Wednesday, November 6, 2013

NJ Election Bullet Points

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 

2016 Outlook
Twenty point margin in a blue state?  Check.
Win the Latino vote?  Check.
Win women, perform well among union members and young voters?  Check.
Win these same voters in a hypothetical 2016 presidential match-up?  Oops.
Takeaway:  Issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, and minimum wage are not all that important to Democratic-leaning voters in New Jersey when they vote for governor.  [Something Barbara Buono never quite figured out.]  However, these issues become very relevant to these same “blue” voting blocs when they consider Christie as potential presidential timber.
There were none.  Zip. Zero. Nada.  In the first district, Assemblyman Nelson Albano was hoisted on his own petard.  It looks like there may be one GOP pick-up in the 38th that could be attributed to coattails.  That’s it.
The Democrats saw the Christie tsunami coming and realized they needed to ride that wave to survive.  They used his own “bipartisanship” mantra to tout their cooperation with the governor on key points.  Their GOTV effort worked hard to get voters to split their tickets – voting Republican for governor and Democratic for legislature.
The South Jersey incumbent legislators were particularly adept at this.  Take a look at the vote totals from the state’s five southernmost counties (Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester).  According to the unofficial results, Christie won these five counties with 143,799 votes to 76,623 for Buono.  However, the Democratic candidates for state Senate in these counties took 117,316 votes to 97,696 for the GOP slate. 
That means about 40,000 voters supported the Republican for governor and the Democrats for senate.  In other words, nearly 1-in-5 voters who went to the polls in those counties yesterday split their tickets – an amazing feat!
Just 38% of registered voters showed up yesterday.  That compares to 47% in 2009 – which set a then-record low for a governor’s race in New Jersey. Yesterday’s turnout is now the absolute lowest turnout on record of any November election where a statewide office (Governor/US Senate) topped the ballot.  The special Senate election three weeks ago – at 24% turnout – set the all-time low for any general election regardless of which office topped the ballot. 
Looked at another way, Gov. Christie won the support of 23% of registered voters to 15% for Buono, whereas 6-in-10 registered voters apparently cast their ballots for “meh!”
Bottom Line
Countervailing messages came out of yesterday’s election.  “The Governor” was a very powerful brand, but not much beyond that.  I fully expect that Team Christie will successfully highlight the positive and downplay the negative, as they have been doing for the past four years.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

2013 New Jersey Exit Poll Results

Please check back here throughout Election Night for updates on exit poll results from the 2013 New Jersey Governor election.

These polls stories were previously broadcast on NJTV.

The New Jersey exit poll was conducted for the National Election Pool (ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC) by Edison Research.

Updated 11:09pm


Well, the 2013 New Jersey Governor’s race is in the books.  Take a deep breath.  The 2016 race for the White House starts …  now!

How do the voters who gave Christie a landslide re-election victory view him as presidential material.  Well, not quite as much as they like him in the State House.  A bare majority of 51% say that their governor would make a good president.  Among Christie voters today, that number stands at 79%.  In fact, 16% of the voters who supported him today said that they don’t see him as a good fit for the Oval Office.

In fact, if Christie winds up facing Hillary Clinton in a 2016 all-star match-up he would lose his home state by 4 points – 48% for Clinton to 44% for Christie.  That result is from the same voters who just gave him an overwhelming victory tonight.

One of the problems facing Christie is that the popularity of his personal brand is overshadowed by negative views of the Republican party on the national stage.  Just 4-in-10 (38%) of New Jersey voters hold a favorable view of the GOP.  This is significantly less than the majority of 51% who hold a favorable view of the Democratic party.

The Tea Party proves to be a particular drag on the Republican brand in New Jersey.  Just 1-in-5 voters (18%) support the Tea Party movement, 35% are neutral, and nearly half of Garden State voters (45%) hold a negative view.

Even among New Jersey Republicans, just 3-in-10 (31%) say they support the Tea Party.  Another 52% are neutral and 15% are opposed.   The question is whether Christie has the support to appeal to Republicans in other states.  Exit polls from the 2012 caucuses and primaries showed that 64% of GOP voters in Iowa supported the Tea Party as did 51% of New Hampshire Republicans.  That’s a much different Republican Party than the one Christie leads in New Jersey.

Updated 11:01pm


What were New Jersey voters thinking about as they went to the polls today?  Of the four issues asked about in the exit poll, the economy was considered the most pressing concern.  Nearly half (49%) of Garden State voters say the economy is the most important issue in their vote for governor today.  Taxes come in second at 22% and education in third at 15%.  Only 6% of New Jersey voters said that same-sex marriage was the main issue driving their vote decision.

