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Who Do You Trust?

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Our latest Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Press Media Poll asked New Jerseyans how much they trust their leaders to reform state government. Governor Chris Christie has an advantage over other officials on this metric, but not by as much as some might think.

The governor garners “a lot” of trust from 32% of the public – including 52% of Republicans, 35% of independents, and 15% of Democrats. However, a similar number – 29% – say they have no trust at all in him, including 46% of Democrats, 23% of independents, and 13% of his fellow Republicans.

Both parties in the legislature fare even worse. Only 14% of all New Jerseyans have a lot of trust in the reform credentials of Democratic legislators and an identical 14% feel the same about legislative Republicans. And, legislators of both parties inspire a lot of confidence among just one-third of their fellow partisans – 35% for Democrats and 36% for Republicans. Conversely, legislators get a “no confidence” vote from about 1-in-3 New Jerseyans – 29% for the Democrats and 36% for the Republicans.

We also threw mayors and town councils into the mix, finding 20% of the public have a lot of trust in the reform efforts of their local officials versus 26% who have none.

Then we took this a step further and looked at how many people had pretty much no trust in any level of elected official. These cynics number 11% of the adult population. On the other side of spectrum are 4% who have a lot of trust in almost everybody.

The bottom line is that New Jerseyans are somewhat jaded when it comes to politicians’ claims that they will fix the system. And even Chris Christie, who probably has more credibility on this issue than any governor since Brendan Byrne, does not generate automatic support in this area.

The governor has spent the past few weeks laying out an ambitious reform agenda affecting ethics, pensions, and now income taxes. This is on top of the property tax “toolkit” measures he announced months ago.

There’s a note of caution in these poll results. The governor does not have carte blanche from the public on his approach to government. His budget cuts, while acknowledged as necessary by many, are spreading financial hardship. The error in the Race to the Top application, and the governor’s subsequent handling of the fallout, has dampened some of the goodwill he gained from the passage of a 2% property tax cap in July.

Therein lies the crux of the issue. The governor’s job approval rating made a notable uptick after he signed the cap. Garden State voters did not think that this was the be-all end-all of property tax reform, but just the first step in a very long journey to fix the state’s number one problem.

By any measure, fixing property taxes is the issue by which the public has said it will judge Governor Christie’s success. And New Jerseyans, for the most part, have indicated they will support him as long as it appears that he is working toward that objective.

The first half of President Obama’s term provides a good object lesson. Sure, he signed landmark health care legislation and kept the banks afloat, but he didn’t do what he was elected to do – turn the economy around and put people back to work. More importantly, he was perceived as taking his eye off that ball by concentrating on other issues. And now he can’t get anything done with Congress. These perceptions are the main reasons why his approval rating has moved steadily downward.

Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie has laid out a huge agenda of action items that need legislative approval. The public already thinks the governor and legislature are not able to work together. Putting more bills on the docket, when he hasn’t even gotten a hearing on the toolkit bills he proposed early in the summer, doesn’t appear likely to change that impression. And missteps by the administration on Race to the Top have emboldened the Democratic leadership to oppose him.

The governor has been using his visibility in the national media and local town hall meetings to get the public on his side. He hopes that public support will provide a bulwark against his legislative opponents – a strategy that was used effectively by Ronald Reagan. However, Chris Christie may be putting too many irons in the fire. He risks losing the public’s support – and attention – if they don’t see a light at the end of the property tax tunnel.