Friday, May 13, 2011

Gov. Christie's Leadership: A Point of Praise and Contention

In our April 2011 poll, we wanted to give voters a chance to directly express their feelings about Gov. Chris Christie, so rather than giving just a closed-ended, favorable/unfavorable, or job performance question, (reported here) we asked New Jerseyans to tell us how they feel about Christie in their own words. Respondents were prompted to tell us what they like and what they dislike about the governor in two questions, randomly ordered.

The responses we received were then coded into categories for analysis. What emerged is a leader who is “trying” – in a good way - but who is also somewhat of a “bully.”

The big picture shows that many respondents pointed to Christie’s leadership style as a reason both to like and to dislike him.

While the number of those who have an unfavorable impression of Gov. Christie is almost the same as those with a favorable impression (42 percent to 44 percent), voters are more likely to say positive things about the governor when given a chance. Nearly two-thirds offer something to like about Christie, compared to 56 percent who have something negative to say. However, only about one-third have reasons to both like and dislike the governor, while 31 percent say only positive things and 25 percent say only negative. Few voters, only 18 percent, have no reasons to like or dislike Christie.

Twenty-five percent of those who say anything positive about the governor praise Christie’s leadership, while 18 percent of those offering negative statements also mention his leadership. For those who like Christie, “leadership” is often paired with words like “courageous” while for those who dislike the governor, his leadership is often described as authoritarian by saying he is a “bully” or “dictator.”

The Governor is Trying, and New Jerseyans Like That

In addition to leadership related responses, those who like something about the governor point to how he is “trying” to do things like cut taxes, take on unions, deal with the budget, and so on. What links these, as is clear from the word cloud ( below, is that these voters like that the governor is trying to shake things up, to make changes to business as usual. “Trying” is the word that pops out here, with 19 percent actually using this word. Yet this also suggests that voters are not yet ready to give credit for actually completing any of these things. Which makes sense, since the tasks are ongoing.

Another fourteen percent mention various policies as reasons for liking Gov. Christie. The policy decisions most frequently mentioned are related to his attempt to balance the budget and to cut spending.

On the Other Hand: Lots of Dislikes

In addition to leadership related responses, Christie’s policy decisions also heavily influence how voters evaluate the governor for good and bad. In fact, for those with something negative to say about him, Christie’s policy decisions weigh heavily into their assessment. Forty-one percent of those who express a dislike mention policies as a basis for their dislike. At the same time, as the word cloud of reasons to dislike the governor makes clear, leadership related and personality statements abound.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, reasons to dislike the governor vary across party identification. Policies top the list of reasons to dislike him among Democrats. Democrats also strongly disagree with the Governor’s leadership style, which they describe as authoritarian. Republicans who have something they dislike about the Governor are more likely to talk about confrontation, rather than leadership.

Women Care More about Policy than Style

In expressing dislikes about Gov. Christie, women are much more bothered than men by his policy decisions. Among women, 51 percent mention policy decisions as reasons for disliking Christie – with educational policy heading the list. Women are far less bothered by his authoritarian style (only 5 percent), and by his authoritarian leadership. Men and women are equally likely to say they dislike his arrogance.

When asked to give reasons for disliking Christie, 32 percent of men who provide an answer mention his policy decisions, and another 14 percent say they dislike his authoritarian leadership style, while 11 percent specifically point to his confrontational tone, and 10 percent mention his character as reasons to dislike him.

Rutgers-Eagleton Poll staffers Mona Kleinberg developed most of the analysis for this post, and Ashley Koning prepared the word clouds. Both are political science graduate students at Rutgers.

Well, another academic year is ending. As we move into summer, things will slow down for the Poll in terms of our public face, but we're working hard behind the scenes to learn from what we've done - the good and the bad - and to continuously try to do a better job each year. So we'll be relatively quiet for a while, unless something really exciting happens!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Some Thoughts on Gov. Christie and NJ Politics

(Lots of links in here to recent events and our most recent Rutgers-Eagleton Poll)

Governor Chris Christie is definitely a different kind of governor for New Jersey. He takes pride in being frank and forceful. His critics wouldn’t use those particular adjectives to describe him. Depending on who you speak with, he’s either a tough talking realist or an arrogant bully (PDF). Let’s take a moment here to recount a few recent highlights and what these may mean politically for Gov. Christie and the state.

The latest personal kerfuffle was when Christie asked the press corps to “please take the bat out on [Loretta Weinberg] for once.” This came in response to a tremendous amount of finger pointing regarding who is right and wrong in using a state law that allows certain elected officials to both collect a pension and a salary for the same position. Sen. Weinberg accused Christie of holding a double standard. Later it would be revealed that she was using the same provision which would spark his comment and subsequent press releases and stories discussing whether or not it was appropriate for Christie to use such language.

When he isn’t going after the Legislature or the NJEA, Christie has been hammering the courts. While the Christie-Sweeney standoff regarding the Supreme Court appears to have been resolved the governors latest salvo against the judiciary system could spark a constitutional crisis if he were to actually defy the court. We don’t think he’ll do this but he’ll be able to score political points no matter the decision. He’ll either win and claim victory, or lose and blame the court for budget cuts bolstering his argument to remake it and do away with bipartisan traditions.

Christie isn’t afraid to speak off the cuff and invites moments that most politicians would shy away from. (In fact, he’s even been referred to as a YouTube star.) We take him at his word that he won’t run for president in 2012 (Though this is turning out to be a strange year for the GOP, and recent reports are that Iowa GOP donors are courting him) but he’s been less definitive when it comes to the chatter for the number two spot. His YouTube moments and willingness to turn away federal funds have helped to make him one of the more popular politicians in the country and probably the most popular among national Republicans who see him through the lens of his press. He has a proven fundraising ability both at home and nationally. He’s also managed to focus on economic and financial issues while dipping his toes into social issues.

Yet all this must be tempered with a sense that while the governor has become a darling of Republicans, his overall ratings in New Jersey are not really all that good and may be at some risk. His approval numbers are roughly even (44% to 42%) but we can imagine big movement up ahead. We are already seeing some change, as over the past few months the governor’s approval ratings among men have declined, while women – who have disapproved of him from the beginning – remain negative. Moreover, since we began polling on Christie’s favorability rating in February 2010, he has never broken 50% in an Eagleton Poll, with his positive rating staying in the range of 44% to 49%. His negatives, however have climbed over time, from a low of 26% unfavorable in February 2010 to a high of 42% unfavorable in February 2011. Now, to be fair, New Jerseyans tend to be pretty hard on their governors, so a roughly 50/50 rating for a Republican governor in a blue state may not really be so bad.

What is one to make of a governor who seems more comfortable using a wrecking ball than a scalpel? It’s hard to tell right now, but the kinds of comments we get on the poll when we ask about Christie continue to show strong polarization. As the next election approaches, we will get a very direct test of Christie’s ability to leverage his support to influence the direction of politics in New Jersey.

Note: Rutgers graduate student Jorge Santos contributed the research behind this posting.