So let’s take a look at the issues on the top and bottom of that list.  First, the economy.  New Jersey voters gave Gov. Christie a big vote of confidence on that issue despite Sen. Buono’s charge that the state’s recovery lags behind the rest of the region.  Nearly 2-in-3 voters (64%) approve of Christie’s handling of the economy.  Only 35% disapprove.

The governor’s veto of same-sex marriage legislation is another issue highlighted by Buono in the hope of gaining traction on the incumbent.  Public opinion seemed to be on her side.  Fully 6-in-10 New Jersey voters (60%) support legalizing same-sex marriage.  Only 36% oppose it.

Buono performs well among same sex marriage supporters, pulling in 49% of this group’s vote today.  However, 49% still voted for Christie despite his veto of the legislation.

The recent New Jersey court decision to permit same sex marriage may have undercut the challenger’s ability to make this more of an issue, but pre-election polls suggested it was never going to be an issue that would motivate large swaths of voters.

The exit poll confirms that it was the economy rather than same sex marriage that ruled the day.

Updated 11:00pm


This campaign was certainly a study in contrasts.

So what did voters think of the two candidates?  Fully 64% of voters who went to the polls today have a favorable opinion of Gov. Chris Christie.  Just 42% have a favorable opinion of Sen. Barbara Buono.  It’s worth noting that the pre-election polls found 4-in-10 voters said they never learned enough about the challenger to form an opinion of her.

The big question tonight is how the Republican was able to claim such a resounding victory in a Democratic leaning state.  Obviously, he was going to do well among more conservative voters.  He won 93% of his fellow Republicans, 70% of the white vote and 66% of seniors. He also won the all-important independent vote by a significant 66% to 32% margin.

Christie also performed well among traditionally Democratic groups.  He won a majority of women (57%) and Latino voters (51%).  He won nearly half of voter in union households (46%) and among young voters under the age of 30 (49%). He even got 21% of the African-American vote, which is a good showing for a Republican.  Support for Christie among these groups improved by 8 to 19 points over his showing in 2009.
This broad swath of support might have been unthinkable a year ago.  All that changed over a year ago when Superstorm Sandy reshaped the entire political landscape. More than 8 in 10 voters approve of how the governor handled the storm’s aftermath.  That number includes nearly half of all voters (48%) who strongly approve of his post-Sandy efforts and another 37% who approve somewhat.

One-in-four voters (23%) today told us that Sandy created a severe hardship for them.  There have been some rumblings that these hardest-hit New Jerseyans have not been happy with the pace of recovery.  This group supported Christie by a 57% to 41% margin.  This is a decisive win, but smaller than the margin he earned among New Jersey voters who were not significantly impacted by the storm.

Updated 10:48pm


The actual polls are still open, but the exit polls are already giving us a clue to what New Jersey voters are thinking.

Of the four issues asked about in the exit poll, the economy was considered the most pressing concern.  Nearly half (49%) of Garden State voters say the economy is the most important issue in their vote for governor today.  Taxes come in second at 22% and education in third at 15%.  Only 6% of New Jersey voters said that same-sex marriage was the main issue driving their vote decision. 

With the economy being the top concern, there has been some debate in this race on the pace of New Jersey’s recovery.  But the economy is as much of a national issue as it is a state issue.  The national climate always looms large over New Jersey gubernatorial elections since they occur the year after presidential contests.  Many pundits try to read the tea leaves of New Jersey’s results as an indicator of the national political mood.

President Barack Obama won New Jersey last year by 17 points in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  He remains more popular in the Garden State than he is nationally, but not as popular as he was just one year ago. Voters are split – 51% approve of his job performance compared to 49% who disapprove.

The president’s hallmark policy, the Affordable Care Act, has received a great deal of criticism with its roll-out last month.  New Jersey voters are also divided on their opinion of the new health care law - 48% support to 50% oppose.

However, Obama comes out on top when New Jerseyans look at the political struggles in Washington.  More voters blame the Republicans in Congress (56%) than the president (39%) for the recent federal government shutdown.

The bottom line is that New Jersey remains friendlier to Obama than it is toward the Republican brand.  We will see how that translates into support for the president’s bipartisan post-Sandy B.F.F. when the votes start rolling in at 8:00 tonight.


