New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s favorables are sinking like an anchor thrown into the Long Island Sound, a new poll finds. The key reason: he’s losing the support of Democrats, who started to support him during Hurricane Sandy — and now his poll numbers have returned to pre-Sandy levels. It’s a dramatic decline. The reason: “Bridgegate.”
Following a second week of revelations about “Bridgegate,” Gov. Chris Christie’s job approval and favorability ratings have dropped dramatically among New Jerseyans, with Democrats driving the decline, according to a new Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Following more than a year of strong bipartisan support, Christie’s favorability rating is now 46 percent favorable to 43 percent unfavorable, down from 65 percent favorable just before his landslide re-election. This drop in support is led by a 26-point decline among Democrats.
Voters are slightly more positive about Christie’s performance as governor, with 53 percent approving how he handles the job. But this is down 15 points since November; well below the 66 to 73 percent support Christie had enjoyed throughout the year since Superstorm Sandy. Asked to grade the Governor, 43 percent now award Christie an A or B – down 16 points– and 29 percent assign either a D or F, compared to just 18 percent two months ago.
Christie’s ratings drop is driven by a very large decline among Democrats while most Republicans – and many independents – continue to stand by the Governor. In November, 45 percent of Democrats were favorable, but with new challenges to Christie’s bipartisan leadership, only 19 percent of Democrats are now positive. Democratic approval of Christie’s job performance has dropped from 51 percent to 29 percent. While noticeably down from November, Republicans are still very positive: 78 percent feel favorable, and 83 percent approve of the job Christie is doing. Independent support has also dropped, but a majority continues to favor Christie.
And — not unsurprisingly — Christie’s numbers are particularly fizzling among those who have to go over the bridge that was used as a political bludgeon by some of his aides:
Christie’s ratings are noticeably lower among those who travel across the George Washington Bridge at least once a week, at 37 percent favorable. Those who use the bridge less often are more positive, with 45 percent favorable, compared to 51 percent favorable among voters who never use the bridge. His job approval follows a similar pattern for these commuters.
“Other polls taken immediately after the bridge scandal broke showed relatively small effects,” noted David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers University. “But with another week of revelations, damage appears to have been done. The good will the Governor built up among Democrats with his handling of the Sandy aftermath is gone, at least for now.”
In looking at polls, initial polls suggested he wasn’t badly hurt, but that’s not the case now. I suggest there are several reasons why the public’s reaction on polling could be somewhat delayed beyond what you’d expect from a dramatic 24/7 news cycle:
1. It takes a while for voters to absorb the discussion and media narrative.
2. Polling is a snapshot and one poll does not neccessarily an accurate reading make. but if you started to get several it’s a trend – and polls feed and reinforce a perception, negative or positive.
3. The impact of the culture beyond political pundits. One sign of what the conventional wisdom is — and a factor in perpetuating that conventional wisdom — is the reaction of television and cable comedians who do topical jokes. If something or someone becomes a punchline, that means the comedian and comedy writers now there is a general perception so they create jokes. You can’t get a laugh on a joke based on a perception if the perception doesn’t exist. And — like pack journalism — this perpetuates more jokes. Late night comedians are having a field day.
Christie’s ratings have been negatively affected by the “Bridgegate” revelations and the resulting media onslaught. Only five percent of New Jerseyans say they have heard nothing about the scandal. Overall, residents are generally skeptical of Christie, with more than half saying it is somewhat or very unlikely that his advisors acted without his knowledge. And more than half do not believe the explanation Christie gave at his January 9 press conference.
The scandal has created clear partisan differences over what happened. Republicans mostly support Christie: two-thirds think the Governor was likely unaware of what his staff was doing, and 80 percent at least partially accept his explanation. But only a quarter of Democrats think Christie was unaware of his aides’ actions; instead, over half say it is very unlikely Christie was out of the loop. Moreover, 62 percent of Democrats do not believe at all Christie’s explanation for what happened.
“The re-emergence of strong partisan differences in believing the Governor returns us to a pre-Sandy political environment,” said Redlawsk.
The problem for Christie: with the media realizing there is a genuine, hot, ongoing story, and with federal and state investigations, he is unlikely to be on the receiving end of on-the-upswing news stories. So, most likely, his poll numbers will continue to drop as more developments generate more stories. And each story contains the “boilerplate” summary of what the controversy is all about.
It’s hard to be “the electable candidate” if you’re not much more electable than your rivals. Christie’s not sunk yet, but if independents start to bail, hoo boy.
…It’s a legit achievement for any blue-state Republican governor to stay at or around 50 percent approval for years on end but the legend of Christie’s allegedly unique bipartisan appeal is, obviously, mostly a product of Sandy. His numbers took off after the storm and now Bridgegate’s returned them to their pre-storm normal. How likely is it that he’ll give New Jersey Democrats a reason to start nudging them back up towards 60, especially once they’re eyeing him as an obstacle to holding the White House in 2016?
The keepers of the flame now are independents and moderates. The former currently split 60/33 on Christie’s job approval and 55/33 on his favorability; the latter split 53/40 and 45/41, respectively. As long as those numbers stay healthy, he can still make the “I can play on Democrats’ turf” argument.
With Christie’s numbers back where they were before the hurricane hit, the question is whether they will stabilize — which would suggest that this is a return to “normal” — or if they will continue to drop. The answer to that will largely depend on the outcome of the investigation into his administration’s actions on the bridge scandal and other related inquiries, such as the questions surrounding Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegation that the Christie administration used Sandy relief aid to lobby for favored real estate developers.
One amusing finding from the poll was that people who use the George Washington Bridge regularly were much harsher in their appraisals of Christie than those who didn’t. His favorable rating was 37 percent among regular bridge commuters, 45 percent occasional commuters, and 51 percent among those who never use it. Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but it’s clear the Chris Christie shouldn’t expect to rely on George Washington Bridge commuters as a political base.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.