Sunday, December 28, 2014

Chris Christie's Republican Problem: A Year Of Scandal Damages His Ratings With An Already Suspicious Base

Chris Christie is the least popular Republican in the 2016 primary field, and that's according to Republicans. Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney are both popular with the base. Center illustration is courtesy of Daniel Adel. Illustration on the left is courtesy of Ismael Roldan. Illustration on the right is courtesy of DonkeyHotey.

In a July 2013 piece written on this blog, I suggested that a bipartisanly popular Governor Chris Christie would likely have a harder time winning a GOP primary than all three of his recent predecessors, Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush. The hypothesis was based on an examination of all four politician's favorability ratings with members of their own party in the lead-up to the presidential primary.

Some, myself included, were surprised to learn that, despite home-state rockstar status in the wake of his handling of the Hurricane Sandy recovery, and a national favorability rating in the positive double-digits with voters of all stripes, Christie was in a worse position with his own party than known moderates that ran for President before him.

Flash-forward eighteen months to present day, and the situation has only gotten worse for Governor Christie. Not only did the Bridgegate scandal cause his home-state favorability rating to tumble hard back to earth, but his image has suffered nationally as well. No longer are Democrats giving him the benefit of the doubt - he's essentially any old Republican to them now. Independents, the group among whom Christie often saw his best numbers, now barely keep him above water.

But most important for his lingering presidential run, Christie is in a dangerously perilous position with the people he needs to win a primary - Republicans. In fact, his position is considerably worse than any one of the large pool of potential contenders bantered about by pundits. It's also considerably worse than serious contenders from years past, such as Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani.

Christie's trouble couldn't be more apparent than in a recent Monmouth University Poll of fifteen possible Republican presidential candidates. He ranks second-to-last in terms of net favorability, beating out Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (who only 23% of Republicans are familiar enough with to rate at all; Christie, meanwhile, is the second best-known of the fifteen candidates tested, behind Mitt Romney).

What's worse? Republicans are about evenly split in their views of the New Jersey Governor, with 36% viewing him favorably, while 34% rate him unfavorably. Compare that figure to Mitt Romney's 55% favorability rating (found in the same poll), or Paul Ryan's 11% unfavorable rating. And among the Tea Party supporters that made up 64% of the 2012 Iowa Caucus vote, and 51% of the 2012 New Hampshire Primary vote, Christie is far and away the least popular potential 2016 Republican candidate. From the poll:

"[Christie] does better among those who are not aligned with the Tea Party - 41% favorable to 27% unfavorable, but is viewed negatively by Tea Party supporters - 27% favorable to 46% unfavorable. Christie is the only candidate tested in the poll with an "upside down" rating among Tea Party-aligned Republicans."

And while other national surveys might not paint quite as dire a picture for Christie, they're not a source of comfort either. The November average of the Economist/YouGov weekly tracking poll found Christie at just +19 with Republicans, well below fellow establishment candidate Jeb Bush's +39. In fact, Christie's average 32% unfavorable rating among Republicans was the highest of the ten candidates tested by Economist/YouGov, followed by Jeb Bush's 22% unfavorable rating.

It doesn't look any better if you zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Christie's averaged just a 46% favorable, 32% unfavorable rating across twenty-five national polls of Republicans taken since January 2014. That represents a notable decline from from the 48/23% rating he averaged in surveys taken from the 2012 presidential election to mid-2013.

(*) denotes the poll is of Republican Primary voters, and not simply self-identified Republicans. (^) denotes the poll is a monthly average of the The Economist/YouGov weekly tracking poll. Yellow highlighting denotes a net favorability rating in the positive single digits, or less.
While a +14% favorability rating may be great among Independents, and certainly with the opposing party, it's a much less impressive figure to have within your own party. For example, George W. Bush averaged a +66% favorability rating among Republicans in the lead-up to the 2000 GOP presidential primary. Sarah Palin averaged a +51% rating in the lead-up to the 2012 GOP primary. Heck, even Mitt Romney and John McCain managed +37% and +32% ratings in 2012 and 2008, respectively.

Here's how Christie stacks up among Republicans against the 2016 field, as well as other major players from past Republican presidential primaries (the year in parentheses represents the time period of the sample size used in the average):

None of this is to suggest that Christie can't turn things around by the time 2016 rolls around. But there's very little doubt, at least based on polling, that Christie's base is more tepid about him personally than past perceived "moderate" or "establishment" Republican presidential candidates. Name recognition is likely what keeps him near the top of the crowded and unsettled Republican field for now. What is unclear is how he can carve out the kind of support from conservative Republicans that he would need to win the primary. That is especially hard to do when your opponent's net favorability rating averages 20-50 points higher than your own.

And for what it's worth, Chris Christie's weakness among the Republican party isn't limited to the national landscape. An examination of early state polling in the crucial Iowa and New Hampshire primaries finds that compared to Mitt Romney in 2012, Christie's favorability is weaker in both states, significantly so in the latter. Across six surveys of Iowa Republicans or GOP Caucus goers compiled from RCP and HuffPo Pollster since January 2014, Christie averages just a 44/34% favorability rating. Romney averaged a 52/34% rating across twenty polls taken from January 2011 until the Iowa Caucus. In New Hampshire, the difference is even more pronounced - Christie averages a 47/34% favorability rating across eight polls taken since January 2014. Romney averaged a much more impressive 67/24% rating. If this doesn't improve, Christie won't be able to rely on strong performances in the early states to propel him to the nomination.

As a side note, consider the chart below, which documents Christie's national favorability rating among Republicans since being elected governor of New Jersey in 2009. Note there are three distinct periods: 1) pre- Hurricane Sandy, pre-Obama embrace (January 2010 - October 2012), 2) re-election year, Hurricane Sandy era (November 2012 - December 2013), and 3) post-Bridgegate period (January 2014 - present).

As the table indicates, the great Christie polling surge that took place following Hurricane Sandy, and lasted until Bridgegate, was in spite of Republicans, not thanks to them. Instead, it was Democrats that largely lifted Christie's polling numbers to the dramatic highs he enjoyed for all of 2013. His numbers with Republicans have fallen steadily from their impressive highs of his early years in office, to the worse-than-mediocre lows of today. But for all intents and purposes, Republican distrust and distaste for Christie began when he was seen as providing comfort and cover for President Obama just days before the showdown against Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. It will be interesting to see if Christie can reverse this trend line with Republicans in 2015. If not, it's hard to see how he succeeds in a primary.

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