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Monmouth University Polling Institute

Gubernatorial Grudge Match Ahead

Friday, January 16, 2009

Corzine-Christie a tight race in the early days Economy & property taxes top voters’ priorities

Let the games begin!  Governor Corzine gave his re-election year State of the State address on Tuesday.  It came a week after the GOP establishment’s favored candidate, former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, threw his hat in the ring.  The latest Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll provides both good news and bad news for the two, as well as for the other potential contenders.

Governor Corzine starts 2009 with a 43% approve to 40% disapprove job rating among Garden State voters.  While these numbers are not stellar, it marks the first time his job ratings have been in net positive territory in more than a year.  His job numbers went south – 42% to 46% – after last January’s State of the State speech when he unveiled his highly unpopular toll hike plan.  They bottomed out at 34% approve to 55% disapprove in March 2008, and held steadily negative through the summer and fall.

This year, the governor’s State of the State laid out more modest plans, with the emphasis on the economy as his top priority for the coming year.  The voters agree with Corzine – about half name either the economic downturn (35%) or jobs (19%) as the issue they most want to hear the gubernatorial candidates address this year.  However, New Jersey voters are also likely to say that they want the candidates to explain what they are going to do about property taxes (38%).

“Property tax reform remains the sleeping giant in New Jersey, and it is inextricably tied to the economy.  When you ask the typical homeowner how state government can help ease their economic pain, the first response is to lower property taxes,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Education (18%) and health care (14%) are among other issues mentioned by Garden State voters as important in this year’s election.

Looking ahead to potential November match-ups, Chris Christie starts the year as the strongest likely challenger to the incumbent.  Currently, Jon Corzine holds a negligible 38% to 36% lead over Christie among the state’s registered voters.   The two-point gap between Corzine and Christie in early voter preferences is little different than how the incumbent fares against a generic challenger.  In a match-up between Corzine and “another Republican candidate,” Corzine is preferred by 36% to 32%.

“Compared to other potential GOP nominees, Chris Christie enters the race with comparatively high name recognition and generally favorable voter opinion, but he still has a way to go to break beyond the support a typical Republican would get in the state,” said Murray.

The poll found that the other announced and potential Republican candidates fare slightly worse than Christie in hypothetical match-ups with the incumbent governor.  Currently, voters prefer Jon Corzine over former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan by 45% to 29%; over Assemblyman Rick Merkt by 41% to 27%; and over Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine by 44% to 27%.

While the GOP nomination for governor is by no means a foregone conclusion, Chris Christie starts the race for the June primary as the strongest candidate among Republican voters in the state.  The former U.S. Attorney has name recognition among more than 8-in-10 Republican voters, and nearly all of those voters have a favorable opinion of him – 69% compared to only 3% who are unfavorable.  By comparison, Lonegan, who garnered 8% of the primary vote when he ran for governor in 2005 – is known to 43% of Republican voters, including 18% who have a favorable opinion and 9% with an unfavorable opinion of him.  Only 1-in-4 GOP voters say they recognize the name of Merkt (23%) or Levine (28%).

 

– Corzine vs. Christie on the Issues –

Although Chris Christie’s announcement-via-email last week was a bit anti-climactic, his entry into the field was certainly one of the most highly anticipated events for New Jersey’s political class.  However, aside from his tenure as a corruption-busting U.S. Attorney, his record and stance on other important issues has yet to be articulated.  The poll asked some benchmark questions to see how Christie matches up against Jon Corzine on a number of key issues prior to the official unveiling of his platform.

Not surprisingly, Christie has the clear advantage over the incumbent when it comes reducing corruption – 43% of voters say Christie would do a better job of this compared to 25% who pick Corzine on this issue.

On the other hand, the incumbent has a clear 39% to 29% advantage on the issue of education.  Corzine also has a smaller 38% to 33% advantage over Christie on the top voter concern – the economy.  However this issue advantage shrinks to a negligible 30% to 29% among independent voters.

The two are basically tied on handling the state budget – 37% prefer Corzine on this issue to 34% who say Christie would do a better job.

The New Jersey electorate is also split on who is better able to handle the property tax issue – 36% say it’s Christie to 32% who prefer Corzine.  However, among the state’s independent voter group, Christie starts the campaign with a sizeable 37% to 23% edge over Corzine on this other top issue.

“It’s very interesting that while Chris Christie has yet to articulate a property tax plan, many voters are already inclined to believe that whatever he has in mind has got to be better than the current administration,” said Murray.

 

– Emails, the Death Penalty, and W –

No Garden State election campaign is complete without its share of negative attacks on wedge issues.  The poll tested a number of possible messages that could be used against this year’s main contenders.

On Monday, a state appeals court ruled that Governor Corzine does not have to release his email correspondence with Carla Katz, his former girlfriend and state union local president.  Two-thirds (67%) of New Jersey voters are aware of this issue – up from the 55% who heard about it when the story first broke in summer 2007.  While the court declared that the emails are protected by the governor’s executive privilege, fully 6-in-10 voters (61%) say Corzine should release the emails “in order to clear the air.”  Only 29% say he should keep them private to preserve executive privilege.  Those who say the emails should be released include majorities of Democrats (53%), independents (60%), and Republicans (73%) alike.

