Friday, March 5, 2010

2010 Congressional Elections in NJ: 8 Months Out

At some level it may seem pretty silly to poll on elections eight months from now. But on the other hand we are always curious about the state of public opinion and the general mindset of the voters. So in our recent poll we asked tow voter intent questions. For half of our sample we asked the standard (and familiar) "generic ballot" test. Respondents are asked "If the election were today would you vote for the Republican, the Democrat, someone else, or would you not vote?" (We added the "not vote" option to allow people to opt out.) The other half of the sample received a question about voting for their current congressman (all House members in New Jersey are men at the moment) or for a "challenger running against him". The not vote option was given here as well.

Why did we ask only half samples these questions? First, asking one might well confuse a respondent about the other. One might also influence the other. But our main reason was simply to keep our costs down. As usual we had so many things we wanted to ask about that we had to make decisions about what we could actually get done under budget and without over burdening respondents. While we'd like to have more cases for each question, we're pretty comfortable that what we have is meaningful.

So what do we have? Statewide Republicans are essentially at parity with Democrats on the generic ballot. In a state considered pretty blue (although NJ did just elect a Republican Governor) this suggests Democrats are in real trouble. But it's not so simple. First, nearly 40%of respondents answered something other than the two parties - someone else, not vote, and don't know. And second, looking at the incumbent question, "incumbents" hold a lead over "challengers".

But much more persuasively - at least for a poll that does NOT look at individual districts - when we aggregate results by which congressional district respondents live in, we find a very different outcome in the generic test. In districts held by Republican incumbents, "a Republican" has a large lead over "a Democrat". And in Democratic districts, the opposite is true. Except for the case of 3rd District Democratic incumbent John Adler (which we did not poll specifically, but simply looking at the challenge developing against him), incumbents of both parties appear in pretty good shape this early on. Having said that, there are lots of undecided potential voters out there, and a lot can happen in eight months.

The incumbent-challenger ballot test also supports this. Aggregating the results by party of incumbent, in Republican districts "Current congressman" beats "challenger" by 31% - 24%, while in Democratic districts the margin for the current member of congress is 38% - 22%.

So there we are. New Jersey registered voters are unhappy with both parties in Washington, but they support Barack Obama. Obama's coattails are limited however, and lots of folks simply don't know yet what they will do. As always these generic ballot tests are limited - voters will actually see names when they do vote, and in competitive races they will hear an awful lot about both sides before November. Still, most races will not be competitive, if history and these results are any guide.

Here's the press release on this poll. Click HERE to get the full release with questions and tables in PDF format.


NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J – Despite voter dissatisfaction with Washington politics, most incumbent members of Congress in New Jersey do not appear in great danger of losing their seats, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released today.

While 33 percent of registered voters say they will vote for a Democrat for Congress, and 31 percent say they will vote for a Republican, statewide results are misleading. Across the five congressional districts held by Republicans, voters plan to vote for Republicans by a 40 percent to 25 percent margin, while across the eight Democratic districts, voters intend to vote for Democrats by an even larger margin, 41 percent to 22 percent. Significantly, however, nearly 20 percent do not know how they will vote, and 10 percent say they do not plan to vote at all.

The poll of 953 New Jersey adults conducted Feb. 19-22 included 886 registered voters. The full registered voter sample has a margin of error of +/-3.3 percentage points. Vote intention questions were asked of half samples which have a margin of error of +/- 4.8 percentage points.

“The overall picture statewide seems to suggest that Republicans are at parity with Democrats in 2010, but this is misleading,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers University. “While the statewide vote may be close, it is less likely to be so in most congressional districts. We did not poll at the district level, and in the 3rd district Democrat John Adler is likely to face a very difficult challenge. Still, at the aggregate level incumbents of both parties start the year with an advantage over potential general election challengers.”

When voters were asked about voting for their current member of Congress or for a challenger – without identifying either by party – they gave incumbents a 32 percent to 25 percent lead statewide. Across GOP-held districts, incumbents hold a 7-point lead while overall, Democratic incumbents are ahead by 16 points across their districts. At the same time, voters asked about their 2010 voting plans were much more likely to say they “don’t know” or that they do not plan to vote.

“The wildcards this early in the year are not knowing how many challengers will mount strong campaigns and how undecided voters will feel in eight months.” said Redlawsk. “Historically Rutgers-Eagleton Polls have shown large numbers of undecideds until quite late in an election year. A strong anti-Democrat or even anti-incumbent sentiment could have a base to build on, but it will also need well-funded candidates who appeal to independents.