Friday, November 1, 2013

Candidate Buono’s Legacy

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
Sometimes you can win by losing.  The 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial election is not one of those times.
By all accounts, Barbara Buono will suffer a significant defeat on Tuesday.  The writing was on the cards from the very beginning.  For a whole host of reasons – the post-Sandy inevitability of Chris Christie’s re-election, Buono’s standing as an outsider in the state party, etc. – the Democratic establishment was never going to throw resources into this race.
With this in mind, Buono should have realized that her best shot was to run an “agenda” campaign.  This is not to be confused with what Buono actually did – try to tackle every issue under the sun. 
Her approach to an agenda was encapsulated by her debate performances.  She spoke in shorthand and tried to cram multiple issues into each of her responses.  This left viewers – and voters – confused about what she would do as governor.
Her responses also gave Chris Christie a range of options on how to “rebut” her.  He invariably chose the fattest pitch offered up by Buono and slammed it out of the park.
In its endorsement of Christie’s reelection, the Star-Ledger editorial board summed up their decision by saying, “Buono simply did not make the case.”
Buono spent the past years highlighting at issues which independent swing voters – consider second or third tier priorities.  Or issues which are really non-issues (e.g. same-sex marriage has been decided by the courts and the minimum wage will be decided by the voters).
Knowing that she would lose, Buono could have done more in terms of leaving a legacy by putting an item that has been ignored onto the state’s political agenda.
Political leaders rarely, if ever, change the public’s mind on an issue.  But they can incite the public to demand action from their elected officials on important issues that have been percolating below the surface.
Other losing candidates have done this with varying degrees of success.  Jim McGreevey’s bid to unseat Christie Whitman in 1997 is one such example.  Regardless of the question he was asked by a reporter or voter during that campaign, McGreevey turned every answer into an unwavering call for auto insurance reform.  Suddenly, auto insurance was the top issue on voters’ minds.
Property tax reform is another issue put on the state agenda by a candidate in a losing effort.  Contrary to popular belief, “property taxes” has not always been at the top of voters’ minds as the state’s most pressing problem (as the chart here illustrates).
That didn’t happen until 2005.  During that year’s gubernatorial race, Republican Doug Forrester made “40 in 4” the centerpiece of his campaign.  In other words, he promised to cut property taxes by 40 percent in four years.  Democrat Jon Corzine was forced to respond with his own “30 in 3” plan.
Property taxes then jumped to the top of the list of issues that New Jerseyans said concerned them most.  And it stayed there.  Forrester put an important issue on the public agenda.
Once elected, Gov. Corzine called a special session of the legislature specifically to come up with bold ideas to bring down property taxes.  Unfortunately, he pulled the rug out from under the legislature and decided to put all his eggs into a toll road monetization basket instead.  And the rest, as MF Global investors know all too well, is history.
In 2009, independent candidate Chris Daggett tried to take the “win while losing” approach.  The unveiling of his bold property tax plan led to a momentary spike in the polls for Daggett.  However, his message got lost in the anti-Corzine sentiment that brought a new governor into office.  This allowed candidate Christie to avoid addressing the issue in his campaign, and the most we got in policy reform from Gov. Christie is a cap on annual growth.
Concerns about property taxes have not gone away though.  Even in the depths of the recent economic recession, it remained in the top spot or tied for number one among issues the public wanted to see addressed.  Even Superstorm Sandy couldn’t knock property taxes as the issue that most concerns New Jersey.
Polls have shown that Gov. Christie has been able to escape most of the blame for the ongoing property tax problem, but that it remains a potential Achilles’ heel for him.  The governor realizes this as well, as his ferocious reaction to a recent NJ League of Municipalities proposal demonstrates.
The right message and the right messenger could have put this issue – or indeed any other single priority issue – on the campaign’s front-burner.  This “agenda setting” approach could have changed the entire dynamic of this race and indeed the governing priorities of the next few years. 
Unfortunately for New Jersey, 2013 lacked both the message and the messenger.
Unfortunately for Barbara Buono, who has served admirably as a public servant, this will be her campaign’s legacy. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Voter Turnout for a Wednesday in October