There is some potential for this to become a campaign issue.  At the current time, 31% of voters say they would be less likely to vote for Corzine if he chooses not to release these emails.

Considering the probable focus on crime and safety in this year’s race if Christie is the GOP nominee, the governor’s support and signing of the state’s death penalty ban in December 2007 could also become a wedge issue.  About one-third of voters (34%) say this issue would make them less likely to vote for Corzine compared to 15% who say it makes them more likely to re-elect the incumbent.

On the other hand, Chris Christie may be hampered by his association with an unpopular, albeit soon to be out of office, president.  George W. Bush appointed Chris Christie to the U.S. Attorney position early in his first term.  Christie was also a fundraiser for the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign.  One-third of voters (35%) say knowing this information makes them less likely to vote for Christie, compared to 14% who say it makes them more likely.

“A number of potential wedge issues in the gubernatorial race are already in play.  The question is whether any of them will be relevant eight or nine months from now,” said Murray.

The Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll was conducted by telephone with 413 New Jersey registered voters from January 12-14, 2009.  This sample has a margin of error of  ± 4.8 percent.  The poll was conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute and originally published by the Gannett New Jersey newspaper group (Asbury Park Press, Courier-Post, Courier News, Daily Journal, Daily Record, and Home News Tribune).  

The questions referred to in this release are as follows:

1.      As you may know, there will be an election for governor of New Jersey this November.  If the election for governor was held today between Jon Corzine the Democrat and Chris Christie the Republican, for whom would you vote?  [NAMES WERE ROTATED]

2.      And if the election was between Jon Corzine the Democrat and another Republican candidate, would you vote for Corzine or the Republican?

3.      I’m going to read you the names of some potential candidates for governor.  Please tell me if your general impression of each is favorable or unfavorable, or if you don’t really have an opinion.  If you don’t recognize a name, just let me know.  [NAMES WERE ROTATED]

         Jon Corzine

         Chris Christie

         Steve Lonegan

         Rick Merkt

         Brian Levine

4.      If the election for governor was between Jon Corzine the Democrat and Steve Lonegan the Republican, for whom would you vote?  [NAMES WERE ROTATED]

[Question 5 was asked of a random half-sample: moe= +/- 7.0%]

5.      If the election was between Jon Corzine the Democrat and Rick Merkt the Republican, for whom would you vote?  [NAMES WERE ROTATED]

[Question 6 was asked of a random half-sample: moe= +/- 7.0%]

6.      If the election was between Jon Corzine the Democrat and Brian Levine the Republican, for whom would you vote?  [NAMES WERE ROTATED]

7.      Do you approve or disapprove of the job Jon Corzine is doing as governor?

8.      In your opinion, what are the most important one or two issues that the candidates for governor should talk about? [Note: Results add to more than 100% because multiple responses were accepted] 

9.      Focusing now on just Jon Corzine and Chris Christie.  Regardless of who you may support for governor… Who would do a better job on [READ ITEMS] – Jon Corzine or Chris Christie?  [ITEMS WERE ROTATED]

         The economy

         Property taxes

         The state budget

         Education

         Reducing corruption

[QUESTIONS 10 AND 11 WERE ROTATED]

10.    Chris Christie is a former U.S. Attorney who was appointed by President George W. Bush.  Christie was also an active fundraiser for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000.  Does knowing this information make you more likely or less likely to vote for Christie for governor, or does it make no difference in your vote?

11.    Just over a year ago, Governor Corzine signed a law banning the death penalty in New Jersey.  He actively supported this effort, which eliminated the death penalty for even the most serious murders.  Does knowing this information make you more likely or less likely to vote for Corzine for governor, or does it make no difference in your vote?

12.    Have you read or heard about the court case surrounding emails Governor Corzine exchanged with Carla Katz, a former girlfriend and head of a state worker’s union, or not?

13.    This week, a state appeals court said the governor does NOT have to release these emails to the public because they are protected by executive privilege.  Some people still have questions about whether those emails include improper discussions about union contract negotiations.  Do you think the governor should release the emails in order to clear the air -OR- Do you think the governor should keep the emails private to preserve executive privilege?  [RESPONSE OPTIONS WERE ROTATED]

14.    If the governor does NOT release these emails, would it make you more likely or less likely to vote to re-elect Corzine in November, or would it make no difference in your vote?

 

The Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll was conducted and analyzed by the Monmouth University Polling Institute research staff.  The telephone interviews were collected by Braun Research on January 12-14, 2009 with a statewide random sample of 413 registered voters. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling has a maximum margin of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.  Sampling error increases as the sample size decreases, so statements based on various population subgroups, such as separate figures reported by gender or party identification, are subject to more error than are statements based on the total sample.  In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

Click on pdf file link below for full methodology and results by key demographic groups.

Download this Poll Report with all tables

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