Independents present a mixed picture

Statewide, it appears that independent voters lean towards Republicans for the 2010 election as they did in the 2009 gubernatorial election when Chris Christie outpolled Jon Corzine with independents, 60 percent to 30 percent. Independents asked about their congressional vote by party choose Republicans, 30 percent to 17 percent. But another 12 percent say they will vote for someone else, 32 percent say they don’t know, and 9 percent say they will not vote. Without labeling candidates by party, independents are evenly split between incumbents and challengers, 28 percent each, while 30 percent don’t know and 14 percent say they will not vote.

More importantly, independents with a preference living in Democratic districts are slightly more likely to vote for a Democrat while those in Republican districts strongly support a Republican. While based on very small samples, the independents’ pro-Democratic margin in districts with Democratic incumbents is 26 percent to 22 percent. In Republican districts, independents vote Republican 30 to 14 percent. According to Redlawsk, this suggests that unless a strong anti-incumbent campaign develops, independents may be mostly drawn to the party of their incumbent congressman, but there are risks for Democrats in the current environment.

Obama voters less certain to vote Democratic in 2010

Not surprisingly, a large share of John McCain voters (75 percent) plan to vote for a Republican for Congress, while 5 percent will vote for a Democrat. But just 57 percent of Barack Obama voters say they will vote for a Democrat this time around and 8 percent choose the GOP. Only 11 percent of McCain voters say they are undecided about November’s vote; twice as many Obama voters (23 percent) have no preference for Congress, and another 8 percent say they will not vote. Virtually all McCain voters claim they will vote in 2010.

Corzine voters are more likely to vote for a fellow Democrat for Congress (68 percent) than Chris Christie voters are to vote for a Republican (58 percent.) According to Redlawsk, the larger overall support for Obama in 2008 compared to Corzine’s in 2009 accounts for the difference. Many Obama voters had already defected from Corzine in 2009, leaving only stronger Democratic voters remaining. Among registered voters who did not vote for governor, twice as many support a Democrat for Congress (41 percent) than a Republican (21 percent.)

Obama approval does not mean long coattails

While 57 percent of New Jersey registered voters approve of President Obama’s job performance, only 51 percent say they will vote for a Democrat for Congress in 2010. Twelve percent say they will vote for a Republican, 10 percent say they do not expect to vote and 22 percent are undecided.

Of the 37 percent who disapprove of Obama’s job performance, 61 percent say they will vote for a Republican while 8 percent will vote for a Democrat despite their disapproval of Obama. Another 8 percent say they will not vote, and 15 percent are undecided.

Those approving of the president’s job performance are much more likely to say they will vote for their incumbent congressman, 42 percent to 15 percent for a challenger. Another 22 percent say they will abstain and 22 percent don’t know. The opposite is true of those who disapprove – 40 percent say they will vote for a challenger, compared to 19 percent for an incumbent. But one-third don’t know and 8 percent will not vote.

Worried voters say they will vote for Democrats; less worried support Republicans

Fifty-one percent of registered voters who worry “a lot” about aspects of their personal financial situation say they will vote for a Democrat for Congress in 2010, while 42 percent of those who do not worry a lot plan to vote for a Republican. Across five concerns – housing, credit card debt, heath insurance, jobs and saving for retirement – 16 percent of voters say none of these worry them “a lot,” while 36 percent worry “a lot” about four or all five concerns. Yet this does not translate to voting for challengers against incumbents. Across all levels of worry, voters pick incumbents by 3 to 10 point margins. Those who worry most are actually more likely to say they favor an incumbent.

Looking specifically at concerns about health insurance coverage, 62 percent of registered voters worry “a lot,” 20 percent worry “a little,” and 18 percent worry “none at all.” Democrats running for Congress have an advantage among those who worry a lot, 38 percent to 26 percent, while those who worry only a little support Republicans, 36 percent to 32 percent. Those without concerns about health care strong support a Republican candidate, 44 percent to 17 percent. Similar patterns hold for other personal financial worries.

Change in the air?

A majority of registered voters in New Jersey (52 percent) believe the change Obama promised in his campaign is happening too slowly. Only 32 percent of these voters say they will vote Democratic in 2010, while 30 percent say they will vote for the Republican for Congress. But 20 percent are undecided.

Of the 13 percent who say change is happening too quickly, 71 percent say they will vote Republican, while 12 percent plan to vote for the Democrat. Only 8 percent do not know their candidate preference and 4 percent say they will not vote.

Thirty-one percent of New Jersey voters think the pace of change in Washington is “about right.” Of these, 49 percent say they will vote Democratic while 13 percent will vote Republican. Twenty-two percent don’t know and 12 percent say they will not vote.

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