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
New Jersey has no precedent for modeling a likely electorate in a special statewide election.  Especially one that occurs just three weeks before the regular general election.  And doubly so for one that occurs on a Wednesday rather than a Tuesday.
This alone may account for the variations in U.S. Senate polls released over the past two days. The Monmouth University sample is different from other public pollsters because we decided to use a list sample of registered voters that includes information about gender, age, past voting history and party registration. 
[Reminder: party registration is how voters are listed on the voter rolls and is a very stable characteristic.  Party identification is how people answer the question: “In politics today, do you consider yourself…” – it is not as stable and is subject to change based on the external political environment.]
Here’s an overview of some benchmarks from official New Jersey election records and voter list providers.
Overall turnout:
The last two general elections in New Jersey where the U.S. Senate topped the ballot saw turnouts of 46% (2002) and 48% (2006) of registered voters. By comparison, elections where Governor was the top office saw turnouts of 47% (2009) and 49% (2001 and 2005).  Turnouts where the House of Representatives tops the ballot has been 42% (1998 and 2010) and off-year elections where the legislature tops the ballots have seen turnouts ranging from 27% to 34% of registered voters.
[Note: Turnout figures for elections prior to 1998 are not comparable, because of the Motor Voter law which registered a lot of “unlikely” voters.  This increased the denominator of registered voters, but did not change the numerator of people who actually show up to vote.]
Of course, these turnout levels are all for regularly scheduled elections.  There is no precedent for a special election in New Jersey.
We can turn to Massachusetts, though, which held a special election this past June to fill the Senate seat of John Kerry after he was appointed Secretary of State.  That election saw a 27% turnout.  Although the Democrat won handily, this is the low turnout level that the Lonegan camp hopes to see tomorrow.
On the other hand, Massachusetts held another special election in January 2010 to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat.  This race, which was eventually won by a Republican, garnered a lot of national attention as a referendum on Obama – an issue the Lonegan camp hopes will factor into the New Jersey election.  This election had a high turnout of 54% of registered voters.  [Both Massachusetts special elections were held on Tuesdays.]
Demographic stability:
A review of voter list data indicates that the demographic composition of New Jersey’s electorate in non-presidential years is fairly stable, regardless of turnout.
For example, young voters age 18 to 34 made up just 8% of the electorate in 2009’s gubernatorial election, 9% in 2010 when the U.S. House topped the ballot, and 7% in 2011 when the state legislature was the marquee event. The proportion of voters age 65 and older was similarly stable at 34% in 2009 and 2010 and 38% in 2011.  [By contrast, young voters comprised 18% of New Jersey’s 2012 presidential electorate, while older voters accounted for just 24%.]
Gender is also relatively stable, with women voters making up 52% (2011) to 53% (2009 and 2010) of the electorate.  Gender by party [i.e. actual partisan registration status, not self-reported identification] is similarly stable.  For instance, among registered Democrats, 57% to 58% of those who voted in 2009, 2010, or 2011 were women.  The gender split is basically even among registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters.  Women made up 49% to 50% of Republican voters and 49% to 50% of unaffiliated voters in those same three election years.
Finally, the Democrat-Republican party registration spread for non-presidential years has been a very stable 9 to 11 points regardless of turnout or election type.  The only major variation is the proportion of unaffiliated (“U”) voters in the electorate, which decreases as overall turnout drops.  In 2009, the D-R-U split was 42-32-26.  In 2010, it was 43-32-25.  In 2011, it was 44-35-21.
[Note: The D-R-U registration split is significantly different in presidential election years. In 2012’s electorate, for instance, it was 37-24-39.]
The historical turnout data presented above is based on New Jersey voters who show up to vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  We don’t know whether these patterns will hold for a Wednesday in October.  Monmouth's internal likely voter model suggests that tomorrow's turnout will be between 35% and 40% of registered voters.

But here’s one intriguing finding from the Monmouth University Poll to keep in mind.  Just last week, we talked to voters who are known to have voted in at least two of the last four general elections.  Fully 10% of these “regular voters” told us they had no idea that a special election was being held on October 16th!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Booker and Mail Voting Could be Golden Opportunity for Dems

