Today we are out with new polling on last week’s indictment of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez on charges of corruption. We had planned to be in the field beginning March 27, so added a series of questions on perceptions of corruption in New Jersey, along with two questions about the then-rumored allegations against the Senator. While we were in the field the rumors became fact on April 1. One question was designed to see how much people had heard about the rumors/indictment, while the other asks if the Senator should resign immediately because of the allegations. After the indictment, both the Star Ledger and The New York Times called on Menendez to step down.
We had initially asked the questions in terms of “rumors” so we had to change them to reflect the new reality, which provides us an interesting natural experiment, where we can see if the news of the actual indictment makes much difference in responses. The answer seems to be “maybe”.
Because our original goal was focused more on corruption generally than on Menendez specifically, we embedded a question experiment in our survey which resulted in having only half the sample asked specifically about whether Menendez should resign immediately, or stay unless/until convicted. The other half was asked a generic question about “officials” charged with corruption, in order to directly compare to a question on a previous poll. So while we have 860 respondents with a margin of error of +/-3.8 percentage points, our subsamples on Menendez staying or going has a margin of error of +/-5.2 percentage points. Even so, since 58 percent say he should not resign on allegations alone, and 34 percent say he should quit, we are quite confident that a majority of New Jerseyans support him staying in office for the time being.
Some may wonder why we didn’t ask the public whether they think Menendez is guilty. The simple answer is that we figured a) the public doesn’t really know, and b) the result was likely to be strongly partisan, with Democrats saying not guilty and Republican guilty. Better to let a trial decide in any case.
The full text of the release follows. Click here for a PDF with the full text, questions, and tables.
RUTGERS-EAGLETON POLL: NEW JERSEYANS SAY KEEP MENENDEZ IN OFFICE UNLESS PROVEN GUILTY
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Despite last week’s multi-count federal indictment of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on alleged corrupt dealings with a wealthy ophthalmologist friend and campaign donor, New Jerseyans are not yet ready to throw the Senator out of office. Fifty-eight percent of Garden State residents say Menendez should stay unless he is proven guilty, while 34 percent want him to leave immediately, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll.
Half of the poll sample was asked specifically about Menendez, while the other half was asked a generic question from an earlier poll. As with Menendez, New Jerseyans generally believe a politician should not leave office until found guilty, with two-thirds taking this position. Just 29 percent prefer that an accused official quit immediately. This is a sharp departure from October 2009, when a Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that half of New Jersey residents demanded that accused officials quit when charged, while 42 percent thought they should wait it out.
In the wake of initial rumors, and then the indictment itself, 34 percent of residents have a favorable impression of Menendez – down a mere three points compared to February 2015. Twenty-seven percent are unfavorable towards the Senator (up four points), while 38 percent have no opinion.
But the quarter of Garden Staters who have heard a lot about the charges are decidedly more negative: 47 percent are unfavorable, compared to 35 percent favorable; just 18 percent have no opinion. Similarly, residents asked after Menendez’s actual indictment are more negative than those asked in the days when the charges were only rumors.
“The last time we asked about corruption was in the wake of the July 2009 ‘Operation Bid Rig’ scandal. At that time, people seemed more adamant that an accused official should immediately leave office than they are today,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and professor of political science at Rutgers University. “Either New Jerseyans are more accepting of such accusations than they once were, or the Menendez case has not yet sunk in. But opinions on Sen. Menendez’s future may also be less harsh because this case does not seem as cut and dry as Bid Rig.”
Results are from a statewide poll of 860 residents contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Mar. 27 – Apr. 3, 2015. The sample has a margin of error of +/-3.8 percentage points. The margin of error for the subsamples asked about Menendez or generic officials is +/- 5.2 and +/- 5.3 percentage points respectively. Interviews were completed in English and, when requested, Spanish.
Menendez should stay unless convicted, residents say
The poll was ongoing as rumors that Menendez would be indicted changed to reality. Residents interviewed following the indictment, while less favorable toward the Senator, also tended to be more likely to say he should stay in office unless found guilty than those who were asked earlier. The difference – 65 percent supported remaining in office post-indictment, compared to 55 percent before the announcement – while large, is not statistically significant due to the relatively small number asked this question after the indictment was made public.
While those who have heard a lot about the allegations are more unfavorable toward Menendez overall, nearly two thirds of these most aware residents also say the Senator should remain in office unless he is convicted.
“Once the indictment was announced, we made an appropriate change in the question; the result seems to be more support for the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ even as the Star Ledger and New York Times have called for Menendez to quit,” said Redlawsk. “Perhaps the Senator’s strong response that he will fight the charges had some initial effect as the story was breaking.”
The idea that Menendez, or any official, should not be forced from office before corruption charges are substantiated is supported by both Republicans and Democrats. While 63 percent of Democrats and those leaning Democrat asked specifically about Menendez say he should stay unless convicted, 61 percent of Republicans and GOP leaners agree, little different from the results of the generic question not naming any official. Independents not leaning toward either party are less supportive: only 48 percent say Menendez should remain in office, far fewer than the 65 percent who say the same about a generic official.
A slight ratings slip post-indictment?
Menendez’s favorability ratings have stayed relatively steady across the years he has been in office; in June 2006, one of the first times Rutgers-Eagleton asked about him, 36 percent had a favorable impression. His current rating of 34 percent favorable is indistinguishable from his ratings across the past decade and little changed from last February.
However, the announcement of the actual indictment appears to make a difference: those asked to rate the Senator prior to his indictment were less likely to have an unfavorable impression (23 percent) than those asked after (36 percent), as well as more likely to say they had no opinion or did not know Menendez (41 percent before and 33 percent after the indictment). The share of residents favorable towards Menendez also shows a slight slip post-indictment – 36 percent prior, compared to 31 percent after charges were announced.
“Our pre-indictment sample is much larger than the sample after, which makes us less certain of the changes we see,” explained Redlawsk. “But if the trend continues, the drop in favorability may eventually lead to more people preferring that Menendez step down rather than fight. For now, though, many may be giving him the benefit of the doubt.”
While little partisan difference is evident in whether any accused official should immediately quit, the usual party differences appear in Menendez’s ratings. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 43 percent have a favorable impression, compared to 27 percent of independents and 25 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaners. But 38 percent of Democrats, 47 percent of independents, and 31 percent of Republicans still do not express an opinion about the Senator.
Menendez’s job approval follows a similar pattern. While his approval is basically unchanged from February, disapproval is up 8 points. After the indictment, disapproval increased by 11 points to 36 percent, compared to before the announcement of charges, while approval remained steady (37 percent before, 35 percent after). As with favorability, disapproval increases with attention to coverage of the corruption case.
New Jersey not seen as more corrupt
Most Garden Staters say there is a lot (51 percent) or some (35 percent) corruption in New Jersey politics, but this is little changed from the last time they were asked in October 2009. The apparent leniency toward Menendez and other officials accused of corruption may instead be influenced by the majorities who say the state is no more corrupt than in the past nor compared to other states. Just 20 percent think New Jersey has become more corrupt in the past five years, while 54 percent say nothing has changed, and 17 percent think corruption has declined. At the same time, the 52 percent who think New Jersey is just like other states represents a sharp decline from a February 2014 poll, when 67 percent saw no difference.
Despite perceiving corruption as the norm in politics, residents nonetheless prefer an honest politician, even if he or she may have trouble making things happen, over a politician who might be corrupt but could get things done – 67 percent versus 26 percent. New Jerseyans also see corruption as a major problem in the state: 15 percent mention government corruption and abuse of power as the most important issue in New Jersey, ranking third overall only behind taxes and the economy.