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.

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