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
He won’t be on the ballot in November, but if Cory Booker wins the US Senate nomination he could still boost turnout for vulnerable Democratic legislators in the regular general election. New Jersey’s automatic vote by mail provision provides the answer.
Tuesday was the deadline for mail ballot applications in the special primary election to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Frank Lautenberg’s death.  There have been some rumblings that county organizations would make a special effort on behalf of Newark Mayor Cory Booker to increase his vote-by-mail total.  That didn’t seem likely.  The local parties backed Booker precisely because they don’t have to put any resources into his race.  Their war chests are needed to protect Democratic legislators in the face of a Chris Christie tsunami in November.
The data available on mail ballot applications for next week’s primary bear out that no effort has been made to sign up voters on Booker’s behalf.  However, there is one fascinating blip on the radar screen that points to how local Democrats can use Cory Booker’s senate run to their advantage.
Some background.  New Jersey has had universal vote-by-mail access since 2009.  That is to say anyone can vote by mail prior to Election Day without needing to provide a “valid” absentee excuse.  In addition to signing up for a specific election, the application also allows voters to select automatic mail ballots for every remaining election in the current calendar year and/or for every general election in ensuing years.
New Jersey voters haven’t really taken advantage of this option.  In the 2012 general election, 7.7% of votes cast were submitted by mail ballot.  This is only slightly higher than the 6.3% of ballots that were cast absentee in 2008, before the universal mail ballot law went into effect.
It also appears that the vote-by-mail option is more likely to be exercised by Republican leaning voters.  In New Jersey last year, the highest mail proportions of the vote were reported by Hunterdon (12.4%), Cape May (12.0%), Somerset (10.8%), Ocean (10.6%), and Gloucester (10.3%) counties.  Trailing in the vote-by-mail effort were Essex (5.1%) and Hudson (3.5%) counties.  In fact, fewer than 2% of the total ballots cast in the cities of Newark and Jersey City were submitted by mail.
Past experience shows that if a voter requests a mail ballot, there is a 9-in-10 chance it will be returned.  In other words, if Democrats sign up some of the unlikeliest voters (e.g. urban residents, younger adults) to vote by mail, they can increase turnout among their base.  A big push on early voting was a major component to Pres. Obama’s success in swing states last year.
New Jersey Democrats haven’t caught on to that – except in one place – Camden County.  Consider the fact that the Camden County clerk received 16,525 mail ballots in the high turnout 2012 presidential election.  That translated to 7.3% of the total county vote, which was on par with the statewide average.  Fast forward to today – Camden County has nearly 13,000 ballot requests for next week’s primary!  In an election which will see only a fraction of last November’s turnout!
These voters, though, did not come out of the woodwork for Cory Booker.  Even before Sen. Lautenberg’s death and the announcement of the special election, Camden County had 12,159 voters signed up to receive ballots for every remaining election this year.
Nearly 4% of registered Camden County voters are already slated to receive mail ballots in both the October and November elections.  The next highest totals are Cape May County and Ocean County at just over 1% each.  No other county tops 1%.  [Note: analysis based on preliminary mail ballot data as of July 26 for 17 New Jersey counties.]
There will almost certainly be a skew in partisan turnout between the two fall elections (see the June Monmouth University Poll for more detail on anticipated turnout).  Some Democratic voters may vote in the Senate election but stay home for an apparent losing gubernatorial effort in November.
This has some legislative Democratic incumbents worried.  And rightly so.
Take Gloucester County for example.  It is home to Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, but the county will almost certainly produce a sizable gubernatorial majority for Republican Chris Christie.  Sweeney and his running mates will need to attract a lot of split-ticket voters or boost turnout among registered Democrats.
The Gloucester County clerk, though, has only received about 1,800 requests for mail ballots, with approximately 100 of them coming since the special election was announced.  Just over half (55%) of those ballots are being sent to Democratic voters while 37% are going to Republican voters.  That’s a tighter margin than in neighboring Camden County, where the ballot split is 57% Democrat and 21% Republican.  In fact, two-thirds of the Camden County mail voters who have signed up in just the past two months are registered Democrats.
By all accounts, the Booker campaign is generating a good deal of enthusiasm among young voters and urban voters.  It doesn’t look like the county party organizations have taken advantage of that yet.  Even Camden County Democrats have yet to fully capitalize on the Booker effect.  Nearly 30% of their new mail voters have signed up only for next week’s primary.  That means party operatives will have to go back to those voters to get them to re-up for the fall.
Cory Booker’s candidacy presents Democrats with a unique opportunity to offset Gov. Christie’s coattails in November.  That will only work, though, if they make an all-out effort to sign up mail voters before October.  And don’t forget to check the “all general elections” box on the application.

Monday, August 5, 2013

2016 Presidential Contender Word Clouds

A Monmouth University Poll released on August 5, 2013, asked American voters to say the first word or phrase that came to mind when they heard the names of five potential candidates for president in 2016 -- Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio.

The following word clouds (courtesy Wordle) were generated from those responses.  The full poll report with the data for these questions can be found here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Buono's Pick

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
What’s a guy got to do to get a major party Lieutenant Governor nomination in this state?  Barbara Buono’s pick of labor leader Milly Silva as her running mate means that women have been tapped for this post 80% of the time.  Of course, there have only been five LG nominees in the state’s history, so…
The Silva pick, though, sends a message that is different from the other female LG nominations.  Mainly, Buono is not trying to “balance” anything. 
Current governor Chris Christie’s selection of Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno in 2009 was made in part to appeal to women voters, a segment Republicans tend to lose.  It was widely expected that former governor Jon Corzine would pick a woman as a matter of progressive principles.  Ironically, his initial inclination was to select Buono until a corruption sting netted dozens of public officials, leading him to choose Loretta Weinberg, who was seen as a squeaky clean veteran legislator.
Buono, on the other hand, picked someone who is just like her.  Not just in gender, but in ideology and policy priorities – liberal on social issues, strong labor supporter, wary of education reform policies, etc.
The one thing Silva doesn’t have is political experience.  And therein lies a key reason for the pick.
Some observers say this pick will help excite the Democratic base and perhaps bring greater labor support – in terms of both money and voter turnout assistance.  This is true to some extent.
On the other hand, Silva’s lack of experience in elected or appointed office have led some – and not just Republicans – to call her “unqualified” for the position – whose main job requirement is to step in if anything happens to the governor.   And that’s the point Buono is trying to make.  There aren’t enough women who have been allowed to rise in the halls of power.
Buono already knew this, but this governor’s race reinforced her feelings about the party.  It’s almost impossible for a woman to get ahead in the New Jersey Democratic Party unless it serves some ulterior motive of the party bosses.
Those who point to Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver as evidence to the contrary should pay close attention to her run for U.S. Senate.  There have been rumblings for months that her speakership is not secure after this election.  Moreover, when she attacks Cory Booker’s “coronation” on the campaign trail, she is also attacking the party bosses – specifically her heretofore patron Joe DiVincenzo – who are willing to toss her aside when the mood strikes.
Compare Oliver’s relationship with Joe D to Senate President Steve Sweeney’s relationship with George Norcross.  The men taken under powerbroker’s wings are close friends and confidants.  The women seem to be expendable.
The Milly Silva selection is Barbara Buono’s way of playing “powerbroker.”  She’s instantly elevated a young, charismatic labor leader to become a statewide political player.  Buono hopes this selection will turn Silva into a force that the state party has no choice but to reckon with; that Silva will be able to build a solid base where other women have not been able to do.
There is one thing about the Buono’s choice that is not unusual, though.   Women tend to get nominated to higher office as sacrificial lambs – when everyone else has written off any chance of success.  This seems to be another of those instances.
Given the likely outcome of this election, it’s hard to escape comparisons to Thelma and Louise.  By all accounts, Buono and Silva seem to be heading off a 30-point cliff.
In this case, though, Buono hopes that Silva will survive the crash and be able to demand the political support that she feels she’s been denied in her career.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

