A Closer Look by the ECPIP Staff … New Jerseyans and Corruption

Is New Jersey’s Corruption Unique? Not Really, According to State Residents

By Liz Kantor and Ian McGeown

Liz Kantor is an Aresty Undergraduate Research Assistant with the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and a School of Arts and Sciences Honors Program sophomore at Rutgers University. Ian McGeown is an Aresty Undergraduate Research Assistant with the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and is a sophomore at Rutgers University.

These data come from a three-state study by the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll that was in the field from February 22-27, 2014 done in conjunction with two other statewide academic polling centers – Siena Research Institute in New York and Roanoke’s Institute for Policy and Opinion Research in Virginia. We fielded a large set of the same questions to respondents in our respective states and have previously released the state-by-state results. This blog post takes a closer look at the New Jersey-specific data and the differences that emerge within New Jersey itself for some of the questions we asked in this study.

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From The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire to American Hustle, New Jersey is commonly portrayed as being rife with political corruption, bribery, and other less-than-savory activity. The recent Bridgegate controversy has only amplified this narrative in the media, both locally and nationwide. Our most recent Rutgers-Eagleton Poll showed that most New Jerseyans don’t think this corruption is unique to their state, however. When asked if politicians in New Jersey are more corrupt, less corrupt, or no different from politicians in other states, over two-thirds (68 percent) of adults said that there is no difference. Still, about a quarter (23 percent) think that Garden State politicians are indeed more corrupt; very few (5%) think they are less corrupt.

Partisanship does not have a strong effect on attitudes towards New Jersey corruption, which perhaps stems from the fact that politicians from both sides of the aisle in New Jersey have been part of corruption scandals in recent years. Similar to the overall numbers (albeit slightly lower), 21 percent of Democrats believe that New Jersey has more corruption than other states, as do 19 percent of Republicans. Independents are somewhat more skeptical, however, with 27 percent believing that New Jersey politicians are more corrupt. Independents in general are more skeptical about politics, so this result is not that surprising.

More interesting, though, is how perceptions of the scandals that have plagued the Christie administration correspond to views on corruption. While 29 percent of those who find it very unlikely that Gov. Christie was unaware of his officials’ actions regarding Bridgegate believe New Jersey politicians are more corrupt than those in other states, only 19 percent of those who do not think Christie was aware say the same. Thus, those who see Christie as involved are 10 points more likely to think New Jersey politicians are uniquely corrupt. Similarly, those who do not believe Christie’s explanation for Bridgegate at all are 8 points more likely than those who fully believe it to think New Jersey politicians are more corrupt – 26 percent versus 18 percent.

Therefore, while it is clear that most New Jerseyans, regardless of party affiliation, don’t see political corruption as unique to the state, it appears that either the recent scandals have taken their toll on some residents’ views, or residents who are more likely to think NJ politicians are more corrupt see Christie in the same ilk. But given we have data from other states, the former may be the better explanation, since New Jerseyans are slightly more likely than New Yorkers, and almost four times more likely than Virginians, to say their state is more corrupt than others.

But there is some surprisingly good news in these numbers if we look at New Jerseyans’ attitudes on this question over time. Overall perceptions of corruption are actually significantly down in the state since last asked in 2009 – when a whopping 54 percent of respondents said that New Jersey was more corrupt than other states, 40 percent said it was about the same as elsewhere, and only 3 percent believed the state was less corrupt. We must be cautious in seeing a trend here, however, since these 2009 results are from right around the time of some pretty high-profile corruption arrests and convictions in New Jersey.

Nevertheless, despite the Garden State’s connections to corruption featured in real life and both on the small and silver screen, New Jerseyans actually seem to be receding back to pre-2009 levels on this issue (only 16 percent said less corrupt in 1974 and 11 percent said the same in 2002). So even in the face of the ongoing Christie allegations, there is perhaps one very Jersey-esque word that can best sum up residents’ lack of strong belief that New Jersey is more corrupt than other states: “Fuggedaboutit!”

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