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Crisis management skills, presidential spotlight bolster image among New Jersey voters

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Like him or not, New Jersey voters are convinced Gov. Chris Christie is a smart but stubborn leader according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Asked to characterize the governor using a list of traits, 88 percent of registered voters say “smart” fits Christie somewhat or very well while eight-in-ten say he is a “strong leader” as well as “stubborn.” While just as many thought he was stubborn in an April 2011 Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, voters are now more likely to cite his leadership and say he is smart.

“It appears the last couple months of presidential speculation and hurricane crisis management have combined to boost Gov. Christie in voters’ eyes,” said poll director David Redlawsk, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “As those who like him have become even more upbeat, even those who dislike Christie have become somewhat less negative in their opinions.”

Results are from a poll of 903 adults, including a sample of 821 registered voters conducted among both landline and cell phone households from Oct. 6-9. The full sample of registered voters reported here has a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points.

Voter polarization over Christie moderates

Among the positive traits, voters are most likely to say Christie is “smart” and a “strong leader” according to the poll. Overall 88 percent say smart describes him very well (51 percent) or somewhat well (37 percent) while 81 percent call him a strong leader (45 percent very well, 36 percent somewhat well.) More extreme positions on positive traits – “smart,” “strong leader,” “independent,” and “reformer” have moderated, although even fewer voters say these words do not describe Christie at all than six months ago.

Since April, fewer say smart fits Christie very well (down 5 points) while more say it fits somewhat well (up 10 points). Strong leader sees a similar change: 7 percent fewer say it fits very well, and 14 percent more say the word fits somewhat. Two other positive traits – independent (41 percent very well, 34 percent somewhat well) and reformer (32 percent very well, 37 percent somewhat well) are unchanged overall from April, although again more voters now say these words describe Christie only “somewhat well” than did then.

As in April 2011, “stubborn” is still the negative trait voters most say describes Christie, with 51 percent saying it fits him “very well” and 30 percent “somewhat well. In April, 62 percent thought stubborn fit very well and 20 percent somewhat well suggesting an easing in how strongly voters view the governor on this potentially negative trait.

Respondents also seem to judge Christie less extremely on other negative character traits: “arrogant” (41 percent say it fits very well, down 7 points), “self-centered” (also down seven points to 33 percent) and “bully” (down eight points to 30 percent).

“We see a decline in the number of voters who say both positive and negative words describe Gov. Christie ‘very well’,” said Redlawsk. “Voters are moving to the middle ground especially for the positive traits, becoming much more likely to say positive words ‘somewhat’ describe the governor. The result is less polarization than we have seen in these questions since the governor took office.”

Christie proponents, opponents call him smart and stubborn

Voters who feel favorable (49 percent) and unfavorable (39 percent) toward Christie agree on two things: he is stubborn and smart. Three quarters of voters who view Christie favorably and 90 percent of those with unfavorable views say “stubborn” describes him “very well” or “somewhat well.” Nearly all those (98 percent) who like him say “smart” fits very or somewhat well. But so do three-quarters of voters who have unfavorable impressions of him.

“This phenomenon has been going on since we first asked these questions more than a year ago, though it has become stronger” said Redlawsk. “Of course, both stubborn and smart can have different meanings to different people. If you like the governor, stubborn clearly is a good thing as he refuses to buckle under to the Democrats. If you dislike him, stubborn is probably bad: he won’t compromise. As for smart, it can mean a smart guy maybe at getting his way – or a smart politician who is kind of wily and not quite to be trusted.”

Voters who view the Governor favorably also say that the words “strong leader” (73 percent), “independent” (55 percent) and “trustworthy” (54 percent) describe him somewhat or very well. But those who view Christie unfavorably see him as an “arrogant” (70 percent) “self-centered” (61 percent) “bully” (57 percent).

“In 2010, voters were less certain about Christie’s traits because they knew less about him. As he became better known for his policies and disposition, attitudes initially sharpened and polarized. But now descriptions of Christie have become somewhat less divisive than they were, though still quite different on different sides of the fence,” said Redlawsk.

Anger at government in Trenton

Nearly half (49 percent) of registered voters report getting angry when thinking about “the government in Trenton.” Those who are most likely to be angry also think that the words “stubborn” (52 percent) and “arrogant” (58 percent) describe Christie “very well”. Similarly, the half of voters who do not feel angry when thinking about state government are most likely to say that the words “strong leader” (53 percent) and “reformer” (58 percent) describe the governor “very well”.

“For the most part we suspect voters do not separate their views of Gov. Christie and their feelings about ‘the government in Trenton,'” noted Redlawsk. “Among voters who are angry, negative words about the governor come out on top, but for those who say they are not angry at Trenton, the governor’s personality is seen in a much more positive light. Voters who are satisfied with the state of government in Trenton are fans of the governor’s leadership style.”

Christie worries fewer voters

As Gov. Christie’s overall ratings have improved, emotional responses to him have also become less negative. Six months ago, nearly half of voters said hearing or reading about the governor “worried” them. Today, only 37 percent say the same, a drop of 12 points. “Anger” at Christie has also declined, from 42 percent in April 2011, to only 31 percent today. At the same time, positive responses have changed very little: 39 percent now say reading or hearing about Christie makes them feel “proud” (36 percent in April) and 37 percent saying they feel “enthusiastic” compared to 38 percent six months ago.

“We’ve seen a substantial decline in negative feelings associated with Christie since we last asked these questions in April,” said Redlawsk. “Still, positive feelings like enthusiasm and pride have remained low, even with all of the national attention the governor has received.”

Whether voters feel positive or negative are strongly related to overall opinions about favorability. While two-thirds of voters who favor the governor feel proud or enthusiastic when thinking of him, 62 percent of those who dislike the governor say they make him feel angry and 68 percent say he worries them.


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