This past week has seen a new type of story on NJ Governor Chris Christie - one in which failure figures prominently. It goes something like this: First we learn New Jersey came in 11th in the federal Race to the Top competition for school funding. Unfortunately there were only 10 winners. That's bad enough, but then it turns out there was an error in the New Jersey application that cost us 4.2 points. We apparently only needed 3 more to come in 10th and get the $400 million prize.
Governor Christie takes to the podium, three binders in hand, which he says is the thousand page application. He rails on at faceless bureaucrats in Washington, President Obama, and others, saying it's Washington's fault we lost out, that we weren't allowed to correct a minor clerical error made by some mid level staff person. It's vintage Christie, shooting from the hip.
Then we find out that the feds videotaped the presentation, and despite the Governor's claims, NJ WAS given a chance to produce the right numbers. And it's on tape. Suddenly shooting from the hip doesn't look so good. We also find out that the original version of the application that (now former) Education Commissioner Bret Schundler worked out with the NJEA had the right information. But the Governor, in a high profile, shooting from the hip slap down of both the NJEA and Schundler, rejected the compromise and (presumably) his office redid the application and introduced the error.
So in the next shot from the hip Schundler ends up directly in the line of fire and is out as Commissioner. But he insists he did nothing wrong, and in fact told the Governor not to make the claim that the Obama administration didn't let New Jersey correct the numbers.
So here we are. A Governor who has blasted to fame as a straight talking, shoot from the hip, take no prisoners, etc., kind of guy, is caught by his own style.
Is this going to hurt him politically? Will it embolden the Democrats, who seem to cower in Christie's presence? Our recent polling might give some some insight.
In our August 2010 poll we found that Christie was viewed favorably by 46% and unfavorably by 39%. Both numbers are up from last spring, when he was viewed more negatively. But interestingly, his job performance numbers are quite negative, with only 39% rating him excellent or good, and 58% only fair or poor.
So New Jersey voters like Christie overall as a governor, but do not think he's doing that good a job. What kept his favorables positive in the face of the job performance number?
I think it is because New Jerseyans have appreciated Christie's style of leadership, with 70 percent saying the words "Strong Leader" apply either very or somewhat well to him. They also think he's smart with 76 percent saying that word applies. So he's a smart, strong leader, which in times of uncertainty people like very much. Even a majority of Democrats think these words apply to him.
But, 76 percent also say he is stubborn, and 60 percent report that "arrogant" applies to the Governor. And therein lies some risk for him in this dust up.
Will this nearly half-billion dollar screw up hurt the Governor? It is likely to if it impacts beliefs about him being a smart leader, and reinforces his stubbornness and even arrogance in people's minds. But more importantly, it is likely to because Garden Staters LOVE their local schools and their teachers. They may well not love the teacher's union, but that's a lot like hating congress but liking one's own congressman, which time and time again is the case. And here was a chance to get a lot of money for our schools. A chance that was bungled.
In all our polling on the budget, one thing comes out clearly. The cuts to school funding are not popular and many people want the funding restored. In our August poll we asked whether overall budget cuts should be reversed when times get better, or taxes cut. While we haven't published the results, we found that 41 percent want programs restored (while 53 percent want tax cuts). We then asked those who want programs restored, which should be the top priority, and school funding blew every other option away, with 51 percent. Second was restoring programs for the poor at only 16 percent. This tracks with our polling in April where there was strong desire to protect education.
So the numbers tell us that Christie's support from the public is based not so much on job performance, and definitely not on the budget (only 30 percent support the budget in our August poll) but instead on perceptions of Christie the smart strong leader, who comes across as taking on the entrenched interests. And this 400 million dollar misstep may well erode that image the longer it is talked about. If so this could be the beginning of a new perspective on the rookie Governor. Votes may well begin questioning whether it is the leadership or the stubbornness and arrogance that drives what Christie does. As a leader people respect him even if they disagree. But if his leadership results in such high profile failures, they may begin to wonder what else they should question about his approach to running New Jersey.
Governor Christie may continue to shoot from the hip, but he will need to be more careful where he's pointing when he does so.