Monday, August 19, 2013

Steve Lonegan Looks Dead On Arrival Thanks to Chris Christie, Cory Booker, & A Special Off-Year Electorate

The trio of a popular Booker, a popular President, and a less than helpful Governor have all but sealed Steve Lonegan's fate. Photo courtesy of

Both Democrats AND Republicans can find reason for optimism in New Jersey this year. While Barbara Buono has been headed for certain and substantial defeat at the hands of Governor Chris Christie since Hurricane Sandy, the death of Senior Senator Frank Lautenberg provided Democrats with a golden opportunity to fast track one of their up and coming stars into national political office.

Though what appears to be a sure snoozer of a Special Senate contest this October between Cory Booker (D) and Steve Lonegan (R) didn't always have to be that way.

New Jersey Republicans anticipated challenging either an aging Sen. Lautenburg, or a primary battered Cory Booker in November 2014, not October 2013.

And failed 2005 and 2009 Republican primary challenger for Governor Steve Lonegan was likely FAR from their first choice to take on the popular Newark Mayor. With a statewide electoral record bad enough to make any Republican squirm, Lonegan seems particularly out of his depth against the Obama-esque Booker, especially when accounting for the incredibly abbreviated campaign schedule in a very blue state.

Then came the double-whammy - Republican Governor Chris Christie would be scheduling the special Senate race three weeks in advance of his own gubernatorial re-election, on October 16, 2013, thereby ensuring Lonegan and political observers would be denied learning whether the New Jersey Governor's coattails matched his lofty job approval ratings. It also ensured that Lonegan would likely not lose to Booker by anything less than an embarrassing margin, especially if the early and limited polling on the race is any indication:

Photo courtesy of Real Clear Politics.

Pretty brutal stuff, huh? Booker's lead over Lonegan ranges anywhere from 16 to 27 points across 6 surveys, meaning all agree that Booker leads Lonegan by strong margins.

The good news for Team Lonegan is few and far between, if not entirely non-existent. For example, in the most recent Quinnipiac survey from August, Republicans might point to the fact that he Lonegan only attracts 68% of the vote from his own party, while ceding 18% of Republicans to Booker, while Booker nails down 89% of his party, ceding only 2% to Lonegan.

Supposing Lonegan is able to nail down his base to the extent Booker is winning Democrats, Booker would still lead the Quinnipiac Poll 50-34%, as opposed to the actual result of 54-29%.

Then there was that one Monmouth poll from June offering Steve Lonegan a ray of hope: he was only down 16 points, 53-37%, a smaller margin than any of the Quinnipiac surveys had found. But a look at the crosstabs, especially when compared to past New Jersey electorates, tells you why Lonegan looked stronger than in other polls.

The table below illustrates the demographic and partisan breakdown of every New Jersey election within recent history for which there was readily available exit poll data, compared to the demographic data found by Monmouth in their June 2013 New Jersey Senate Special survey:

As you can see, Monmouth found one of the more favorable electorates for a Republican in New Jersey than one would typically find.

Democrats hold a narrow partisan ID advantage of just 8 points (as compared to 10 points in the last Governor's race, and 18 points in the last Presidential race), while white voters are up 6 points from 2012, with black voters down 5 points. The Monmouth electorate also finds significantly more voters aged over 65 than any NJ Senate, Presidential, or Gubernatorial election since 1997! And Lonegan STILL TRAILS BOOKER 53-37%.

So my primary issue with the Monmouth poll lies in the fact that circumstances overwhelmingly point to an electorate more similar to 2012 than, say, 2009. And that, again, is courtesy of Republican Governor Chris Christie.

By setting the New Jersey Special Senate race three weeks before voters head to the polls to reelect their popular Governor and select their state legislators, Christie ensured that Booker v. Lonegan would be the marquee match-up on October 16. Given the President's strong personal ratings in the state since Hurricane Sandy, and the presence of a VERY popular African American at the top of the Democratic ballot, combined with the lack of Christie or state legislative races as a motivational force for Republicans to get out to the polls, October 16 has all the makings of being a true disaster of an electorate for Steve Lonegan - I'm talking 2012 bad.

In 2012, whites saw their numbers plunge as a share of the NJ electorate to an all time low of 67% (7% lower than in 2008!)(see the table above). Blacks saw their numbers swell to an all-time high of 18% (6% higher than in 2008!). The share of 65+ voters dropped 4% from the '09 Governor's race, while young voters shot up to 16%. To top it all off, Democrats' net partisan identification advantage over Republicans increased from D+10 in '09 to D+18 in 2012.

There's no way to know for certain, but with a popular African American heading up the marquee battle on October 16, and with no one but Steve Lonegan to motivate Republicans to the polls, it seems entirely possible that the special senate race electorate could look as Democratic-friendly as the one from 2012.

If Monmouth had found as such, Cory Booker's lead over Steve Lonegan would increase from 53-37% to 56-34% when reweighting to 2012 party I.D., all other findings remaining the same:

Unfortunately, Monmouth did not provide a breakdown in the crosstabs for racial/ethnic votes and votes by age group.

And while the most recent Quinnipiac poll found an electorate a bit more friendly to Democrats than Monmouth, it still falls short of the left-ward bent of 2012 voters.

The table below reweights Quinnipiac's 54-29% finding in favor of Cory Booker to an electorate that more resembles the one seen in 2012.

If Quinnipiac had found an electorate more like 2012, Cory Booker's lead over Steve Lonegan would grow to nearly 30 points.

In the end, barring some sort of cataclysmic debate meltdown, the New Jersey Special Senate race is likely to be as big of a sleeper as the Governor's race that follows 3 weeks later. Booker has a clear lead in every public poll of the race to date, and the unprecedented timing of the race makes it likely pollsters are understating how favorable an electorate he might encounter.

To put it bluntly, the forecast for Steve Lonegan in the New Jersey Senate Special can be summed up in three words: Dead on arrival.

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