Don’t Bet on Christie

By: Simon Blum

If your mind is shaped by political headlines, you would probably bet your house today that Governor Chris Christie will be reelected on November 5th, 2013.

After all, there have been news stories galore in recent days about Christie’s enviable position in our blue state less than one year before we head to the polls. This week’s Quinnipiac poll, for instance, finds the governor with a historic 72% approval rating, just short of the 77% approval found by the latest Fairleigh Dickinson University poll. Just prior to Hurricane Sandy, Christie’s approval was in the far lower –albeit very respectable- 55% range.

These figures clearly put Christie in the driver’s seat, but whether he will actually win reelection next year boils down to two fundamental questions: How much of his current bounce will he retain? How many of the voters who approve of his performance on Election Day will actually vote for him?

No one has a crystal ball, but it is highly plausible that by next November Christie’s approval rating will be closer to –or perhaps even lower than- what it was pre-Sandy.

Unlike a tragedy like 9/11, which brought national security to the forefront and boosted George W. Bush for years, Sandy’s fallout will naturally fade from the conscience of all but the most affected New Jersey residents. And despite the precious embrace Christie that offered Obama a week before the election, Democrats will not return the favor.

The tough talking governor and potential formidable GOP presidential nominee can expect a brutal onslaught to boot him out of office. By the time all campaign commercials will have been aired, facts such as, for instance, that the Garden State’s unemployment rate is (as of now) nearly 2% above the nation’s and that the state saw a credit downgrade under the governor’s watch will be at the forefront of voters’ minds. Christie’s trademark abrasiveness will be highlighted in place of his emphatic bipartisan crisis management.    

A steep approval dip after an unusual event fades is not without precedent. Former President George H. W. Bush famously saw his Gallup approval rating skyrocket to 89% in early 1991 due to his leadership during the Gulf War. By February of 1992, with the presidential campaign and recession in focus, it was down to 39% and he lost to Bill Clinton that November. Easy come, easy go.

Secondly, perhaps more importantly, is the fact that even if Christie’s approval rating remains over 50% after Sandy fades and he takes fire, he is not assured reelection, as incumbents in that case typically are. He is a Republican in New Jersey after all. The Garden State has a long history of teasing Republicans in statewide races, with voters coming home to the Democrat as Election Day nears. This trend applies even to Democratic candidates voters don’t love and Republicans they don’t hate.

Christie Whitman, the last popular Republican governor, had a 55% approval rating and a 12% lead over Democrat Jim McGreevey in a Quinnipiac poll in September 1997. Several weeks later, Whitman barely eked out a 1% win with 47% of the vote. On the flipside, Democratic candidates tend to do a lot better on Election Day than their numbers would suggest. A week before Election Day 2009, former Governor Jon Corzine had a dismal 39%-54% approval/disapproval ratio according to Quinnipiac, yet he only lost the race by under 4%. Senator Bob Menendez’s approval rating never crossed 50% until shortly before the election, in which he swamped his GOP rival by 59% to 40%. It is no coincidence that, despite many “competitive” races, no Republican won a senate seat in our state since 1972.

Even during his current honeymoon with New Jerseyans, Quinnipiac found Christie mustering only 53% of the vote against Cory Booker, 19% less than his approval rating. Shortly prior to Sandy, the governor saw only 46% of voters committed to him vs. Booker in Quinnipiac, 10% less than his approval rating and 6% less than the percentage that said “he deserves reelection” in the same poll. A huge chunk of the Democrats and like-minded independents who say they like the GOP governor will not pull the lever for him. A significant approval drop from his current sugar high could put Christie squarely in the danger zone.  

How much of Christie’s approval will drop and how many of his fans will desert him at the ballot box depends on a host of unknowns, primarily how the state economy does over the next year and whether Booker or another strong Democratic candidate takes on the governor.

Christie may still be a clear favorite in eleven months from now, but he may also very well be fighting for his political life. Only time will tell –which is precisely the point.

Simon Blum is a freelance writer and journalist specializing on political analysis and communication.

"He evolves like any other politician who knows how to flip a foe into a friend when necessary. He’ll do whatever it takes to survive."
—Bergen Record columnist Charles Stile, on Gov. Christie's sudden embrace of the way unemployment data is collected