The 2011 Legislative Elections: The more things change… (oh, that’s right, little changed)

Today we report our polling on the legislative elections last week. As we all know, very little changed in the State House, with Democrats actually picking up one seat in the Assembly, while holding even in the Senate. The day after the election we went out to see what NJ voters thought about it. We used a listed sample of registered voters and a detailed screen to try to identify actual voters. We were most interested in following up our pre-election questions about Gov. Christie as a motivator for turnout. Obviously, given record low turnout, that motivation wasn’t so much. But we did find that 40 percent of voters said they voted to support or oppose the governor. And, as we would expect, we found interesting differences between those who voted Republican and those who voted Democrat.

The full text of today’s release is below. For a PDF with the text as well as the questions and tables, click here.



NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J – While Gov. Chris Christie would rather not view the recent legislative election as a personal referendum, 40 percent of New Jersey voters say their votes were driven in part by the governor, according to a new Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. The referendum’s verdict? A split decision, with voters just as likely to support as to oppose Gov. Christie.

Voters were also split over the issues that brought them to the polls, with jobs and unemployment cited as most important by 15 percent of those turning out. Education and Christie’s governing style were each named by 14 percent, while 12 percent cited government spending and 11 percent high taxes. But more voters (28 percent) said they were motivated by positive feelings toward the candidates or party they supported rather than issues. Given the results, 54 percent of all registered voters are happy Democrats retained control of the legislature and can act as a check on the governor, while 32 percent are unhappy with the outcome.

“Before the election, just over half of likely voters said their vote would be driven by their feelings about the governor,” said poll director David Redlawsk, professor of political science at Rutgers University. “While not quite that many actual voters said they voted to show support or opposition to Christie, it is still clear that he was a significant factor in the election, clearly as important as any specific issue.”

Results are from a survey of 753 respondents drawn from a list of New Jersey registered voters, including 392 respondents who voted in the Nov. 8 election, conducted from Nov. 9 – 12. The sample of registered voters has a margin of error of +/- 3.6 percentage points, while the voter sample has a margin of +/-5.0 percentage points.

For many voters, a referendum on Christie

Registered Republican voters were most likely to see the legislative election as a referendum on Christie, with 39 percent saying they voted to show support for the governor, while 11 percent said they voted to show opposition to him. Half of Republicans said Christie had nothing to do with their vote. For Democrats, the election was somewhat less a referendum, with 29 percent voting to show opposition to Christie, and seven percent voting to show support, while 64 percent said their votes were not about the governor. The same 64 percent of registered independents also denied any connection to Christie, while 20 percent said their vote were in support of the governor, and 16 percent in opposition.

Among those actually voting for Republican Senate and Assembly candidates, 37 percent said they voted to support Christie, while 60 percent denied a connection. Likewise, 37 percent of those voting for Democratic candidates said they did so in opposition to Christie, and 57 percent said they voted for other reasons.

Gov. Christie’s approach to governing was named as the most important issue by 33 percent of those voting to support him. Government spending was second at 20 percent, followed by simply liking the candidates (16 percent) and jobs and unemployment (15 percent). Those voting to show opposition to the Governor were more focused on education, with 35 percent naming education and schools as most important, followed by 25 percent mentioning Christies’ governing style. Unemployment and jobs were named by 23 percent and simply liking the candidates or party followed at 13 percent.

Voters who said their votes were not about Christie at all were focused first on simply liking their choices (36 percent), followed by high taxes (15 percent), government spending (13 percent), unemployment and jobs (11 percent), and education and schools (10 percent).

“Taken together, it becomes clear that while a majority of voters say their votes were not about Christie, for a large number of voters the governor did, in fact, drive their vote choices,” said Redlawsk. “Those who support the governor seemed especially interested in showing that support at the polls, which may explain why Republicans were nearly at parity with Democrats in the statewide vote count.”

Majority happy with results; Large gender gap in the vote

Statewide, official numbers show Democrats outpolled Republicans by only three points, though pre-election polls had shown double digit leads for Democrats. And while the lack of competitive races at the district level means little change in Trenton, 54 percent of all registered voters are at least somewhat happy with Democrats retaining control of the legislature; 25 percent of registered voters are very happy, another 29 percent are somewhat happy. Just under one-third are unhappy, including 17 percent who are somewhat unhappy and 15 percent who are very unhappy with Democrats in control. Ten percent do not care who is in control; most of these say it makes little difference who wins.