New Jersey Senate Survivor

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 

This week’s Monmouth University poll showed Mayor Cory Booker with a daunting lead in the U.S. Senate Democratic nomination contest.  It also found few avenues of opportunity for his rivals to peel away that support. 
Can this contest become more competitive?  Probably not by using traditional attack strategies, such as:
“Booker lacks the experience to be effective in Washington.”  Democratic primary voters disagree.
“Booker’s support of policies like school vouchers shows that he’s out of step with core Democratic values.”  Who says?  Many Democratic voters themselves support vouchers.
“Booker is more show horse than work horse.”  He may be a celebrity, but voters believe that he brings both style and substance to the table.
There is no question that Cory Booker’s national fame is key to his formidable lead in both the polls and fundraising.  This is unusual.  Candidates in a typical contested New Jersey primary do not start out with significant statewide name recognition.  Each candidate tries to increase support in his or her base and garner the endorsement of power brokers from other areas of the state without a horse in the race.
This contest has completely destroyed those rules of engagement.  Booker has almost universal statewide name recognition, due solely to the fact that he has national name recognition. None of the other candidates can compete with that.
It is perhaps a sad irony, then, that this happens to be one of the strongest fields of Democrats to run for statewide office in a long time.  In addition to the two term mayor of the state’s largest city, we have 24-year and 14-year congressional veterans and a 9-year state legislator who currently heads the lower chamber.
The last time New Jersey saw a Democratic field this wide and deep – i.e. with at least three seasoned officeholders – was the 1989 governor’s race, which featured Congressman Jim Florio (who was also the 1981 gubernatorial nominee), Princeton Mayor Barbara Boggs Sigmund (scion of a Louisiana political powerhouse), and former Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher (author of the much-read but unfortunately oft-ignored New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness). 
In fact, the 1970s and 1980s frequently brought out a slew of established New Jersey office-holders in closely fought contests for statewide office.  In any other year, Frank Pallone, Rush Holt, and Sheila Oliver would be in a dogfight for this nomination. 
It hardly seems fair that Cory Booker can waltz away with this thing based on name recognition.  There has to be a way to give all these candidates a decent shot at the nomination.
I pondered this as I watched all four candidates huddled together at a union-sponsored press conference to highlight the foreclosure crisis.  They were standing in front of the home of a Newark resident who has been dealing with a foreclosure nightmare.  Each of the candidates took their turn at the microphone to condemn the situation and point out that more needs to be done.  But there was very little in their rhetoric that differentiated how each candidate would tackle the matter as New Jersey’s next U.S. Senator.
Then it hit me.  Rather than decide this nomination based on what each candidate promises to do, let’s see them in action in a head-to-head set of tasks.  We can call it New Jersey Senate Survivor.
Task 1: Foreclosure Fever.  Each candidate is assigned a distressed homeowner currently in foreclosure proceedings.  Candidates must get the bank off the homeowner’s back and set up a revised mortgage repayment plan.  Whoever gets the best terms for their homeowner wins.
Task 2: Obamacare-O-Rama.  This one is simple.  The winner is the candidate who gets the most uninsured New Jerseyans to sign up for the Health Insurance Exchange Pool. 
Task 3:  Raise the Roof.  Recognizing the singular impact of Superstorm Sandy on New Jersey, candidates must cobble together enough federal, state and insurance funding to elevate 10 homes at least 4 feet above flood stage in newly-designated FEMA V-zones.
We can even award extra points to candidates who pitch in on the physical labor of raising those homes.  You may think this gives Booker an edge – with the leaping of tall buildings in a single bound and all that.  I wouldn’t be so sure.
If you have ever seen Frank Pallone glad-handing constituents in 90 degree heat without breaking a sweat, you’d know he has the stamina of an ox.  Rush Holt can be counted on to devise some practical application of quantum mechanics to raise the homes with the most efficient expenditure of energy.  And since Sheila Oliver was able to declare her candidacy without being torpedoed by Joe DiVincenzo, you shouldn’t underestimate her grit and resolve.
The winner of these tasks earns the Democratic nomination.  For one, this ensures that the nominee is a proven problem-solver.  Perhaps more importantly, a significant number of Garden State residents who the candidates say they want to help once in office will be able to get that help even before the election.
If this proposal isn’t a “win-win,” I don’t know what is!
A note on Alan Rosenthal.  I was saddened to hear of the passing of Alan Rosenthal.  While he was never my professor, I certainly learned a lot from him during my days at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics.  I was honored to be asked to work with him, in a very small way, on the research for one of his state legislature books, Heavy Lifting.  Although we later disagreed, albeit amicably, about the 2011 redistricting map, I always knew that his decision was based on a clear set of principles about the efficient operation of state legislatures.  The thing I will remember most about Alan, though, is that he was simply a fun guy to be around.  He will be missed.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why Gov. Christie Called a Special Election

