Tuesday, June 19, 2012

New Jersey Elections: The View from June

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

If June’s Garden State polls are any indication, 2012 is shaping up a lot like 1996 – at least as far as the Presidential contest is concerned.  And maybe the U.S. Senate race, too... maybe.

The latest Eagleton-Rutgers Poll gives President Barack Obama a 55% favorable to 33% unfavorable rating from Garden State voters.  Sixteen years ago, then-incumbent Bill Clinton held a nearly identical 53% to 35% June rating in New Jersey.
The 1996 poll also gave Clinton a 46% “excellent+good” to 52% “fair+poor” rating.  We don’t have a comparable job rating question this time around.  Nowadays, polls tend to ask a straight “approve/disapprove” question.  However, Eagleton did ask New Jersey voters whether Bill Clinton deserved to be re-elected – to which 51% said yes.  A Quinnipiac Poll last month put Obama’s re-elect number at a nearly identical 52%.
What does this mean? Anything can happen, but given that incumbent elections tend to be referenda on their first terms, Obama is doing as well as Clinton on these underlying benchmark measures.
The 1996 also asked about vote intention.  I am wary of making a direct comparison to current polls because that question was the 17th asked, after a series of questions about familiarity with the candidates.  Current polls tend to ask the vote preference question much sooner in the interview – which has a differential impact on the results.
For what it’s worth, though, the 1996 Eagleton Poll showed Clinton leading Bob Dole by 19 points (53% to 34%).  He won the state by a nearly identical 18 points that November.  Recent New Jersey polls have Obama over Mitt Romney by anywhere from 10 points (Quinnipiac, May 16) to 14 points (Eagleton, June 16).
There’s another interesting factor shared by these two elections – a U.S. Senate seat is also at stake.  The June 1996 Eagleton Poll showed Democrat Bob Torricelli leading Republican Dick Zimmer by 8 points (39% to 31%) in that contest – about half the incumbent President’s poll margin.  Torricelli eventually won that race by 10 points – again, about half the incumbent President’s winning margin.
Recent polls on this year’s New Jersey Senate race put the gap at about the same as the Presidential contest.  A Quinnipiac Poll released last month had incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez leading GOP challenger Joe Kyrillos by 10 points – the same as their Obama-Romney margin.
Of course, GOP boosters point to the 2000 anomaly, where Al Gore bested George W. Bush by 16 points in the Garden State, but had no coattails.  Jon Corzine squeaked past Bob Franks by 3 points, despite spending an astronomical $60 million on the effort.
In June 2000, both Eagleton and Quinnipiac gave Gore a narrow 4 point polling edge in New Jersey, while Corzine held a much wider lead – 10 points in the Eagleton poll and 20 points according to Quinnipiac.  Obviously, these trends flipped by Election Day.
On the other hand, 2012 may be more like 1996 than 2000 since the top-of-ticket coattails belong to an incumbent President.  There is also a difference between 2012 and 1996 that shouldn’t be overlooked.  The current race involves an incumbent Senator while the 1996 contest was for an open seat.
Sixteen years ago, only 1-in-5 voters had formed an opinion of either Senate nominee by this point in the race.  In the current cycle, that 1-in-5 number holds true for Kyrillos – 12% favorable to 8% unfavorable according to Eagleton.  As may be expected, voters are much more familiar with the sitting incumbent, giving Menendez a 33% positive to 20% negative rating in the same poll.  It is worth noting, though, that this six year officeholder is still largely unknown to 4 out of 10 of his constituents.
One factor that could make this race interesting is that the low level of familiarity means that only 26% of voters in an April Monmouth University Poll would definitively state that Menendez deserves to be re-elected.  Another 32% said he did not and 41% couldn’t make a determination either way.
That leaves a lot to ponder.  If these presidential ratings track as they did in 1996, does Obama win by 10 points in November?  And if so, does Menendez hold on to his current lead as well?  Or does the other 1996 dynamic emerge, with Menendez claiming only half the margin that the President gets – thus making it a close race with Kyrillos?
Or does Obama’s vote share start to climb and Menendez’s start to drop over the next few months, a la 2000?
These are just a few potential scenarios based on past performance.  Something to ponder this summer while you are down the shore enjoying a Windmill hot dog or Kohr’s custard.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

NJ Primary Takeaway

Well, not everything turned out as I expected, but I’ll fall back on the fact that I called the winner in every raced involving someone who will actually serve in Congress next year.  (How’s that for spin?)

