NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – As Bridgegate continues to dominate Gov. Chris Christie’s second term, and with new questions about how Superstorm Sandy funds have been managed, New Jersey voters have dramatically changed their perception of Christie’s job performance on Sandy recovery, according to a new Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Only 54 percent now approve Christie’s efforts on Sandy, down 15 points since the mid-January poll and a 26-point drop from November 2013. Thirty-six percent disapprove, up 10 points from January, while 10 percent are unsure.
“These new numbers are a far cry from the nearly unanimous praise the governor had received for post-Sandy leadership,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers University. “We’re seeing a real impact from recent claims involving withheld Sandy aid as political payback, as well as accusations of uneven and inappropriate distribution of recovery funds. This could have a more significant long-term impact than the Fort Lee lane closing scandal that opened Christie’s second term.”
While Sandy job approval has taken a big hit, Christie’s favorability rating (49 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable) is statistically unchanged from January (46 to 43 percent). His job approval is stable at 55 percent; 39 percent disapprove, versus 53-41 percent six weeks ago.“Positive views of Christie’s Sandy performance kept his overall ratings high throughout 2013,” noted Redlawsk. “The decline in Sandy approval has returned Christie to the pre-Sandy status quo, when about half of voters supported him and the other half did not or was unsure.”
The double-digit descent in Christie’s Sandy rating is heavily influenced by the 45 percent of voters who believe the administration withheld Sandy aid from some mayors in retaliation for not receiving their re-election support. Just 41 percent of voters think the allegations are false, while another 13 percent are uncertain.
Results are from a statewide poll of 842 New Jersey adults with a margin of error of +/- 3.7 percentage points, contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Feb. 22 to 28. Within this sample are 729 registered voters reported upon in this release, with a margin of error of +/- 3.8 percentage points.
Christie’s Sandy support erodes
Where Christie once enjoyed across-the-board approval for his post-Sandy leadership, divisions have opened. A majority of Democrats no longer praises the governor: just 46 percent now approve his efforts, down 15 points during the past six weeks. Disapproval has jumped to 47 percent of Democrats. But support is also eroding among independents and Republicans. Fifty-four percent of independents continue to approve of Christie’s Sandy work, down 19 points from January. Republican approval dropped a surprising 13 points, to 69 percent.
Approval of Christie’s Sandy performance was once so strong that even those with an overall unfavorable impression were supportive. That is no longer true. One-third of voters unfavorable toward Christie now approve of how he has handled Sandy recovery, down 18 points from 51 percent approval in January. Nearly two-thirds of this group now disapproves.
Christie still does well among voters with a favorable overall impression, with almost three-quarters approving his work on Sandy, but this too is down, by 15 points in the last six weeks.
“When even Republicans show eroding support of a key Christie selling point – his management of the largest natural disaster to hit the state – things are not going well, even if overall favorability ratings look stable for now,” said Redlawsk.
Among the recent Sandy-related allegations against the administration have been claims that benefits were withheld from towns where Democratic mayors failed to endorse Christie’s re-election; 45 percent of voters believe these to be true. Among those voters, only 38 percent approve the governor’s performance on Sandy, while 54 percent disapprove. Those who do not believe the claims strongly support Christie’s Sandy work: 73 percent approve, while 19 percent disapprove.
All this may boil down to partisan preferences since beliefs about the allegations themselves are heavily divided by partisanship: two-thirds of Democrats say Christie’s administration withheld the funds purposely, versus seven in 10 Republicans who say the opposite. Independents are evenly split on the question – 43 percent (true) and 42 percent (false).
Bridgegate continues to roil New Jersey voters
The division over Sandy performance parallels views on the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal. Just over half of voters suspect Christie had knowledge of his advisers’ actions in the closures, while 44 percent do not. Only 16 percent fully believe the governor’s Jan. 9 press conference explanation regarding Bridgegate, down from the 22 percent who said this in January.
Another 35 percent say they somewhat believe Christie; 44 percent do not believe him at all. In January, 32 percent somewhat believed the governor, and 42 percent did not.
Democrats are most apt to say it is very unlikely Christie did not know of his staff’s actions (51 percent), as well as to disbelieve Christie’s explanation at all (64 percent). Republicans are more supportive: 31 percent say it is somewhat likely and 32 percent say it is very likely Christie was unaware. Just over a third of Republicans fully believe his explanation, while another 41 percent somewhat believes it.
Voters who cross the George Washington Bridge at least once a week are more likely than less frequent bridge users to think Christie was unaware: 47 percent think it is very unlikely Christie did not know about the plan, and 52 percent do not believe at all the governor’s explanation.
Asked about the investigation, 38 percent say the state Legislature should continue its effort, but another 30 percent say it should defer to the U.S. Attorney. Almost a quarter says no investigation is needed.
More than half of Democrats want the Democratically-controlled Legislature to continue its efforts while 27 percent say the U.S. Attorney should take over. Twelve percent say no investigation is needed. Forty percent of Republicans say all investigations should be ended, while 31 percent say the U.S. Attorney should take the lead. Twenty percent support the Legislature continuing its probe. Independents are more split, with just over a quarter preferring no investigation at all and a third siding with each of the other options. Surprisingly, 37 percent of those who cross the George Washington Bridge at least once a week say no further investigation is necessary, although a plurality (40 percent) would prefer the state to continue.
Despite challenges, most Christie voters would stick by him
Even with the developing scandals, New Jerseyans are nowhere near ready to trade in their governor. Just one in five voters think Christie should resign in the face of the investigations, but nearly three-quarters says he should stay in office. Even Democrats are not calling for the governor’s head; just a third say he should resign. Just over three-quarters of independents and 92 percent of Republicans say Christie should remain in office.
Almost 90 percent of voters say they would still vote for Christie if they had the chance to vote for governor again. But this does not mean most would vote for him for president. Christie still trails former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, 41 percent to 51 percent, in a 2016 New Jersey head-to-head matchup, although this is a significant improvement from his 34 to 55 percent deficit in January. Asked to name the one person they most want to see as the next president, Christie comes in a distant second to Clinton, drawing fewer than half of the mentions she does.
On issues other than Sandy, Christie’s ratings have remained divided. Just over four in 10 approve his work on the economy and taxes and almost half approve his performance on education.
“In the end, Governor Christie still has a solid base of support among New Jersey voters, even if it is no longer at the record levels we once saw,” said Redlawsk. “In retrospect, it was always unreasonable to expect his post-Sandy ratings would last forever, though we never anticipated how they would fall. Christie’s future may now depend on how well he can pivot to issues that have helped him in the past, including his recent focus on public worker pensions and health care costs. Many New Jerseyans remain happy to stay in his corner, at least for now.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: ATTENTION POLITICAL, ASSIGNMENT EDITORS, Professor David Redlawsk may be contacted at 319-400-1134 (cell), 732-932-9384, ext. 285 (office), or firstname.lastname@example.org until 11 p.m. Questions and tables are available during embargo at http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~redlawsk/EP/Tables2014/EmbargoRelease.html. Visit our blog at http://eagletonpollblog.wordpress.com for questions, tables, and additional commentary. Follow the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/RutgersEagletonPoll and Twitter @EagletonPoll.