Rewind to last year's Interview Issue, and any politico who would've guessed at the time that Donald Trump would now be the president-elect and Phil Murphy would be leading the pack of Democrats to replace Gov. Chris Christie in 2017 would've likely been scoffed at.
Lots of journalists got it wrong. Pundits? Fuhgeddaboudit. Pollsters? It was a mixed bag, as most national presidential polls pointed toward victory for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the popular vote.
The Electoral College, however, told a different story altogether.
NJBIZ sat down with Fairleigh Dickinson University political science professor and PublicMind Poll Executive Director Krista Jenkins to help us unpack it all.
NJBIZ: Let’s start at the top, with the presidential election. Was 2016 really all that crazy and unpredictable?
Krista Jenkins: Probably not. I think that it felt crazy, but a lot of the warning signs were there that it could’ve ended this way. I’m not suggesting that I had any divine prognosticating abilities and, personally, I think I was as surprised as many. But I think, in hindsight, if people would’ve taken a step back and looked at what the data suggested, not just about the election polls but also about long-term trends in this country, I think that the writing has been there for quite some time that this indeed was a possibility.
NJBIZ: What about at the state level?
KJ: At the state level, it was a crazy year, as well, because we had the historic Bridgegate trial. But again, I don’t think that the outcome of that was surprising, given what we knew going into it.
NJBIZ: Is there anything in Trenton that caught pollsters off-guard in 2016?
KJ: The only thing that comes to mind is the early winnowing of the Democratic field for the 2017 gubernatorial (race). That was surprising, at least to me. I know some people who are more inside saw it coming. But, from my perspective, it was a surprise. I’m surprised Sen. (Steve) Sweeney is not running. I’m surprised again that it’s already a very restricted field, even before we’ve started the new year. I thought that that was a bit of a surprise.
“I think that telephone surveys remain very accurate, in terms of providing good insights, verifiable insights, into what people are thinking and doing.”
NJBIZ: Journalists have been shouldering a great deal of criticism in the fallout from the election, and some of it is probably deserved. Trump himself continues to question the credibility of the media. Has there been a similar sentiment expressed towards pollsters since the election?
KJ: Yeah, but that’s been there for some time. If he’s done anything, I think he’s simply channeled a lot of the suspicions that some people have had about the polling industry, some of which I think is warranted because I think the profession itself is in a state of flux. ... So I think that those challenges have been there for some time, which then get filtered into the public discourse about how you can’t trust pollsters. And occasionally, pollsters do miss the mark, but that’s going to happen. On balance, though, I think that telephone surveys remain very accurate, in terms of providing good insights, verifiable insights, into what people are thinking and doing.
NJBIZ: And, come next year with our gubernatorial election or in the next national cycle, traditional polling will still be what folks turn to?
KJ: It really is. It’s evolving, certainly, and I think we are going to see more online surveys done. But I think the gold standard remains your random, digit-dial probability survey conducted through telephone, landlines and cells.
NJBIZ: Does anything about New Jersey’s political landscape make polling here any easier or more difficult than in other areas?
KJ: I think New Jersey is often a fairly predictable state. And by that, what I mean is, we haven’t seen the kind of large swing, one way or the other. I would argue that we’re a pretty reasonable, moderate state, which again makes, I think to some extent, polling a little bit easier than if you were living in a more fluid, ever-changing environment. Perhaps that’s because we’re not getting the influx of new people.
NJBIZ: Reasonable and moderate in the sense that we tend to vote Democratic every four years during presidential elections but still elect Republican governors to multiple terms every few years, as well?
KJ: That’s right. Now, look, it could be changing. New Jersey is not immune to the effects of redistricting. We now have a Legislature that is Democratic, I think partly, of course, by the fact that we have more Democrats than Republicans registered in the state, but also by virtue of the way the districts have been drawn. I’m not suggesting that the way things are, are the way they’re going to remain, but at least for now, that’s how I would describe it.
NJBIZ: One more on 2017. Is this Murphy’s race to lose right now?
KJ: I honestly don’t know. It’s just too early to tell. I would never go out on a limb and make any kind of prediction at this point. The only thing I would say is that we collected data a couple of weeks ago on name recognition and at this point, name recognition is all you have as a proxy for support. Murphy has pumped a lot of money into his campaign, and his name recognition is not that great. I was a little surprised at that, and Wisniewski is not that far behind. … I will wait and see what the trends are. People are looking for change, put it that way, which I think stacks the deck against any Republican.
NJBIZ: Even Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno? Her name recognition was comparable with Murphy’s in that poll.
KJ: Is there a chance? Of course. She already, I think, made a principled stand against the governor over the (gas tax) issue. … But, at the same time, she is very closely aligned with him and she has not had many opportunities to kind of step out of his shadow and distinguish herself. So, I think a lot of it is going to depend on how much ground he cedes to her in the coming months. How much he lets her move beyond the job of lieutenant governor and basically demonstrate her competency in the leadership position. So, in many ways, it’s kind of up to him, as well.
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