Turnout was a little higher than I expected.  When all the votes are counted it looks like it might be about 11%.  Specifically, GOP turnout was about 40,000 voters greater than in a typical primary, driven by the novelty of an already-decided Presidential nomination.  But it was Democratic turnout in just two Congressional Districts that put the statewide turnout figure over the 10% mark.  Approximately 110,000 Democratics voted in those two districts alone.  That's about 60-70,000 more than we would expect in a typical primary!
On the headline event of the night, I was right on the winner, Bill Pascrell, but no one – including the victor’s camp – ever dreamed of the numbers he would put up in Passaic County.  Steve Rothman’s negative campaign led to the expected low turnout in Bergen, but not in Passaic, where Pascrell’s ground game – aided by Bill Clinton’s endorsement – contributed to the stunner of the night.
In the 10th district, the race wasn’t as close as I thought it would be – not anywhere close to where I thought it would be. Ron Rice, Jr. intended to challenge the incumbent Congressman, Donald Payne, Sr. before he died, and so had been preparing for a battle.  The Essex County machine had a point to prove against this rabble rouser and turned out monster numbers in the Oranges and elsewhere. Moreover, they were able to produce the same margins in Union County.  Rice may be a tenacious campaigner in Newark, but he go his hat handed to him, barely edging out Nia Gill for a dismal second place finish, 40 percentage points behind the winner, Donald Payne, Jr.
I also, thought that the Monmouth County GOP organizational pick in CD6 would take the nomination over 2010 upstart, Anna Little.  While Little had the Middlesex line, there seemed to be less overall enthusiasm for her grass-roots candidacy this time around.  Moreover, I thought – foolish me – that the Monmouth GOP would make sure it did not suffer a repeat of their candidate’s loss two years ago.
I guess I gave them too much credit.  In 2010, only 14,000 Republicans showed up to vote in the CD6 primary.  In the newly expanded district, that number actually dropped to less than 11,000.  Monmouth party pick, Ernesto Cullari claimed only 2,400 votes in the Monmouth portion of the district! District-wide, he got his clock cleaned, losing the nomination by 40 points.  The Monmouth County GOP has a history of anemic GOTV operations and I know there was little real enthusiasm for Cullari.

But really?! Only 2,400 votes? In some cultures, the Monmouth GOP would be compelled to light itself on fire in the village square from the shame of it all.
Alright, that’s enough ragging.  So what’s the big takeaway for New Jersey from yesterday’s primary?
The few competitive races hinged on settling personal scores more than articulating differing visions of government or the future of the party. 
With that behind us, it’s on to November.  And to save us all some time, I’ll just make most of my picks right now, thanks to the New Jersey redistricting commission:
President: Obama wins the state’s 14 electoral votes
US Senate: Too early to call
CD1: Andrews
CD2: LoBiondo
CD3: Too early too call
CD4: Smith
CD5: Garrett
CD6: Pallone
CD7: Lance
CD8: Sires
CD9: Pascrell
CD10: Payne
CD11: Frelinghuysen
CD12: Holt
LD4: Mosquera
LD16: Too early to call
LD26: DeCroce