The narrow statewide difference between Republican and Democratic vote totals hides a great deal of variation. A gender gap looms large: 53 percent of men voted Republican, but only one-third of women did the same. Sixty percent of women voted for Democrats, while only 37 percent of men did so. College graduates were much more likely to support Democrats, while those with less education were much more likely to vote Republican.

Even though voters had a chance to split their tickets in an Assembly race, or to vote for different parties for the Assembly and Senate, few did so. An overwhelming 92 percent reported voting for the same party in all races. “Parties run candidate slates,” noted Redlawsk, “and voters respond by voting for or against the whole slate. Even 92 percent of registered independents voted for the same party across Assembly and Senate races.”

Partisans mostly stayed with their parties: about eight in ten party members voted only for candidates of their party. Registered independents went Republican by 20 points with 56 percent voting for Republican candidates and only 36 percent voting for Democrats.

“While the independents who voted overwhelmingly supported Republicans, Democrats gained from both the much lower turnout of independents and their own large registration edge,” said Redlawsk. “At the same time, the redistricting map benefited incumbents of both parties, meaning it was unlikely much would change in any case.”

Republican voters say NJ going in the right direction; Democrats disagree

About half of voters (49 percent) say New Jersey is going in the right direction, while 40 percent say the state is off on the wrong track. Given a chance to be more specific, only 28 percent say New Jersey is going in the right direction because “things are changing for the better,” while 20 percent think the state is going in the right direction only because “things are not getting worse.” One-quarter say the state is on the wrong track because “things are not getting better” while 14 percent say “things are changing for the worse.” Only 15 percent of registered Democratic voters think New Jersey is changing for the better, while 58 percent of Republicans say so. Independents fall in between, with 31 percent saying things are changing for the better.

Sixty two percent of those who think New Jersey is headed in the right direction voted Republican, while 73 percent of those thinking the state is on the wrong track voted for Democrats.

“If we were looking for more evidence that this vote was a referendum on the Governor, these numbers provide it,” said Redlawsk. “Even though Democrats control the legislature, it was those who are unhappy with the state’s direction who voted for them to remain in control. Voters who like where we are going were much more likely to vote for Republicans. Both groups of voters see the direction of the state set by Christie’s leadership, rather than the legislature.”

Democrats focused on education while Republicans put government spending first

While voters were evenly split over the most important voting issue, differences by party are very large. Republican voters were most concerned with government spending (named by 24 percent), followed by high taxes (16 percent), jobs (13 percent), and Christie’s governing style (13 percent). Democratic voters had different priorities, with education and schools first (26 percent), followed by jobs (15 percent) and Christie’s governing style (15 percent). Few of those who voted for Democrats (two percent) said government spending was most important, while six percent named high taxes. Only four percent of those voting Republican put a priority on education.

Men and women had similar priorities on most issues. Education is an exception, with 21 percent of women but only 8 percent of men calling it the most important issue. The tax issue is also an exception, with men (15 percent) twice as likely as women (7 percent) to cite high taxes as most important. Men and women were equally likely to say their votes were simply about liking the candidates or parties.

Jobs were the focus for 23 percent of voters making under $50,000 but only 7 percent of the highest earning voters. Lower income voters were also more concerned about high taxes (23 percent) than were high earners (4 percent.) More than one in five high earners called government spending the most important issue, while only six percent of those making under $50,000 agreed. Yet high income voters were twice as likely as others to say their votes were about liking candidates or the party at 38 percent compared to just under 20 percent of those making under $100,000.

Who voted?

Initial turnout statistics show fewer than 25 percent of eligible voters showed up to the polls on Nov. 8. The Rutgers-Eagleton Poll identifies significant differences between those who voted and those who stayed home. While 54 percent of voters are favorable toward Gov. Christie, only 45 percent of non-voters feel the same. Likewise, voters are much more likely to think New Jersey is going in the right direction, with 49 percent feeling positive, eight points higher than non-voters.

Registered independents are less likely to vote in legislative elections: while 57 percent of non-voters were registered to neither party, only 32 percent of those who voted were independents. Men were more likely to turn out in this election, making up 51 percent of voters, but only 44 percent of non-voters. Voters are also much less likely to live in the urban Northeast of the state: 11 percent of voters, but 19 percent of non-voters, come from urban areas, and 22 percent of voters are from Shore counties, compared to only 17 percent of non-voters. Voters are also older with 60 percent of voters over 50 compared to 41 percent of non-voters.


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Filed under 2011 Legislative Elections, Christie NJ Rating, NJ Voters

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