Public Opinion: Painting It by Numbers

Given the dismal state of New Jersey’s fiscal condition, the numbers confronting Governor Christie as he prepares his first state budget can be disheartening.

But a different set of numbers – numbers from public opinion polls – may offer some comfort at he struggles to close a massive deficit and balance the state budget.

A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll showed that a majority of New Jersey voters (52 percent) approve of the way Christie has managed the state since he took office in January, and a Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed the new Governor with a 45 percent favorable rating.

On the surface, the numbers are not surprising. Elected chief executives generally enjoy such popularity during the honeymoon period following their inaugurations, but Christie’s poll numbers show some interesting patterns when they are broken down by political party.

In the FDU PublicMind poll, Republicans approved of the job Christie is doing by a margin of 74 to 7 percent, with 20 percent undecided. This is a large margin indeed, but not completely surprising since Christie is a Republican. What is a bit of a surprise is that Democrats who expressed an opinion also gave him a thumbs-up, albeit by a smaller margin of 38 to 33 percent, with 30 percent undecided. The most significant numbers, however, came from independents who approved of his work as Governor by a margin of 43 to 17 percent, with 40 percent undecided. Since New Jersey has more independents than Democrats or Republicans, they key to electoral success lies in capturing those unaffiliated voters.

Of course, the new Governor has not even been in office for two months, and public sentiment can change quickly – and dramatically. For example, in Jim Florio’s first few months as Governor in 1990, he worked with the Legislature to enact laws to reform auto insurance, ban assault weapons and improve health insurance, leading New York Times columnist William Safire to float his name as a potential national candidate. But after Florio signed $2.8 billion of tax increases into law, he was unable to even win re-election to the post held (although he did come close to winning).

Governor Christie already has made it clear that tax increases are not on the table; therefore, a tax revolt such as the one New Jersey experienced in early 1990s is not in the cards. What we are expecting the Governor to propose in order to balance the budget are massive cuts in state programs and services. Such proposals will not be popular with those who use those programs and services, but again Christie has numbers on his side.

In the FDU Public Mind poll, when asked their preference for balancing the budget, respondents favored program cuts over tax increases by a margin of 66 percent to 21. Likewise, polls conducted by Quinnipiac University showed strong support curbing state spending as a means of balancing the budget.

The question then becomes, will Christie, with public opinion on his side, feel empowered to set forth even bolder proposals when he delivers his budget address to the Legislature on March 16?

Public opinion, after all, can be a powerful tool, as pollster Andrew Kohut explained in a chapter contained in The Politics of News: “Public opinion has granted presidents permission to go to war, denied them permission, and even given them limited permission. Public opinion has rescued embattled presidents and condemned others. It has welcomed, if not solicited, some major policy changes and rejected others.”

On the other hand, as we have seen with many leaders, public support can be fleeting—sometimes in reaction to actions undertaken by the leader, such as the tax increases enacted under Governor Florio. In other cases, public support wanes because it was not really there in the first place—something that can happen when candidates are elected because they run successful “I’m not the other guy” campaigns against unpopular incumbents.

For example, in explaining how conservatives won seats in Congress in 1994, but were unable to topple Bill Clinton in the presidential election two years later, Kohut suggests that much of support Newt Gingrich and his colleagues received came from voters who were disenchanted with Democrats as opposed to being enthralled with conservative ideology: “We voted against the Democrats. We did not vote for undermining the school lunch program, shutting down the Department of Education, or weakening the Environmental Protection Agency, and the like.”

In Christie’s case, a significant portion of the votes he received in November were cast not for him, but rather against incumbent Governor Jon Corzine. A National Election Pool/Edison Research exit poll found that 43 percent of those who voted for Christie said they did so as a vote against the other candidates – not in favor of him.

So to paraphrase Kohut, it is quite possible that we may start hearing choruses of “We voted against Corzine. We did not vote for less state money for public schools, for higher NJ transit fares, for funding cuts to health care programs, and the like.”

At this point, it is still too early to predict, but after the budget address is delivered on March 16, we will have a much clearer idea of whether the Governor’s positive poll numbers painted an accurate picture of public opinion – or if on the other hand, voters are singing a different tune.

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