Monday, June 4, 2012

NJ Primary Day Outlook

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ
New Jersey primary day is upon us.  There is no significant, over-arching story here.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is just making up things.
Expect a little over 400,000 voters to show up.  That’s less than 10% of eligible voters.  Or about 15% if you just count registered Democrats and Republicans.  This turnout level has been typical for the past decade or so.  [One exception: the February 2008 Presidential primary turnout of more than a third of New Jersey’s electorate.]
So with nothing driving a statewide narrative, let’s go to the play-by-play.
The Bergen-Passaic Smackdown.  Early money gave the edge to Steve Rothman because more voters in this newly-redrawn district knew him as their incumbent Congressman.  But the tide has shifted over the past couple of weeks.  Rothman launched an attack on Bill Pascrell’s “progressive” credentials.  And then kept piling on.  Democratic primary voters predisposed to identify with Rothman’s strident ideology grew a little uneasy with his relentless assault against a fellow Democrat.  That tinge of doubt was enough to provide Pascrell an opening.  And he was handed the golden ticket of a Bill Clinton endorsement.  There are only two people who could possibly sway on-the-fence Democratic primary voters and they are Presidents # 42 and 44.  Bottom line: a photo op in the White House with the incumbent (or the endorsement of a surrogate) is no match for the full-throated support of a Democratic Party Goliath.  Winner:  Pascrell
What could have, and perhaps should have, been a wide open race to fill the seat of deceased Congressman Donald Payne ended up being an endorsement of his legacy – in the form of Donald Payne, Jr. – by most of the party faithful in Essex County.  Most, but not all.  Newark Councilman Ron Rice is a tenacious campaigner.  Importantly, he claims support from the CWA and the SEIU – two unions who can be counted on to actually put feet on the street for GOTV.  If it were just a race between these two, I might give the edge to Rice.  However, the presence of State Senator Nia Gill (who has the line in a divided Hudson County) and Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith, along with two other candidates, will serve to split the “anti-legacy” vote.  Rice will take a fair share of the Newark vote and do well in the Union County portion of the district, but will come up short. Winner:  Payne (in a close contest)
2010 nominee Anna Little hopes lightning strikes twice and she knocks off the Monmouth County organization’s preferred candidate – this time, Ernesto Cullari.  But it just ain’t gonna happen.  It’s not because the party has gotten any better at GOTV.  Fewer than 14,000 Republicans voted in the last primary – and the only reason more will vote this year is that native son Joe Kyrillos is running for Senate.  The bigger issue is that some of Little’s key supporters have fallen out with her since the last race.  Winner:  Cullari
Conservative David Larsen is taking another crack at incumbent Leonard Lance.  Larsen has positioned himself as a true Reagan conservative.  Lance counters that Larsen didn’t even vote in the 1980 and 1984 Presidential elections.  Larsen fell 8,000 votes short two years ago and will do the same this time around.  Winner:  Lance
Other Races
Incumbents Rob Andrews (D1), Frank LoBiondo (R2), Chris Smith (R4), Scott Garrett (R5), and Albio Sires (D8) have token opposition.  State legislator Joe Kyrillos is facing three un-funded opponents in his bid for the GOP nomination to take on incumbent U.S. Senator Bob Menendez.  The party line picks will win easily in all those contests.
There are also battles to tilt at windmills – I mean, take on the incumbent from 3 Democrats in CD2, 3 Democrats in CD5, and 3 Republicans in CD9.  I don’t have any picks in those races, but it’s worth noting that one of the candidates is running under the slogan, “My Shelter Dog’s Name is Roscoe.”
There are also state legislative primaries in two seats.  Assemblywoman Betty DeCroce  (R26), who was appointed to fill her late husband’s seat, faces a challenge from Anthony Pio Costa.  DeCroce should win easily on name recognition alone.
The more interesting – interesting being a relative term here – primary is in the 16th District.  Democrats Marie Corfield and Sue Nemeth are battling it out to take on incumbent Assemblywoman Donna Simon, who was picked to fill the late Peter Biondi’s seat when he died shortly after the 2011 election.  Corfield – a teacher whose prior claim to fame was as the foil in one of Gov. Christie’s ubiquitous You-Tube moments – ran in that prior election and made a tight race out of what was expected to be an easy Republican win.  Princeton Councilwoman Nemeth claims to have a good ground game, but it will be difficult to overcome the fact that Corfield has the party line in 3 out of the district’s 4 counties.

