Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Chris Christie's Gubernatorial Opponent Slowly, But Surely Chipping Away, Luring Back Wayward Democrats

Christie at a campaign event in December 2012. Photo courtesy of N.J. Star-Ledger

Nearly 6 months after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Jersey Shore and sent Governor Chris Christie's re-election prospects soaring, survey findings are in firm agreement: Christie is still the heavy, heavy favorite to win, but Democratic challenger Barbara Buono is very slowly, but surely chipping away at his lead w/ traditional Democratic voting blocks.

Since the rare Northeastern Hurricane made landfall late last October, the moderately popular Chris Christie not only saw his job and personal ratings skyrocket, but saw virtually every serious, potential challenger to his governorship step aside in the wake of his soaring popularity. That is, every challenger but one, longterm state legislator named Barbara Buono (D). And until last month, it looked as though Christie might hold onto a rock-solid 40-50 point lead against the unknown Buono.

Then came a Fairleigh Dickinson poll showing a modest, though definite decline in support for Christie on the general ballot question. Since then, 2 more pollsters, Quinnipiac and Rutgers Eagleton, have confirmed that Buono is gaining, slowly, slightly, and surely; especially when you look at her support among Democrats and blacks, two voting blocks she has to nail down in order to give Christie a serious run for his money
The table below documents every poll released on the Christie v. Buono race, and was compiled from, TPM Poll Tracker, and Huffington Post Pollster. Results among all general election voters, Democrats, and African Americans are provided:

*Fairleigh Dickinson's demographic cross-tabs provide a breakdown for white and non-white voters, not white and black voters. Red/"CC" indicate a Chris Christie lead, Blue/"BB" indicate a Barbara Buono lead.

Breaking down the poll results in the above chart by pollster, Rutgers Eagleton shows a discernible drop in support for Christie since their last poll (62% to 57%), as well as an appreciable rise in support for Barbara Buono (20% to 27%). In their January poll, Quinnipiac had Christie leading Buono by an impressive 41 points, or 63-22%. Two polls and two months later, Christie had fallen to a 35 point lead, 60-25%. And as mentioned above, Fairleigh Dickinson has seen Christie's lead dissipate from 43 to 36 points.

Now don't get me wrong. Christie's numbers still look fantastic, and are much better than where they stood at any point before Hurricane Sandy. But there's no doubt that while Christie holds a daunting advantage, two core demographic groups that Buono had previously ceded to Christie appear to be returning home: Democrats and African American voters.

One of the more miraculous things about a disaster or emergency-induced polling bump is that the person receiving it sees his numbers spike among everyone - including his or her political opponents. And indeed, in the aftermath of Sandy, Democratic job approval for NJ's Republican Governor reached as high as 67/26%. Among black voters, his approval/disapproval rating peaked at 56/33%, nearly unheard of for a Republican. But those numbers are on their way down.

For example, Rutgers Eagleton's January poll showed Christie beating Buono among DEMOCRATS, 42-38%. Last week, however, they found Buono retaking the lead with Democrats, 49-31%. That figure certainly isn't enough for Buono to defeat Christie in November, but it's movement in the right direction.

Quinnipiac never found Christie leading Buono among Democrats, not even during his December, January, February polling peak. But Buono's lead over Christie among Democrats has grown from 48-35% in January to 53-29% in March. During the same time, Buono's tiny lead among African Americans grew to 45-29%; again, not enough to be terribly competitive with Christie, but the movement is positive for Democrats.

Fairleigh Dickinson continues the above trend, showing Christie leading Buono 45-35% among Democrats in January, though Buono moved into the lead 40-36% in their March poll. Furthermore, while Christie's lead with non-white voters was large in January (47-29%), it had dropped to just a 41-37% lead in March.

The chart below documents Chris Christie's job approval rating among all voters, Democratic voters, and black voters, since Hurricane Sandy made landfall last October:

*Fairleigh Dickinson's demographic cross-tabs provide a breakdown for white and non-white voters, not white and black voters.

After initially offering very positive views of Christie's job performance following Sandy, the last 3 polls have shown both Democrats and African Americans losing some of their affinity for their Republican Governor.

So, is it time for the forecasters to move this race to anything other than "GUARANTEED REPUBLICAN HOLD"?

Not quite. Christie is still the huge favorite. While Buono is making inroads, it's with voters that she absolutely has to win anyway. It sounds impressive to say that Buono has gone from trailing Christie by 4 with Democrats, to leading him by 18 points. That's an enviable 22 point turn around in just two months. But Buono should already be winning Democrats by about 50 points or more. 18 won't cut it.

Democrats can be optimistic about the fact that with each new poll, things seem to be moving in the right direction for Buono. But Repuiblicans should remind them how slight the gains are, and how quickly November will be upon us. It doesn't look like Buono has time to catch up.

UPDATE: a few hours after I posted this entry, Monmouth released their latest survey on Chris Christie's job approval rating;  he's still at a staggering 65/26%. But following in the path of the pollsters before them, Monmouth notes that Christie's impressive approval rating represents a NET 15 point decline from his February rating (70/16%). Buono would love to see this race take place in the Spring of 2014, rather than this November. Regardless, Christie is still sitting pretty in terms of reelection prospects.

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