Democrats think today's Quinnipiac gubernatorial poll indicates that Gov. Jon Corzine is well on his way to being understood and embraced by the electorate after making several unpopular and tough, but necessary decisions.
Republicans see the poll as demonstrating lackluster support for the Corzine, considering he's spent a combined $100 million on his two previous statewide races, and early enthusiasm for U.S. Attorney Chris Christie's potential candidacy among those who have heard of him.
Meanwhile, non-partisan political analysts see the poll as a wash, with promising and troubling results for both Corzine and U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, who is viewed as a likely gubernatorial candidate.
Corzine leads Christie in the poll, 42% to 36%, although only 37% of voters think Corzine deserves to be reelected and his approval rating remains net negative. Christie remains a relative unknown, with only 30% of respondents knowing enough about him to form an opinion.
Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), the Democratic State Chairman, said that's the number that caught his attention. Despite dozens of positive front page headlines about his indictments and convictions of prominent public officials since he was sworn in, 70% of voters still barely know anything about him.
On top of that, although Corzine still has a net negative approval rating, he's improved significantly since the last Quinnipiac poll in September.
"I think it's a product of the economic climate, and people trust this Governor on the economy and in his candor," said Cryan. "We've had three years of tough economic budgets – the governor has gotten great credit for it around the country and around the state. But still, when you're not delivering the best of news and dealing with the fiscal crisis."
Examining his own numbers, Quinnipiac pollster Clay Richards wrote that "the long coattails of Barack Obama have reached down into New Jersey and helped Gov. Jon Corzine's re-election prospects, at least for now."
Cryan thinks that those coattails will last until November of next year if Obama proves to be a popular president, especially since there is a gubernatorial race in only one other state.
"Our numbers keep improving. The trend is up for us. After the success of 2008, we're looking forward to the success of 2009," said Cryan. "I think a lot of people look at the two races as in some ways a reflection of the president's first year."
Republican State Chairman Tom Wilson scoffed at that analysis.
"I'll give you something that's based on facts, not spin," he said. "Look back at the last twenty years in New Jersey. Since 1988, the party that has won the White House has lost the governor's office the following year."
Wilson’s office today circulated by email with MSNBC political analyst Domenico Montanaro own take on the poll, further speculating on whether Corzine is angling to be Secretary of the Treasury because “his re-election bid is going to be VERY difficult no matter how much money he spends?
“Jon Corzine has spent $100 million over the last seven or eight years paying for posistive advertising about himself- putting his best foot forward. He gets to craft eh message, put it up on TV, in your mailbox, on the internet, and yet today he stands at a net negative approval rating. His reelect is dismal,” said Wilson. “In that context, Steve Lonegan, John Crowley, Chris Christie, Rick Merkt – any and all of them have an excellent chance to unseat him as Governor. Obviously the most attention is being paid to Chris right now because he’s the one who has the greatest amount of support.”
Wilson also thinks Christie will be able to draw media attention like no other potential candidate, even getting New York and Philadelphia television stations to pay attention to the race.
Although it’s tempting to see the poll as a head to head matchup between Corzine and Christie, Monmouth University pollster/political science Professor Patrick Murray argues that it’s not the number that warrants attention.
“It’s not the head-to-head match up. They’re testing Corzine against a Republican, not Chris Christie,” said Murray.
That’s because so few voters know anything about Christie that it’s far too early to get an accurate picture of what a head-to-head matchup should look like. Instead, the Corzine camp is most likely looking at Corzine’s reelect number: 37%.
“The fact that it’s below 40% is going to be really troublesome for him. If he’s going to continue being governor and run for reelection, you’re going to see a lot of proposals aimed to increase that number,” said Murray.
We’ve already seen at least one of those proposals: the ethics reforms Corzine announced with great fanfare in late September.
But the fact that so few voters know anything about Christie is also a significant weakness for the Republican.
“It’s the sense that we don’t know enough about who he is. That’s not good. That was one of the Dick Zimmer’s problems in the senate race,” said Murray. “Christie really has to introduce himself to the electorate. … The people who do know tend to be Republicans and tend to be positive. He needs to introduce himself to independents.”
Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project, said that Corzine’s approval rating of 43% is about as good as an incumbent can expect in this state and in this economic climate.
“Most public officials aren’t going to get a good rating, because it’s a way of people expressing their frustrations,” she said.
As for Christie, Reed thinks he’s in a good position to increase his public profile, and generate excitement from the GOP.
“If you put together the communications and personal leadership skills together with his record, with those who know him, I think the enthusiasm will be quite high seeing him as a candidate.”