NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – As voters headed to the polls Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election bid was buoyed by some of his highest favorability ratings – 65 percent – since February 2013, according to the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Only 27 percent of registered voters held an unfavorable impression of the governor. Similarly, 68 percent approved of the incumbent’s job performance and 59 percent said his work deserved at least a “B” grade.Christie’s new ratings were nearly as high as they were right after Sandy, when 67 percent of respondents had a favorable impression and 61 percent awarded him at least a B. As he concludes his first term, Christie’s favorability rating is more than 20 points higher than it was just weeks after his inauguration in January 2010.
Despite Christie’s overall consistently high ratings, voters continued to question his performance on important issues. Near the campaign’s end, voters remained less than happy with his performance on taxes (42 percent) and the economy (45 percent). Voters were more taken with Christie’s Sandy recovery effort (80 percent approving), which kept his overall ratings high throughout the year.
“Governors and presidents regularly see downward trends in ratings over their term in office,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers University. “Governor Christie, however, managed to counter that, to his benefit in the re-election campaign. The cause is clearly his leadership in response to Sandy, which overrode other concerns voters might have had. His victory Tuesday was highly personal, not driven by issues.”
Christie’s re-election also was aided by challenger Barbara Buono’s inability to become well known by voters. Immediately before the election, 39 percent still had no real impression of the Democratic state senator. What voters did learn about Buono seemed likely to be more driven by the Christie campaign’s efforts to define her; negative impressions of Buono edged out positive impressions, 32 percent to 28 percent.
Results are from a statewide poll of 804 registered voters with a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points, contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Oct 28 – Nov 2.
High overall ratings spur Christie victory
Following Sandy, Christie maintained exceptionally high ratings among his own base as well as from his otherwise usual detractors. While 92 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of independents held a favorable impression, Democrats reported a seven-point more positive assessment compared to early October. Forty-five percent of Democrats viewed the governor favorably right before Election Day, compared to only 22 percent before Sandy struck.
“As much as she tried, Barbara Buono clearly was unable to make a dent in the goodwill the governor built up following Sandy,” noted Redlawsk. “That Democrats became even more positive toward Christie as the campaign wore on testifies to how difficult a task she faced.”
Fifty-one percent of Democrats gave Christie credit for his job performance. They were joined by 93 percent of Republicans and 71 percent of independents. As for assigning a grade, 86 percent of GOP voters, 59 percent of independents, and 43 percent of Democrats awarded at least a B.
Christie’s overall ratings hid a great deal of unrealized discontent on specific issues, something Buono was unable to tap despite her efforts. As the election neared, voters remained more negative than positive on Christie’s handling of taxes (42 percent approved and 50 percent disapproved). Voters were split on the economy, with 45 percent approving Christie’s performance and 44 percent disapproving. The two issues were by far seen as the most important: one-third named the economy and jobs and 25 percent called taxes the biggest problem facing the state.
But Sandy recovery was a different story. A year after the storm, approval of Christie’s Sandy efforts continued to be widespread and untarnished by Buono’s attacks. Even her strongest supporters approved Christie’s work on recovery.
“New Jersey voters did not necessarily buy Christie’s claims about the economy and taxes, but they also didn’t think Buono would do better,” said Redlawsk. “And though voters consistently said these two issues were top concerns, it’s clear that in the voting booth, positive impressions of Christie overrode any focus on issues.”
Even among those who disapproved of Christie on taxes, 47 percent retained a favorable impression of the governor, and 44 percent said they would vote for him. Disapproval on other issues did not lead invariably to dislike, either. On each issue about one-third of those disapproving remained favorable toward Christie.
Approval of Christie’s stance on education increased in the final month, from 48 percent to 54 percent. More than half also approved Christie’s work on the state budget, and crime and drugs.
Christie’s popularity helped shape opinions on New Jersey’s overall well-being: 59 percent said the state was headed in the right direction, while 34 percent said it was off on the wrong track. While Republicans and independents overwhelmingly felt more positive about New Jersey, even a plurality of Democrats (48 percent) said the state was going in the right direction.
One consequence of Christie’s personal star power was that his running mate, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, remained virtually unknown. Two-thirds of voters continued to have no impression of her, while only 21 percent said they felt favorable and 12 percent felt unfavorable.
Buono remained mostly unknown
Buono’s struggle to gain name recognition did not improve in the final days of the race. More registered voters had no impression of her than had a favorable impression. Only 48 percent of Democrats had a favorable impression of their candidate, while 39 percent had no impression at all.
Even more independents (42 percent) had no impression of the challenger, with just 21 percent favorable and 37 percent unfavorable. Republicans were most likely to know something about Buono, but it was all bad, as 59 percent of GOP registered voters had a negative impression, while only 10 percent were positive.
Buono’s running mate, Milly Silva, fared only a little worse than Guadagno in terms of recognition: 72 percent had no impression of Silva as Election Day approached.
Voter contact favored Christie, but TV was the best messenger
While noticing the ubiquitous Christie for Governor TV ads, most registered voters did not recall receiving any direct contact from either gubernatorial campaign or from political parties or other groups. Just 26 percent reported some kind of campaign contact.
Among contacted voters, 54 percent said they heard from the Christie campaign, while 41 percent reported a Buono contact. One-third reported a Republican Party contact, and 27 percent said they heard from the Democratic Party. Fewer than 10 percent heard from other candidates, non-campaign organizations, or other entities.
Christie’s outreach reflected his efforts to paint himself as a bipartisan candidate. Republicans, independents and Democrats were all equally likely to report a Christie contact. But Buono’s need to keep her own base is reflected in the fact that Democrats were seven points more likely than independents and 18 points more likely than Republicans to say they were contacted by Buono.
Traditional media sources continued to be where voters got information about the governor’s race. Eighty-two percent got their news from television, and 58 percent from newspapers. Internet and radio were nearly as popular, however, with 52 percent and 42 percent, respectively.
Television campaign commercials still reached the largest share of voters: more than three-quarters reported that they saw or heard a campaign ad from one of the candidates, with voters eight points more likely to report seeing a Christie ad than a Buono ad.
“While the internet has become an important information source, voters still reported that television is where they learned most about the campaign, which was covered extensively by national TV news, even if New Jersey has no real local television,” said Redlawsk. “At the same time it is likely that the wall-to-wall Christie ads in particular are part of what voters were responding to when they said TV was an information source. Those ads were pretty hard to miss.”
Some partisan differences in news preferences appeared. While television and newspaper usage was quite even across all partisans, Republicans and independents were more likely than Democrats to use the internet and radio. Radio was also more popular with Christie voters but the internet was more popular with Buono voters.
EDITOR’S NOTE: ATTENTION POLITICAL, ASSIGNMENT EDITORS, Professor David Redlawsk may be contacted at 319-400-1134, 732-932-9384, ext. 285, or firstname.lastname@example.org until 11 p.m. Visit http://eagletonpollblog.wordpress.com for additional commentary. Follow the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll on Twitter @EagletonPoll or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/RutgersEagletonPoll.