Friday, August 23, 2013

Christie's Team Finally Breaking A Sweat? Buono Approaches 40% Milestone In NJ Gov. Race

Christie is still by-far the favorite in the New Jersey Governor's race. But unfortunately for him, pundits are expecting more than just a win. And Monmouth University suggests Buono is making gains. Photo features Christie and Buono's faces cut into a corn field in Chester, NJ. Courtesy of the A.P.

For the first time in the 2013 New Jersey Governor's race, and with just over two months left in the campaign, Governor Christie has hit his first polling snag.

Monmouth University, a frequent pollster of various statewide New Jersey races, finds Democratic gubernatorial challenger Barbara Buono getting dangerously close to 40% of the vote, by far her largest share in any poll taken to date, and by a fair margin at that. Her 36% vote share is 5 points higher than her previous record set in June of 31%, again in a Monmouth poll.

Chris Christie has dropped to 56% of the vote, also his lowest share to date, having hit 57% previously in a June Fairleigh Dickinson survey.

So exactly how can the fact that Christie leads Buono in a blue state by a 56-36% margin be labeled a "snag," or any other negative term? Well, because when compared to Christie's polling so far in the Governor's race, it is a snag.

Prior to the new Monmouth poll, Christie led Buono by an impressive 60-26% average across 24 different surveys, 14 net points higher than the margin by which he currently leads in the Monmouth survey. See the table below of all Buono vs. Christie polling to date:

(*) indicates a pollster defined that particular demographic or partisan characteristic differently from the percentages without a (*). Compiled from RCP, Huffington Post Pollster, & Argo Journal.

The six columns from the right of the chart above tell us why Christie's standing against Buono has dropped a net 10 points in two months.

A crucial aspect of the Governor's wild popularity in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was the extent to which traditionally hostile electoral groups (Democrats, African Americans, etc) rallied behind the Republican head of the state. There are only so many Republicans in New Jersey, and you don't obtain 40 point leads against your opponent without a fair amount of cross-over support.

In fact, as the Monmouth poll from February notes, Christie ran nearly even with Buono at one point...among DEMOCRATS.

He also led Buono among Democrats AND African Americans in Farleigh Dickenson, Rutgers Eagleton, and PPP surveys from earlier this year.

But since the last Monmouth survey in June, Buono has increased her level of support among Democrats from 59% to 71%, as Gov. Christie's support collapses from 36% to 21%. That's his lowest level of support among Democrats by far in any NJ Governor poll taken since Hurricane Sandy, and Barbara Buono's highest level of support from her party to date.

I've spoken previously about the danger Buono poses to Christie in the event she starts breaking through with Democratic voters, and the new Monmouth survey is the first poll to suggest the partisans are regressing to their party I.D.

Unfortunately for Gov. Christie, past New Jersey electoral history suggests Buono is likely to gain with Democrats even more before election day, while Christie may not yet have bottomed-out with them.

See the chart below of the Democratic nominee for President, Senate, or Governor's performance among Democrats in New Jersey elections dating back to 1992:

Red highlighting notes races in which the Democratic nominee lost.

As you can see, Buono's current 71% among her own party in the Monmouth poll is on the low-end of Democratic nominees' performance, while Christie's 21% is on the high end.

If the Monmouth survey were reweighted to show Buono winning 77% of the Democratic vote, and Christie winning 20% (the same margin as the 1997 Governor's race between Gov. Todd-Whitman and James McGreevy), all other Monmouth findings remaining the same... Christie's overall lead drops from 20 to 17 points, 55-38%. And if Buono somehow winds up doing at least as well with Democrats as Jon Corzine in 2009 (86%), she still would have trailed in the Monmouth survey, 51-42%, an 11 point drop in Christie's actual lead. 

But lets consider another aspect of Monmouth's newest survey results - like the fact that they're finding the whitest, least minority, most Republican electorate of all five pollsters to survey the New Jersey Governor's race this summer. See the table below:

For a larger version, click here.