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 

“For all of you who were bored with the governor’s race, I have solved your problems.” – Gov. Chris Christie
New Jersey’s U.S. Senate campaign is on!  Every one of the alternatives Chris Christie considered to fill the vacancy posed a different set of risks and benefits.  True to his reputation as an astute strategist, he chose the option that maximized his own future political prospects.
Certainly, there will be fallout from this decision.  National Republicans are irked that they are not guaranteed a party vote in the Senate for the next 17 months.  They are joined by state GOP leaders in being annoyed that a Republican appointee won’t have time to raise visibility and money for an incumbent campaign in 2014.
Republicans wanted Christie to hold out for the 2014 option.  But that choice posed a serious risk.  It would most certainly have gone to the New Jersey Supreme Court.  The court could not only have determined that the Senate election needed to be held this year but also directed that it be held on the same day as the regular general election.
Despite his denials, Gov. Christie does not want to run on a ballot where the U.S. Senate race is at the top of the ticket.  Otherwise he could have saved the state an estimated $12 million and held the special election concurrently with the general election, rather than three weeks earlier on Oct. 16.
A Senate race on the same ballot would have certainly increased Democratic turnout – whether the nominee is Cory Booker or Frank Pallone – both of whom are running – or even Rush Holt or Bill Pascrell – who are considering a run.  Voters, especially Democrats, are more likely to turn out for competitive races.  This would almost certainly put any of the supposed five or six competitive legislative races out of Republicans’ reach.
Christie himself is unlikely to lose in this scenario, but he would suffer a significant loss to his presidential prospects.  His main campaign strategy has always been to stand on the stage with a half dozen more conservative Republicans seeking their party’s presidential nomination and announce: “Our main priority should be to back the White House.  Anyone on this stage who has won a blue state by 20 points, raise your hand!”
Winning by a 10 or 12 point margin or even – gasp – by the high single digits would be a major setback to Christie’s 2016 strategy.
At the end of the day, a quick special election was the one option where Christie knew he could maintain control over the process.  The conflicting state statutes on Congressional vacancies agree that the governor has this authority.
So yes, some GOP leaders and conservatives are annoyed at him right now.  But Christie’s banking this will blow over by the time the presidential process begins. Moreover, holding a special election shortly before the regularly scheduled general election may actually boost Christie’s victory margin.
Turnout in this special election will be very low – 35% of registered voters is my rough guess.  As a consequence, there are some voters who will only take part in one election, pushing turnout in the November general election down to about 50%.  It usually approaches 60% during gubernatorial years.
This turnout fatigue will affect partisans of both stripes.  However, it’s much more likely to affect Democratic voters than Republicans.  Many Democrats will show up for a Senate race that looks positive for their party and sit out the subsequent general election where their party’s candidate is likely to lose.
This special election has an added benefit for the state GOP. It is now more likely that they could pick off some Democratic incumbents in the state legislature.  Among all the possible alternatives, Christie’s decision to hold the special election in October was absolutely the worst possible outcome for New Jersey Democrats.
Yes, the Democrats will almost certainly win the U.S. Senate seat.  It’s unlikely that the Republican nominee will be able to raise the kind of cash that Booker or even Pallone can.  Moreover, Christie is unlikely to free up his GOTV resources to do double duty for the senate race.
Democratic power brokers won’t pour money into the senate race either.  They really care about state and local races.  That’s where their bread is buttered.  This special election poses a real threat to their control of at least one chamber of the legislature.  In other words, Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.’s supposed pipe dream of taking control of the State Senate now seems much more realistic.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How to Blow a Cool Million

