Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pay-to-Play and Political Corruption

While we're waiting on the next Rutgers-Eagleton Poll (coming soon, I promise!) here are some thoughts on a topic that is regularly of interest in New Jersey: political corruption.

There certainly has been a lot of talk about corruption in New Jersey over the years. And Garden Staters are dubious at best about the ethics of their politicians according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll we did in late 2009. Among the efforts to deal with corruption over the past few years has been pay-to-play laws, designed to limit the ability of large campaign donors to score contracts from local government.

Recently, there has been some discussion of whether Mayor Tony Mack violated Trenton's pay-to-pay laws by in effect having money donated to his campaign through a third party.

Last June, Atlantic City law firm Cooper Levenson donated $7,200 to Partners for Progress "which donated an identical amount to Mack's campaign three days later." The city attorney feels this violated the spirit of the pay-to-play law and attempted to nullify the contract even though the firm asked for and received a refund of its campaign donation shortly after the election. Mayor Mack disagreed and stated that the contract was in good standing.

More recently, the firm asked for its contract to be terminated partly due to the negative press it was receiving.

On the other side of the state, Atlantic City is about to pass its own pay-to-play ordinance in order to quality for state assistance with its budget problems. This is the latest in a patchwork of municipal and county ordinances that are popping up sporadically.

While people may say that the passage of all these ordinances is good news, the real challenge is a lack of consistency and clarity in the laws in different places. A municipality’s mayor and attorney should not be able to reasonably disagree over whether campaign finance laws were broken, yet that is exactly the situation Trenton has found itself in. What we’re left with now is an administration that is either facing a real scandal or an innocent situation blown out of proportion.

Yet the idea of the pay-to-play laws is to address the very real sense among Garden Staters that this state is inherently corrupt. In our 2009 poll, 65% of New Jerseyans agreed that "that there is 'a lot' of political corruption in New Jersey." (PDF link) This is an increase of 20 points from 2004! This same poll found that a plurality of respondents favored citizen's groups to take the lead on ethics with 28% and only 22% choosing state and federal prosecutors. Moreover, New Jerseyans overwhelmingly would prefer ineffective honest politicians over effective dishonest ones.

It may be that the increase in perceptions of corruption in the state is partly due to headlines where it’s not entirely clear whether or not someone violated the law. And there is little doubt that the flow of money in politics both helps feed the perception, but of course also creates the reality of corruption as well.

Money is never going to leave politics and even local campaigns get more sophisticated and costly nearly every cycle. The recession and pay-to-play laws have resulted in somewhat of a decrease in fundraising lately but this is partly due to fear on the part of donors who don’t want to risk contracts. So instead other ways are found, including donating to organizations not legally running “campaigns” and thus not required to disclose where their money comes from. What we’ll be left with is donations made with no legal obligation to disclose donors. And without disclosure how do we even know if pay-to-play laws work?

Much more is going to need to e done to restore Garden Stater’s confidence in their elected officials.

(Note, Thanks to Jorge Santos for his contributions to this post.)

The Iowa Caucuses are Coming - Will Chris Christie be there?

We've been away for the holiday break and then working hard to get the semester started here at Rutgers. In addition to my position directing the Rutgers-Eagleton poll, I am also a Professor of Political Science. So for the past couple months I have been dealing with the more "professorial" parts of my job - preparing and teaching classes and publishing research. With colleagues at the University of Iowa and Western Washington University, I published a new book on the Iowa Caucuses and presidential nominations called "Why Iowa?" You can learn more about the book at our website and read a chapter on how the Iowa Caucuses work.

In the book we examine how the Iowa Caucuses help determine who wins the presidential nomination. No doubt that Iowa launched Barack Obama in 2008, and the win by Mike Huckabee there opened the way for John McCain. The caucus campaigns are underway for the Republicans in 2012. One estimate is that before the end of 2010, there had already been 14 potential candidates visiting Iowa with a total of 45 visits for 65 days. Even New Hampshire has not seen as many visits. And trust me, I lived in Iowa for 10 years. It is a great place, but most people do not choose to visit there in the dead of winter without a very good reason! Those who visit may not yet have declared for president, but they are all certainly dipping at least a toe in the water.

This leads to Governor Chris Christie, currently a darling of those Republicans trying to find a candidate other than the obvious ones. The governor, of course, denies he is running, and logic would suggest he ought to be believed. After all, why run now against an incumbent president, when you've only been in office a year? It makes more sense to raise the national image while focusing primarily on New Jersey's own challenges and getting re-elected in 2013. Moreover, it would seem likely that President Obama will be a formidable opponent, and is probably a favorite for re-election even in the current environment. So if the Governor focuses on (and wins) re-election in 2013, he will be well positioned to begin running in 2014 for the 2016 nomination. Yes, that's right, the campaign starts years in advance.

History suggests that if Governor Christie were running for 2012, he would have to have begun the process by now. As noted above (potential) candidates are already active in Iowa and elsewhere, raising money, talking with activists, and signing on consultants. And he would have been in Iowa - oops, that's right, he HAS already been in Iowa! Still it takes more than showing up once or twice to nail down the Iowa Caucuses, and McCain notwithstanding, doing well in Iowa is almost always a requirement for building the momentum necessary to do well in later states. Skipping Iowa rarely (if ever) pays off - ask President Giuliani how well that strategy worked. And more importantly, winning Iowa requires building a grassroots organization. Some have tried to do it primarily with money (see Forbes, Romney, for example) but those best organized on the ground prevail. Iowa is about good old fashioned grassroots, and unless one begins soon to build an organization, the caucuses are unlikely to be fertile ground for building a winning campaign.

In 2007 Republicans were waiting for months with baited breath for former Senator Fred Thompson to officially announce his campaign. The pundits thought as soon as he announced, he would zoom to the top of the list. Instead, Thompson tried to amble his way to the White House, taking a few bus trips through Iowa but showing no real interest in the give and take with voters that defines an Iowa Caucus campaign. Thompson faded rapidly, and became a non factor. Waiting to jump in late in the caucus campaign season is not a winning strategy.

So is Governor Christie running for president? I take him at his word right now that he is not - certainly if he is, he needs to begin the campaign, even if under the radar. Doing well in Iowa probably matters, and no candidate can do well there without building a grassroots campaign. And that takes time.