-American senators.  It’s unlikely that Rice’s mind will be changed based on his comments during the debate two years ago.  That means Democrats are hoping that the civil rights argument will work on Turner and they won’t have to rely on Beck.
We hope Gov. Christie has a change of heart” – The Democrats may hope that, but there is no one who expects it.  And this is why the bill was brought up now.  It’s the opening salvo in the 2013 gubernatorial campaign.
A Christie veto – for which there is no chance of an override – will be used by Democrats to paint the governor as someone who is kowtowing to the right wing of his own party.  They will say he is more interested in his national political ambitions then in serving the people of New Jersey.
And what if the governor does have a change of heart and actually signs the bill – or lets it take effect without his signature?  Then he has pretty much kissed his national political future goodbye.
Either way, Democrats believe it’s a political win for them.
I’m not so sure.  Assuming that Christie vetoes gay marriage, there’s no guarantee that it will be a salient political issue in 2013.  Voters will be looking at their tax bills and overall economic well-being when deciding whether to give the governor another four years in office.
Looking at the latest poll numbers, Gov. Christie seems to be in fairly good position. Of course, two years is a long time and if his re-election prospects are iffy, then a gay marriage veto could be the deciding factor in a close race.
And that’s what the Democrats are really hoping for.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Christie, er, Romney Wins Iowa

Sure, it was only by 8 votes.  And the vote count probably wasn’t accurate.  And it has no bearing on the actual number of Iowa delegates he will get.  But Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses.  Just a few weeks ago, this seemed highly improbable.

So what happened?  A stealth organizing campaign and oodles of PAC spending on TV ads tearing down his opponents certainly played the major role.  But the on-the-ground presence of New Jersey’s governor in the final days before the vote will certainly be seen as a factor – certainly by Chris Christie’s supporters.

It’s difficult to say whether many actual caucus goers were swayed by Christie’s campaign appearances.  But he went there.  He got good press.  And Romney won.  Favor owed.  That’s good for Christie and good for New Jersey.

In the end, Romney did a couple points better than the 23% he was averaging in the final pre-election polls leading up to the vote.  This was just 2 points shy of the 27% win I predicted for him two weeks ago.

All the other candidates, but one, performed about a point or two below their pre-election poll numbers.  The exception was Rick Santorum, who finished more than 8 percentage points above his final pre-election average of 16%.

Basically, each of the other candidates lost a little support to Santorum in the final days and he and Romney split the remaining undecided vote.  It’s worth noting that Santorum did not hit double digits in any poll until fifteen days before the caucus.  He was steadily gaining support at the rate of a couple points a day in the final week.  The last poll interviews were conducted on January 1.  If polling had continued up to the caucus itself, he could have conceivably ended with a 23% showing in pre-election polls.

So the polls were not off the mark.  The major bone of contention over the pre-election polls was whether Ron Paul’s support was being accurately represented.  Many pundits noted that his firmly committed supporters were younger, and thus less likely to be included in a standard landline telephone survey.  I argued the opposite, that while they may be committed, the polls had too many independents in their sample and were thus over-representing the number of Paul supporters who would actually show up at a caucus. 

In the end, it was neither.  The final poll average for Paul was 21.5%.  He got 21.4% of the vote.  He won the independent vote with 43%.  This was lower than some polls had shown him doing among this group.  While 23% of caucus goers identifying themselves as politically independent was higher than the 13% who did so in 2008, it was also lower than some pundits had predicted.  In the end, the polling on Paul’s support was pretty much on target.

Interestingly, Iowa GOP voters who said the most important candidate quality was being a “true conservative” split their vote between the libertarian Paul (37%) and the socially conservative Santorum (36%).  This underlines a key issue in polling on political ideology – the meaning of these terms are in the eye of the beholder.

Mitt Romney used his Iowa victory speech to congratulate Santorum and Paul on their showings and on their campaigns in general.  He made it clear that he wants GOP voters to see this as a 3-way race.  If you put his remarks through the politi-speak translator, his message for voters in upcoming primary states is: “Your only choices to take on President Obama now are the far right wingnut, the libertarian wacko, or me!”

And that brings us back to Chris “I’m tired of dealing with the crazies” Christie.  Yes, he had a big night in Iowa.  But he has a lot of work ahead of him campaigning for Romney in other states where his Jersey charisma may hold some sway.  That’s probably not in the South, by the way.


P.S. One disappointing result for those of us who enjoy the spectator sport of all this was Michele Bachmann’s withdrawal after getting just 5% of the vote.  She barely exceeded the 4,800 votes she garnered at the Ames corndog straw poll spectacle in August.  I had predicted (hoped?) she would get her ground game in action and squeak out a narrow 3rd place finish. Boy, was I wrong!  [And it also demonstrates how extraordinarily fluid this race has been]