Even historically speaking, the electorate being found by Monmouth is a bit more Republican friendly than New Jersey has seen in recent years. See the chart below of the demographic and partisan breakdowns of past New Jersey elections:

As you can see, there's a world of difference between the electorate exit pollsters found in New Jersey during the 2012 Presidential election, and the one Monmouth finds now for the 2013 Governor's race. White voters make up 8% more of the electorate than they did last November, while black & other minority voters lose 4% a piece. The share of Democrats voting drops 6% since last November, while Republicans are up 4%.

Despite its relative Republican bent, there's ample evidence to suggest the electorate Monmouth finds now in New Jersey could be the one that turns out this November. That's because, as noted in a previous post, the marquee Democratic match-up will be taking place 3 weeks prior to the gubernatorial election, with rising-star Cory Booker likely to drive an impressive Democratic turnout in a special senate race. That means the biggest name on the Democratic ticket on November 5th will be Barbara Buono. And betting odds are that Christie will have a much easier time luring Republican New Jerseyans to the polling booth than Buono will with Democrats.

But just for kicks, what IF Buono catches fire. What IF the 2013 Gubernatorial electorate looks identical to 2012? Unfortunately, Monmouth does not provide crosstabs for the vote between Buono and Christie among racial/ethnic groups. But they do provide this data as it pertains to partisan identification:

If Monmouth had found a D+18 electorate, all other findings remaining the same, Buono would STILL trail Christie by a formidable 52-39%.

And suppose we're as generous as Democrats were to Corzine in 2009 and grant Barbara Buono 86% of the Democratic vote in the Monmouth Poll, while also reweighting the party I.D. to 2012? Finally, she catches Christie, managing a 46-46% tie.

But Buono's potential for growth in NJ gubernatorial polling isn't simply limited to Democratic voters. She's been under-performing with African Americans as well. To illustrate this, lets glance at the most recent Quinnipiac poll of the race from early August (again, because Monmouth does not provide votet breakdowns by racial/ethnic group).

First off, consider the chart below, which tracks each Democratic nominee for President, Senate, or Governor's share of the vote among black voters in New Jersey since 1992:

Apparently, African Americans in New Jersey vote for Democrats by roughly the same margin as...well...Democrats (self-identified, that is). Yet the August Quinnipiac survey showed Barbara Buono capturing just 54% of the black vote, to Christie's unprecedented 30%, allowing for Christie's 58-30% lead overall.

But if Quinnipiac had found Buono performing as well with black voters as Jon Corzine in 2009, or as well as the average of all Democratic nominees since 1992 (88%), Christie's lead over Buono drops from 28 to 22 points, or 56-34%. And if you reweight the Quinnipiac racial/ethnic ID to match 2012 turnout, while keeping Buono's level with African Americans at 88%, Christie's lead would drop to 16 points, or 56-40%

What's all this mean? It means that Buono is still screwed, and she's still the odds-on favorite to lose the New Jersey Governor's race. It also means that Christie's Team probably isn't sweating yet. But lastly, it means that Buono may not be quite the cakewalk the Governor's team was hoping for.

The good news for Christie is that under virtually every conceivable electoral scenario, he leads Barbara Buono for Governor in deep-blue New Jersey. 

The bad news is that you can start to see several electoral possibilities that would prevent Christie from claiming his "knock-out," landslide victory. Not to mention the small, but real feasibility of watching what was a 30-40 pt lead dwindle to single digits in the closing weeks. And this matters for a guy who has spent the better part of 2013 stomping on Conservative's toes, and pumping up the notion that he is a highly electable, big-tent Republican.

Once you've made electability your calling card, a small, single-digit victory has the potential of seeming at best anti-climactic, or at worst, damaging to his 2016 ambitions.

UPDATE: The Director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, Patrick Murray, just tweeted the following:

That's not surprising, considering Christie's overall lead dropped 10 points since June. And it does lend credence to the notion that perhaps Democrats and African Americans are returning home to their nominee. Upcoming polls on this race should tell us a lot about whether  Monmouth is picking up on a trend or a blip. 

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