A Quick Look at the Menendez-Kyrillos US Senate Race

As we start preparing for our fall semester here at Eagleton, we thought we’d take an overview of the upcoming US Senate race here in NJ. We don’t have new numbers (yet) but looking at what we and others have done over this past year could be instructive.

While the presidential election gets most of the focus, come Election Day this November, one of New Jersey’s U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot, with incumbent U.S. Senator Robert Menendez challenged by Republican State Senator Joe Kyrillos. Polling shows Menendez has maintained quite an edge in the campaign thus far. In July, Quinnipiac gave Menendez a 47-34 percent lead over Kyrillos; a new Farleigh Dickinson PublicMind Poll has Mendendez leading by a similar margin – 45-33 percent.  If we look way back to February (which is actually the last time we asked about this head-to-head matchup at the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll), Menendez held a 44 to 22 percent lead. At one level, this might suggest hope for Kyrillos. Over five months Menendez’s support has remained essentially unchanged, while Kyrillos has climbed by 11 points. But there is a real stumbling block.

While we have not polled the head-to-head recently, in an early June Rutgers-Eagleton Poll we found Menendez with a 34 percent favorable rating (and 21 percent unfavorable). But poor Joe Kyrillos. In late May we found only 13 percent felt favorable toward him. However, that’s better than his unfavorable, which was 8 percent. The more important point is that a whopping 79 percent had nothing to say about him. And this was virtually unchanged from February.

I’d like to ask about some people and groups. Please tell me if your general impression of each one is favorable or unfavorable, or if you do not have an opinion.  State Senator Joseph Kyrillos (Rutgers-Eagleton Polls)

June 12
(RV)

Feb 12
(RV)

Favorable

13%

11%

Unfavorable

8%

9%

No opn/DK

79%

80%

Unwght N=

1,062

914

Kyrillos’ main issue may not be that he is a “red” contender in a “blue” state but instead the fact that no one really knows who he is with only a few months left to go in the race.  Most voters still do not know him or have an opinion of him. And while FDU’s latest numbers show some improvement in awareness of Kyrillos, still well over half of NJ voters remain unaware of who he is. That’s tough when you are running against an incumbent. Challengers have two tasks: first, to convince people not to vote for the person they have already supported; and second, to convince voters that he or she is a viable alternative. And to be viable, people have to have heard of you. (By the way, most potential Democratic challengers to Gov. Chris Christie have the same problem.)

As for Menendez, while 34 percent found him favorable in our June 2012 release, compared to the 21 percent who did not, nearly half of New Jerseyans (45 percent), had no opinion or were unsure of the incumbent. Although a vast majority of incumbents are re-elected, Menendez’s numbers show that he still has a relatively low profile in the Garden State, and this could be a key advantage for Kyrillos. What’s more, Menendez’s favorable and unfavorable ratings have actually slipped a few points since February, returning to levels not seen since over a year ago back in March 2011.  The number with no opinion of him has actually increased by 6 points, up from 39 percent in February.  This is not the direction in which a candidate – even an incumbent – wants to be moving.

I’d like to ask about some people and groups. Please tell me if your general impression of each one is favorable or unfavorable, or if you do not have an opinion.  U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (Rutgers-Eagleton Polls)

Jun 12
(RV)

Feb 12
(RV)

Aug 11
(RV)

Mar 11
(RV)

Feb 11
(RV)

Dec 10
(Adults)

Feb 10
(RV)

Favorable

34%

37%

35%

32%

36%

27%

28%

Unfavorable

21%

24%

28%

24%

26%

24%

20%

No opn/DK

45%

39%

37%

44%

38%

 49%

52%

Unwght N=

1,063

913

614

767

852

904

953

Without a sense of the candidates as individuals, voters are likely to fall back on party cues. If Kyrillos can still seize the opportunity to define Menendez in his own terms, this could make the race more competitive – but time before Election Day is running out, and Kyrillos himself still remains predominantly unknown.  With a presidential race on the ballot this year, the favorability ratings of these senatorial candidates imply that this is not a race that New Jersey residents are following – or care much about.

For more information on New Jersey Public Opinion Polling and political events in general, be sure to check out our official website, Facebook page  and Twitter (@EagletonPoll).

This blog post was researched and drafted by Francesca Conti, a Rutgers undergraduate and and intern with the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling.

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Filed under Kyrillos, Sen. Menendez, US Senate 2012

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