Wednesday, March 13, 2013

New Fairleigh Dickinson Poll of New Jersey shows 1st signs of Chris Christie Bounce Cracking

Barbara Buono (D) has the unenviable task of unseating popular incumbent Gov. Chris Christie (R). On the bright side, she has no where to go but up. Photo courtesy of Corbis.
Just over two weeks ago, I wrote on this blog about Governor Chris Christie's persistently stratospheric job approval ratings in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, as well as his apparent insurmountable lead against likely Democratic opponent for Governor, Barbara Buono.

While New Jersey Democrats shouldn't be breaking open any champagne bottles, they're getting a touch of good news in the new Fairleigh Dickinson/PublicMind survey of New Jerseyans' attitude towards Chris Christie and the 2013 Governor's race:

If the election for governor was held today, and the choice was Republican Chris Christie or Democrat Barbara Buono, for whom would you vote (registered voters)?
C. Christie  -  58%  (-6)
B. Buono  -  22%  (+1)
Unsure  -  20%  (+5)
 Obviously, a Democrat trailing her Republican opponent in a blue state by over 30 points is never really good news for the Democrat. But it's the figure in parentheses that people should take note of. Those numbers represent the percent-change in each candidate's standing with New Jersey voters since Fairleigh Dickinson's previous poll on the race in January. As you can see, Christie has seen a fair drop in his statewide support, having led Buono 64-21% two months ago. Of course, when you're already over 60% to begin with, you can afford to take a 6 point hit now and then. But in a deep-blue state, no incumbent Republican can afford to take their Democratic opponent lightly (see Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's 1 point reelection win over Jim McGreevey, after leading for most of the campaign by double digits). Especially considering that Christie's job approval rating with New Jersey voters has also taken a hit:

Fairleigh Dickinson has done a great deal of polling on Christie's approval rating since taking office in 2010, which fortunately makes it easy to pick up on trends. As you can see, Christie's net favorability rating has dropped 14 points since November, immediately following Sandy's landfall. Then, Fairleigh Dickinson  measured his approval rating at 77/17%. Today, it's at a stellar, though less substantial 66/20%. Since January alone, Christie's rating has dropped a net 10 points. Don't get me wrong...Christie can absolutely win with a 66% job approval rating, quite easily. But unlike what I argued at HERE, there does now seem to be at least one pollster finding a small crack in Christie's post-Sandy bounce.

Back to the gubernatorial head-to-head between Christie and Buono: note that Christie's loss of 6 points in the Governor's race since January doesn't mean Buono is gaining much steam. Though she is up one point from two months ago, the number of undecided voters has jumped from 15 to 20% (a rare move as we grow closer to the actual election). This likely means that voters are backing away from Christie as some of the 'Sandy' luster fades, but aren't automatically turning to Buono. They're weighing their options, and could always return to the Christie camp.

Christie's biggest drop from January's survey comes among Independent voters, where he falls a net 29 points. But Buono isn't the biggest benefactor from his fall. "Unsure" voters pick up 13% among Independents since January, while Buono only gains 8%.

The good news for Buono: she actually leads among Democrats in the new survey (she trailed Christie 45-35% in January!). The bad news? She only leads 40-36%...with her own deep blue New Jersey. That's pretty bad, and indicative of a serious landslide loss if it doesn't change. Otherwise, the F-D cross tabs suggest there's room to grow for Buono. The chart below illustrates how much growth by re-weighting the F-D sample to reflect the result if Buono wins at least as many Democrats as Jon Corzine did in his losing 2009 Governor's race.

The poll would have shown a 44-44% race had they found Democrats splitting between Buono/Christie the same way they did in '09 with Corzine/Christie. That's a major difference from F-D's actual finding, and indicates the extent of Buono's potential for growth in her uphill battle against Christie. But merely saying Buono has the potential for growth doesn't mean she'll be able to capitalize on it. She still has a number of hurdles to overcome that the incumbent Corzine (D) didn't in 2009: 1. she's barely known statewide, 2. several Democratic politicians and organizations have already come out in support of Christie, and 3. Christie will have a massive financial advantage that the independently wealthy Gov. Corzine didn't have to contend with four years ago (Christie was actually outspent by Corzine, $27 to $11 million).

There's a reason Buono was the only one left standing to challenge Christie in the 2013 New Jersey Governor's race; no one else wanted to. So naturally, she is not expected to win. But finally, for the first time, there's evidence that the 'Sandy-bounce' isn't set in concrete. Now the question is whether the bounce's fade will be significant and fast enough to put Buono in serious contention to win.

UPDATE:  Patrick Murray, of the highly respected Monmouth University Polling, noted to me on twitter that the Nov 13-18th Fairleigh Dickinson poll did not use a "standard probability sample" to measure Christie's approval rating. Indeed, the survey memo itself states: The most recent panel survey by Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind was conducted by telephone from October 26-October 29, 2012, and then again from November 13-18, 2012 using a randomly selected sample of 241 registered voters statewide, and has a margin of error of +/-6.3 percentage points. This should be noted when considering the Fairleigh Dickinson November and October 2012 polls included in the chart above.

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