Friday, June 1, 2012

What the Harris Defeat Means for Christie

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney sent Gov. Chris Christie a very clear message yesterday.  It wasn’t about the defeated Supreme Court nominee Bruce Harris or even the Court itself.  It was about the balance of power within the State House.
Ever since the calendar turned to 2012, legislative Democrats – specifically the leadership who worked closely with the Republican governor in his first two years – have looked for every opportunity to make life uncomfortable for Chris Christie. 
Part of this has to do with turning their attention to their own political ambitions – be it a run for Governor in 2013 or U.S. Senate in 2014.  Indeed, the governor himself has clearly switched to re-election mode, with Exhibit A being a tax cut proposal based on projected revenue growth that would have to outpace the Chinese economy.
While the next election is certainly a driving force in the Democrats’ increasing opposition to Christie, there is something more basic at work.  They’re ticked off at what they see as shabby treatment by the governor.
There are only so many times the governor can take the rhetorical bat out on you before it sticks.  Senator Sweeney’s final straw came last year when the governor caught his legislative compadre unawares on line-item vetoes.  The sense was that the governor understood the Democrats needed to pass their own alternative budget to save political face.  And that the leadership would be given the opportunity, behind closed doors, to protect specific items from the red pen, while the governor could still claim to have sliced the Democrats’ budget.  Christie was having none of that.
So this year, the Democrats embarked on a new tactic, forcing the governor to go on the record with a gay marriage veto and pushing for their own version(s) of a tax cut.  They made it clear that they would not approve Phillip Kwon’s nomination in March and let the governor know it.  That gave Christie the opportunity to rail that “the fix was in” before the process even started and that it was the Democrats, not him, who had politicized the process.
With the Harris nominations, the Democrats appear to have closed ranks and did not inform the governor beforehand.  They did not want to give him the same ammunition, even though it was clear to anyone at the hearing that the die had already been cast.  In fact, Senator Sweeney’s presence throughout the hearing sent the clear message that he was fully behind what transpired.
At the end of the hearing, a number of Democratic Judiciary Committee members said that their decision was about partisan balance – the unwritten tradition that no more than four members of the Supreme Court belong to the same party.
But it wasn’t really about partisan balance on the Court, it was about “Christie balance” between the executive and legislative branches.  Ever since the governor announced his choice of Kwon as the first Asian-American nominee and Harris as the first openly gay nominee, there was a palpable sense in Trenton that Christie was daring the legislature to shoot them down.  Well, they did.  Both sides played partisan politics.
By the way, if Governor Christie truly wants to challenge the Democrats, how about nominating two sitting judges with clear records of jurisprudence, who just happen to be Republicans?  I disagree with the Democrats’ view that Justice Jaynee LaVecchia should be “counted” as a Republican.  But putting up two known, well-qualified judges would make it clear that a refusal to approve would be purely partisan on the Democrats’ part.
During the hearing, Sen. Jen Beck remarked that Harris’s bond experience would bring some fresh perspective to the bench. Wouldn’t appointing Justices with a track record of appellate rulings bring an equally fresh perspective to the current Court?  Just a thought.
At the end of the day, all this intrigue is “inside Trenton” stuff.  The public doesn’t follow Supreme Court nominations and so it will have no direct impact on the governor’s positive approval rating.  However, the message that the Harris vote sends is that the Democratic leadership grows more and more willing to take on the Governor.  This could have a major public impact if this new approach continues throughout the budget process.
Gov. Christie still has very powerful tools on his side, namely the bully pulpit and the veto pen.  You still have to give him the edge in a battle of wills with the legislature.  But Sen. Sweeney and his fellow Democrats are finding ways to make life increasingly difficult.