Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What Chris Christie Really Said

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
The reaction to Chris Christie’s speech in a nutshell?  Hard core Republicans are disappointed he didn’t call Barack Obama an “idiot” and hard core Democrats are disappointed he did not say he was “tired of dealing with the crazies” in his own party.  If you look past these unrealistic expectations, though, you will find a speech that is a throwback to loftier days of partisan battles.  Chris Christie  engaged in the kind of rhetoric that politicians should use more often.
Yes, you read that correctly!  Let me explain.
First we need to acknowledge that this speech was more about Chris Christie than anything else.  I think the Romney camp would have been happier if he delivered only the middle part of the speech, where he laid out the differences between Republican and Democratic ideas and gave a rousing call for Mitt Romney’s leadership. 
If you read between the lines, though, he laid out a clear and compelling vision of where he wants the Republican Party to position itself.  He told us what he feels the Republican Party – and by extension, American politics – should be about.
Keep in mind, I am not judging his speech on its accuracy.  Certainly, when he talked about balancing the budget with “lower taxes,” a typical New Jerseyan’s income and property tax statements may tell a different story.  Moreover, claims that his brand of “bipartisanship” is transferable are debatable. 
However, to judge his speech solely on its accuracy is an unfair test.  All political speeches bend the truth.  The question is how much confidence in our political system was evident in this speech. 
An odd question, to be sure.  But if you listen to the partisan din coming from both the left and the right, our country’s political dialogue has degenerated.  Political debate has boiled down to competing assertions that Armageddon is imminent if the other side wins.
Hard-core partisans of both stripes give lip service to the “genius” of our system of government, but their words tell a much different story.  Their fire and brimstone rhetoric reveals a deep-seated lack of faith that our republic can survive four years of being governed under a political philosophy other than their own.
It’s not that they simply disagree with the other party’s agenda – it’s that the other party’s agenda by definition, is the handiwork of Satan.  And unfortunately, when these hard core ideologues gain power, they create the kind of gridlock that proves them right.  Perhaps our system of government is in peril – not because either side is completely wrong, but because neither side is completely right and isn’t humble enough to admit it.
It’s on this measure that I judge Chris Christie’s speech a success.
The governor talked about the Republican Party being the party that is willing to talk in hard truths and hard choices.  And how Republican leadership leads to success.  He also drew clear distinctions between the two parties – about who they stand with and what they believe.  He attacked Democrats to be sure – as the party afraid to face hard truths and make tough choices; the party that believes people are not willing to make sacrifices; and the party that stands more with unions than workers.  He even got in a dig against the incumbent president being overly concerned with opinion polls.
He summed up his view of the Republican brand by saying “Our ideas are right for America and their ideas have failed America.”  He could have easily said that the Democrats’ ideas have “destroyed” America, as others in his party have.  So, it is commendable that he did not engage in, literally, destructive rhetoric.
What he avoided talking about at all is also revealing.  Earlier in the convention, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell summed up much of the day by boiling down the GOP platform to “the sanctity of life, the 2nd amendment, and a balanced budget” – apparently in that order.
That’s why it was glaringly obvious that priorities number 1 and 2 were completely absent from Christie’s speech. He was saying regardless of what we personally believe on social issues they should not dominate our political discourse.  Christie’s ability to separate his views on social issues from his governing agenda has brought him success in New Jersey.  Of course, the question remains whether he can become a national contender without taking on those issues, but his speech indicated that he’s going to try.
In the end, hardcore partisans – those who reside in their respective echo chambers – emerged with strongly divergent views of Christie’s performance.  But I was most intrigued by the feedback I heard from some longtime Democratic voters who watched the speech.
They are not fans of Chris Christie and don’t agree with his policies here in New Jersey.  As may be expected, they didn’t think he gave a great speech.  However, the most telling commentary from these Democrats was that the speech “didn’t bother” them.  They would never vote Republican, but they weren’t fearful of the vision Christie laid out.
So, I judge Chris Christie’s speech a success because he was able to be partisan without demonizing the other side.  And that is a major step in the right direction.
Of course, we’ll have to see if this kindler, gentler Christie is still evident at his next Jersey Shore boardwalk confrontation.  For one night, though, Chris Christie gave us a glimpse of what a respectful, partisan campaign can look like.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Paul Ryan’s Impact on Undecided Voters

