Christie’s Missing Coattails

Given New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s status as an early favorite for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, it remains a mystery why the Democrats failed to challenge him more aggressively in this year’s gubernatorial contest. Even if he remained unbeatable, there were strong political incentives for them to have at least tried to deny him the blue-state landslide that will no doubt become his number one calling card should he make a run for the White House. But there’s another ostensibly puzzling fact about the outcome of the Garden State’s latest election: why couldn’t the Republicans pick up a single seat in the state legislature even in the midst of a Christie wave?

Actually, this fact isn’t all that puzzling. The current legislative district boundaries were drawn in 2011 by an eleven-member redistricting commission, and were widely seen at the time as a pro-Democrat gerrymander. In fact, the commission’s lone nonpartisan member, the late Rutgers professor Alan Rosenthal, claimed that he voted for the final plan because it would help to maintain “continuity of representation,” although he also stated that “[i]t is a map, I believe, that gives the minority party a chance at winning control of the Legislature.” In other words, a Republican legislative coup was bound to be an uphill battle, even against the backdrop of a Christie landslide.

Yet some commentators seem genuinely surprised by the fact that Christie’s 60-40 margin of victory over State Sen. Barbara Buono came at the same time the Democrats retained their 24-16 majority in the Senate and 48-32 margin in the Assembly. The Star-Ledger recently featured a piece entitled “Legislative map not to blame for lack of GOP progress, experts and Democrats say.” So what was to blame? Well, based on the evidence presented in the article, it sounds like it was… the legislative map:

This year, Republican Senate candidates overall got almost 65,000 more votes than their Democratic counterparts, but Democrats did not lose a single seat… Democrats won just 48 percent of the vote while taking 60 percent of the seats… On the surface, those are startling numbers, and Christie has not been the only Republican to mention it. But political experts and Democrats say they’re using a misleading method to explain the election results, one that implies Republicans should get more seats just because their voters are more likely to turn out to the polls.

“It would be like determining the winner of a baseball game based on stadium attendance,” said Bill Castner, a Democratic attorney who was a key architect of the Democrats’ legislative district map. “This is not Parliament. This is not Europe. We don’t allocate seats based on who shows up” [emphasis added].

Heavily Republican districts had higher turnout than heavily Democratic districts, even though all districts are roughly equal in population, according to the Census. The 24 districts where Democrats won had an average turnout of 41,000, and the winners had an average margin of 10,000. The 16 districts where Republicans won had an average turnout of 55,000, and the winners there won by about 19,000 votes. That is how Republican candidates got more votes overall. “That’s why the whole thing is false about the statewide vote,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “It’s a false comparison to what voters actually want…”

Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris), who headed the Republicans’ redistricting effort, said it’s just common sense that the party that gets the most voters should get the most seats. I don’t think there’s any question that on Election Day this year, New Jerseyans went to the polls and voted more for Republican legislators than Democratic legislators,” [emphasis added] Webber said. “To me that means they should get a Republican-controlled Legislature. It’s a very simple concept.”

Republicans aren’t alone in using the vote total argument. In 2012, to Democrats’ chagrin, their House candidates across the nation got more votes than Republicans. Yet Republicans held on to a majority…

[Assemblyman John] Wisniewski said the governor’s claim fails to take into account the fact that he won 75 percent of the state’s legislative districts yet failed to bring the down-ballot candidates with him… “Christie’s saying, ‘Don’t blame me for the lack of coattails.’ But the only person to blame for the lack of coattails is the guy wearing the coat.”

That New Jersey and the United States do not have parliamentary systems in which seats are allocated on the basis of the aggregate votes received by each party is obvious. Those who are frustrated by the Republicans’ failure to recapture the majority in either house of the legislature understand this better than anyone, which is precisely why they are complaining about how the district boundaries are drawn. Reminding everyone that “this is not Europe” or that turnout was lower in the districts that lean Democratic does not prove that “the map is not to blame” for the Republicans winning a majority of the statewide vote but only a minority of the seats. All this amounts to is a claim that the map is to blame, but that this is a perfectly legitimate outcome given our system of single-member districts. The “experts and Democrats” cited in the Ledger piece are making normative claims, not descriptive ones.

Consider the reaction of many Democrats (and others) to the result of the 2000 presidential election, in which Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote but failed to win the presidency. Nobody argued that the Electoral College was “not to blame” for this counterintuitive result. Rather, everyone acknowledged that the Electoral College was entirely to blame for this counterintuitive result. What was debated was whether the College is on balance a worthwhile institution because it rewards the building of broad national coalitions over parochial appeals to the denizens of major population centers, or whether it is an outmoded, elitist, antidemocratic relic that ought to have been dispensed with many quadrennia ago.

Likewise, the real debate in NJ – and nationwide, given the fact that John Boehner is still Speaker of the House despite his party’s congressional candidates having earned fewer votes overall in 2012 – is whether a system that can produce such seemingly illogical results really has enough of other redeeming qualities to make it worth preserving. In light of the way in which divided government in an era of sharply polarized parties has been a recipe for gridlock (if at the national level to a greater extent than in New Jersey), reforming our political institutions to make them more responsive and more resilient ought to be a top priority.

I have to side with Christie and Webber on this one. A majority of the voters who turned out cast their ballots for Christie, and a majority cast their votes for Republican legislators. That should be reflected in the partisan makeup of the government that will convene in January. Assemblyman Wisniewski’s observation that Christie ran ahead of most Republican legislative candidates is a non sequitur. The GOP is not claiming that it should take 60% of the seats because Christie won 60% of the gubernatorial vote; it is claiming that it should take 52% of the seats because it won 52% of the legislative vote.

Christie has also claimed that at least some of the Democrats won their down-ballot races by emphasizing their bipartisan credentials. The same Ledger article quotes him as saying that “[t]hey ran on ‘We work with the governor.’ Okay, well time to work with the governor… Their mandate, to the extent they have one, is to work with me.”

I do hope that the Democrats can (continue to) look past Christie’s bluster and maintain a productive working relationship with him, rather than succumb to the temptation to gum up the works out of spite. (This is a two-way street of course, and Christie will also have to avoid some of the pettiness in which he indulged in his first term.) That said, the Democrats can cheer up! As Chris pointed out to me in a recent conversation, they may only have to deal with him for three more years!

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