Christie’s sky-high ratings will fall, but Democratic gubernatorial candidates face uphill campaign

Gov. Chris Christie is enjoying a level of popularity that is unprecedented by just about any measure.

The latest Quinnipiac University poll shows 95 percent of voters said he did a good or excellent job in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, and his approval rating is 72 percent.

The last governor to enjoy anything close to that level of support was Gov. Tom Kean in the 1980s.

Even more noteworthy is the level of support he enjoys from Democrats, who gave Christie a 52 percent approval rating. 

And just Monday, he made it official he wants to remain in his current role.

“We decided. We’re going to seek re-election,” Christie said in Port Monmouth.

The decision for the governor to run again was basically a no-brainer, said political science professor Brigid Harrison of Montclair State University, adding that it would have been more surprising if he didn’t, given his strong approval ratings. Remaining in office, assuming he’s re-elected, provides that valuable tandem of remaining chief executive of a mostly-blue state, and beefing up his credentials as a presidential candidate for 2016.

“It’s a lot easier to use the pedestal (of the governor’s office) to promote his own image,” she said. “It provides a heavy platform to keep his face out there. This enables him to demonstrate a position of power, all of which would be effective.”

The Quinnipiac poll showed African-Americans and Hispanics, two demographics national Republicans have struggled with, gave Christie an approval rating of 55 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

Harrison added Christie has “never been one to back down from a fight,” and that taking an overly cautious route of banking on his media celebrity, such as becoming an analyst for a cable news network, which would also keep him in the limelight, would not be as attractive.

“Taking a page from Sarah Palin would not be an effective strategy,” she said, referring to the former vice-presidential candidate for John McCain who stepped down as governor after a single term to become a Fox News analyst. Her departure from the governor’s office also opened speculation that she would run for president, but she ultimately passed.

Assistant Director John Weingart of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University also said seeking re-election was the most logical choice, even if the 2016 presidential election would cut into his second term.

“There are many reasons for him to run,” he said. “He clearly likes the job, and is pretty good at it. Governors and presidents are limited to two terms and are generally better remembered much better in history than the ones who served only one term.”

Few experts believe the sky-high ratings Christie is enjoying these days will last. Political leaders inevitably enjoy a boost in their approval ratings following their handling of a disaster or crisis, or when they score a big victory. On the national front, presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both saw their approval ratings skyrocket following the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the killing of Al –Qaeda mastermind Osama bin-Laden, respectively.

“This is very much rally-around–the-flag syndrome,” Harrison said about the high marks poll respondents are giving to Christie. “When you see his numbers spike, it is a testimony of overt bipartisan support that the governor has tried to show.”

Still, experts acknowledge Christie couldn’t have announced his desire to seek re-election at a better point. But there are a couple big obstacles that remain, making it too premature to say Christie is a shoo-in for a second term. It’s not yet known who the Democratic gubernatorial candidate will, and there will be a very challenging rebuilding process. Property taxes will no doubt emerge as a major issue in the springtime, when budget season arrives and residents in many coastal communities will have to pick up the proverbial brunt that FEMA won’t cover, Harris said.

But Christie, unlike most of the past governors, is showing he has widespread appeal, which could sway even those who have the most clout in getting out the vote.

“If the (Democratic) bosses sit on their hands like they did in 2009, that makes a Christie victory more likely,” Harrison said, referring to South Jersey power broker George Norcross, Essex County Executive Joe DiVencenzo and Newark’s Steve Adubato.

For Democrats, Weingart says they could always look to recent history, which shows all New Jersey governors who sought re-election either lost or won by a tiny margin, by no more than 1 percent. The one exception to that trend was Tom Kean in 1985.

There’s also the 1992 election loss of George H.W. Bush, who enjoyed overwhelming support a year before for his handling of Operation Desert Storm.

Money, and a lot of it, will be a necessary ingredient for a Democrat to not only keep up with the massive war chest Christie is bound to have. The Democrats will probably need more money just to try make the case Christie doesn’t deserve a second term. Only Newark Mayor Cory Booker, as of this point, has the kind of appeal that could get donors to open their wallets, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg did to fund education reforms in Newark.

“It’s not going to be an easy sell,” Weingart said. “You’re not picking an easy target. This image (of Christie as a decisive leader) is not going to go away. This storm is not going to be forgotten.”

About the possible argument the other side would make about Christie having less focus on his governor gig once 2016 rolls around, Weingart believes that argument doesn’t hold water.

“I think if anything it is probably a plus to have a candidate from New Jersey (running for national office). “It’s helpful to the state, not a detriment.”

In her opinion, Harrison said the strongest Democratic challengers to Christie would be Booker, given his fund-raising prowess, Senate President Steve Sweeny (D-3) of West Deptford for his appeal to working-class and union voters, and former Gov. and Senate President Richard Codey (D-27), who enjoyed a high degree of popularity during his brief unelected term as governor.

However, Harrison is quick to point out about Codey that “the party bosses are not going to back him.”

That may both help and hinder the affable Essex and Morris counties-based lawmaker.

"I don't think what he's doing tonight, the method by which he's doing it helps to build a trustful relationship."
—Gov. Chris Christie reacting to President Barack Obama's speech on immigration reform.