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Looking at it from a number of ways, it’s difficult to see how the selection of Paul Ryan as vice presidential nominee makes Mitt Romney’s path to 270 Electoral College votes any easier.
This has nothing to do with Congressman Ryan’s qualifications to be Vice President.  He’s smart, thoughtful and policy driven.  He clearly passes the primary hurdle:  Can this person step in if something happens to the President.  By that measure, Mitt Romney made a solid pick that reflects well on his decision-making ability as a potential Chief Executive – which is after all how voters really assess the meaning of the VP selection.
Moreover, Paul Ryan has the potential – albeit untested – to be good on the stump.  His personable demeanor and command of the issues should serve him well in that capacity.
The primary reason for rating this pick as a net negative is how it changes the narrative in a way that likely makes it easier for Barack Obama’s campaign to pick up voters who matter most.
As with other recent presidential contests, this race comes down to just 20% of the potential electorate in about a dozen swing states.  Most states are too “red” or “blue” to be in play. And even in the few competitive states, about 4-in-5 voters have already locked in their choice.
Many proponents of the choice point out that Paul Ryan should play well among voters in those states.  And I fully expect that polls from now through the Tampa convention will give Romney a bounce.  But it’s important to look past the ephemeral horse race numbers and examine the underlying dynamic on the issue that may now drive this race – namely, who is better positioned to use Medicare to their advantage.
While polls show that voters tend to side with Ryan on debt reduction, past history shows that national debt and federal budget deficits take a back seat to other issues for undecided voters.
Here’s my initial take on why the pick was made and why it may be a net negative.
Some say Romney needed to energize his base.  That’s baloney.  As the GOP primary exit polls indicated – supporters of Romney’s more conservative opponents would eventually get in line.  He might have some trouble with the Ron Paul crowd, but they lack an alternative in November.
By election day, antipathy toward Obama would make the GOP electorate a sure bet to turn out.  Furthermore, Romney’s stellar fundraising numbers suggest that any lack of enthusiasm his campaign is hearing from conservative activists is out of proportion to its practical impact.
Some also say a “boring” pick would have dragged down the ticket.  Wrong.  That news “story” would have lasted a week.  It would have taken a back seat by Tampa specifically because of its lack of controversy.
Some say Romney needed to take control of the narrative.  This part is true.  But the Ryan pick doesn’t do that.  And here’s where the risk lies.
Up until now the election was about jobs and the economy.  Paul Ryan charged in his first appearance as the putative nominee that Pres. Obama was able to get every item on his agenda passed in his first two years and things still didn’t get better.  The Romney campaign has not been able to focus undecided voters fully on this message.
However, rather than changing the narrative, the Ryan pick actually amplifies the trajectory of the current one.
To date, the Obama camp has nullified the Romney attacks by basically making a tacit admission that they haven’t been successful in sparking job growth, but they have tried. The underlying message is that at least they care about it, whereas Mitt Romney is, at best out of touch and at worst contemptuous of the middle class.
Mitt Romney now has to answer for the Ryan budget plan, despite his claim that he has his own plan.  And that doesn’t change the narrative, but amplifies the current one.  The Obama line now will be:  “Not only does Romney want to kill jobs, he wants to take away your safety net too.”
Those attacks can be characterized as distortions and perhaps outright lies.  But it doesn’t matter when you understand what best motivates the 20% of voters up for grabs in those swing states.  And that is fear.
These are people who, for the most part, have been able to hold on to their jobs and muddle through the economic doldrums.  But they aren’t enthused about the incumbent’s performance.
A good number of these potential voters were Obama supporters in 2008.  They won’t vote for a Republican, but were likely to sit this one out.  They are doing okay and don’t see Romney as a threat to their current well-being.  However, they are counting on Medicare coverage because they won’t have enough money to pay for private health care when they retire.  These are the sleeping dogs that the Ryan pick now threatens to waken.
Other voters in that 20% block are typical undecided voters.  They don’t pay close attention to policy and tend to vote with their gut.  It’s much easier to make someone afraid of the unknown than the known.  And that probably means that Florida, where the current polling average has the race at 1 or 2 point margin, is probably now off the table.
On the face of it, the Ryan pick should have been a boon to voters.  It took an esoteric debate about management style and potentially raises it to a dialogue about clearly different visions on government’s role in society.
Unfortunately, that conversation will be drowned out by what will probably be the nastiest presidential campaign of the media age.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Don’t Forget the Guys!

 Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

While her husband John spent the sweltering summer of 1776 pushing for a new American government, Abigail Adams famously reminded him: “Don’t forget the ladies.” That certainly seems to be a rallying cry for the current U.S. Senate race in New Jersey. 

The bottom line, as described in more detail here, is that GOP challenger Joe Kyrillos took a week in August to make a public push for the “women’s vote.”  The campaign of Democratic Senator Bob Menendez immediately pushed back, saying that Kyrillos’ legislative voting record was poor on “women’s issues.”

The partisan gender gap in voting has been well established. While the Republican nominee doesn’t expect to win New Jersey women outright, he is probably hoping to lose by a narrow margin, similar to what Chris Christie accomplished in his successful 2009 run for governor.

It’s worth taking a look at how the exit poll that year broke down the vote by gender.

2009 Christie  Corzine    Net
 Women    45%    50%    -5
 Men    53%    40%  +13

Christie lost the female vote by just 5 points on the strength of questioning whether Corzine’s policies benefited New Jersey families. But gubernatorial elections are not the same as campaigns for national office, where a different set of issues are at play.

So it’s also worth looking at the vote by gender for the last two U.S. Senate races, both won by Democrats

2008 Zimmer  Lautenberg    Net
 Women     41%       58%   -17
 Men     45%       54%     -9

2006  Kean     Menendez     Net
 Women     41%          57%    -16
 Men     48%          49%      -1

In each of those two races, the Republican candidate lost the vote of women by 16 to 17 points. So, how does the current race look when it comes to voting by gender?

2012 Women Kyrillos  Menendez   Net
Quinnipiac 7/18     30%      52%  -22
Monmouth/APP 7/26     29%      43%  -14
FDU Public Mind 8/2     30%      44%  -14

According to the last three polls covering this race, Joe Kyrillos is trailing among women by anywhere from 14 to 22 points. This is much more in line with recent senate elections than it is with the most recent gubernatorial contest.

The polls also reveal another interesting dynamic of this race. Currently, Joe Kyrillos trails among men in the polls, by anywhere from 4 to 10 points.

2012 Men Kyrillos   Menendez   Net
Quinnipiac 7/18     38%      43%    -5
Monmouth/APP 7/26     36%      40%    -4
FDU Public Mind 8/2     36%      46%  -10

Chris Christie may have lost the female vote in 2009, but he won the male vote by 13 points, accounting for his more than 3 point win that year. The two GOP Senate candidates lost the male vote – Dick Zimmer by 9 points in 2008 and Tom Kean, Jr. by 1 point in 2006.

In other words, Christie did not win in 2009 by closing the gender gap. In fact the gap was even wider than the two prior senate contests. He won men by 13 points and lost women by 5 points – an 18 point net gender gap. This compares to a net gap of 8 points in the 2008 senate race and 15 points in 2006.

If Joe Kyrillos wants to close in on Bob Menendez, does he need to do better among women or among men? The answer is both.