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More on New Jersey’s Image

Two days after the Gannett New Jersey newspapers ran a feature on New Jersey’s image (which included my analysis of state and national public opinion trends), there is a new poll from Eagleton-Rutgers updating some of those numbers. And they don’t look particularly good.

Wait a minute, you say! Didn’t today’s headlines proclaim that most New Jerseyans like the state? Yes, but the analysis overlooked the fact that these results are the lowest in three decades.

The poll reports that 52% of the public rate the state as either an “excellent” or “good” place to live. That may sound decent in isolation, but how does it stack up to prior years? Here are the numbers from Eagleton’s own poll archive:
2010     52%
2007     63%
2004     68%
2003     72%
2001     76%
2000     76%
1999     76%
1994     71%
1990     59%
1988     78%
1980     68%

The current 52% result is clearly an all-time low in the history of these polls! In fact, the only other time positive opinion of the state dipped below 6-in-10 was during the Florio era toilet-paper tax revolt.

Eagleton also asked about state pride and found that 50% take “a lot” of pride in being a resident of the state. There are only three other trend points for this question. The current result is fairly comparable to the 51% recorded 2003 and 52% in 2001, but lower than the 59% in 1994. Moreover, the 24% who currently say they only have “a little” or “no” pride in being a New Jerseyan is slightly higher than the 15% recorded in 2003, 17% in 2001, and 13% in 1994.

Finally, Eagleton also asked a question about where folks prefer to live. Specifically, “If you could, would you move out of your neighborhood or continue to live where [you] are now?” If they want to leave their neighborhood, they are then asked: “Would you move to another part of your town, to another town in NJ, or to another state?”

Eagleton finds that 63% of New Jerseyans would like to stay in their same neighborhood, 14% would move somewhere else within the state, and 23% move out of New Jersey. The number who would move out of New Jersey stood at 19% in 2001 and 23% in 1995 – so there really isn’t any change there.

However, the number who want to stay in their neighborhood has increased from 54% in 2001 and 56% in 1995. That means the number who would like to move elsewhere within New Jersey – currently 14% – is down from 23% in 2001 and 20% in 1995.

That finding is kind of interesting. I’m not sure if true affinity for one’s neighborhood is on the rise or we’ve started to develop a bunker mentality. It’s certainly worth further exploration.

It’s also important to point out how these results compare to a recent Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll (April 15, 2010) finding that half of the state’s residents want to leave New Jersey.

This just presents another opportunity to get on my soapbox about the framing context in question wording. The Monmouth poll question asks: “As things stand now, would you like to move out of New Jersey at some point or would you like to stay here for the rest of your life?”

The Eagleton question frames the issue in terms of preference to remain in one’s neighborhood. The option of moving out of state is presented as a follow-up only to those who want to leave their neighborhood. The Monmouth question, on the other hand, focuses on the state. Also, the Eagleton question suggests a proximate timeframe, whereas Monmouth specifies moving out during one’s lifetime. Both questions contribute to our understanding of residents’ attachment to the Garden State, but do so from different angles.

As I wrote a couple of days ago, trends are wonderful for providing context in polling. And Eagleton, which has been polling since 1971, is the largest repository of public opinion trends for the Garden State.

I’m not sure why these prior results were omitted from the Eagleton press release. But to me, the trend is the crux of this story.

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Update: Eagleton Poll director David Redlawsk posted a response on his blog. He notes that another part of the context is the current economic environment. He is correct. The NJ rating question – much like the president’s job approval – is as much a product of macro-trends as any item-specific evaluation. However, I’m not convinced of that as a rationale for excluding prior poll results, especially since reporting these numbers is a standard convention in our field. Context may make the analysis more complex, but it also makes it richer.