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ 
Perhaps a primer on the dynamics of voter awareness is in order.  In a recent PolitickerNJ story where I was quoted, some commenters seem to think that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono’s reported million dollar ad buy was money well spent – or at the very least was something she needed to do.
I disagree.  While $1 million may sound like a lot, it will result in very little penetration among New Jersey voters.  For one, advertising on broadcast television in either the New York City or Philadelphia markets means that more than two-thirds of your audience cannot even vote for you.
More importantly, a single shot weeklong to ten day media buy – which is what $1 million will get you on broadcast TV – will not increase voter awareness when your statewide name recognition is below 30%. It takes about three weeks of repeated airings to start moving that needle.  And then you have to maintain the ad presence or your gains in awareness will evaporate once you pull your ads.
Think I’m wrong?  Then tell me what you had for dinner last Thursday night?  The same principle applies here.  Voters who do not know Senator Buono have not tuned into the campaign and will not tune in until the fall.  They are simply not paying attention yet.  That’s the reality.
Now, some say Buono had to go up with an ad because incumbent Chris Christie’s campaign already went negative on her.  [Ironically, these attacks may be doing more to raise Buono’s name recognition than anything she’s been able to do.]
The political adage is don’t let an attack go unchallenged.  However, her opening spot is not a response to the Christie attack on her as a “Corzine Democrat.”  It’s an introductory piece.
As a biographical ad, it’s actually pretty good (as is the web ad about the pronunciation of her last name).  But, as I already mentioned, a $1 million dollar broadcast buy in May will not move her poll numbers.
[Of course, one possibility is that we are being misled by the Buono camp about actual amount of the buy as a way to get some free media coverage.  If so, then kudos to them!]
Another point that has been raised to defend the ad buy is that Buono has a pot of money that must be spent on her primary race – such that it is.  This is true, but it does not have to be spent on advertising.  For example, she can spend her primary money building a GOTV infrastructure.
As we just saw in the presidential race, a coordinated micro-targeting effort can confound the polls.  Buono’s camp can be using her resources to identify Democratic and unaffiliated voters who can be motivated to turn up at the polls or to switch their support to her.  This effort can ostensibly be done for the June primary, but the real target would be the general election in November.

[UPDATE: Thanks to a party chair for emailing me on a point of law.  While New Jersey's public financing law allows you to use matching funds to buy lists, you can't use those funds to "mine" the data.  Still, in a media environment like New Jersey direct mail and radio may give you more lasting impact.  Still, I acknowledge the money has to be spent by June 4 and TV is certainly the best way to go through it quickly.  But then, we have to question whether Buono can "afford" an introductory ad, or whether she needs to attack right out of the box.  Campaign operatives do not like to mix those messages, but when you're down by 30 points is "traditional" the best approach?]
One question is whether Buono will have the kind of money she needs to increase her name recognition in the fall.  Democratic donors and operatives got spoiled by the last governor and aren’t used to having to support gubernatorial campaigns. 
Her best bet has always been to get that money from a national donor base. It is one of the reasons she has been talking about guns, marriage equality, and women‘s health care.  These issues are not on New Jersey voters’ radar screens, but they are for national Democrats.
However, very little of Buono’s campaign pot has come from donors in other states.  This is partly due to poor message framing during the free national media opportunities she has been given (mainly MSNBC).
Buono has gotten a little sharper on the stump recently, e.g. saying Christie is taking positions on issues like guns to appeal to voters in Midwestern cornfields rather than New Jersey suburbs.  But the message lacks clarity and coherence.
The problem is confounded by the fact that Buono will need to pivot to a New Jersey-based message after the primary.  While she still needs to court the national money with social issue messages, New Jersey voters are concerned about bread and butter matters.
Buono has been talking about New Jersey’s economic picture not being as rosy as Christie claims.  But she hasn’t developed a clear statement about one thing she would do to make the state more affordable.
The conventional wisdom says that laying out a specific policy can be dangerous.  But that only applies if you have a realistic shot of winning.  The goal for Buono is not to win but to lose well.  And that requires being bold.  Otherwise, she just spent $1 million to spit into the wind.  
And if you think I'm wrong, here's a challenge:  I'll provide pre and post polling services to anyone out there who wants to spend $1 million on TV adverstising to boost his or her own name recognition.  I guarantee the needle won't move for you either.