Our release today revisits some of the very first ever questions on our very first ever poll (what was then simply called the New Jersey Poll) almost 45 years ago. It being a somewhat special anniversary year for us as we approach our 200th poll ever, we re-asked this series of questions on the state legislature that had made up the Poll’s first ever press release. We can see from the results here that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Four decades later, New Jerseyans are just as likely (if not more so) to not know a legislative election within the state is about to take place … or who is currently representing them in the state legislature.
To see the original releases from 1971:
A very special thank you to our incredible staff of undergraduate students at Rutgers who assisted with this release: Zach Goldfarb, Evan Covello, Abigail Orr, Natalie DeAngelo, and Carly Frank. An additional very special thank you to ECPIP graduate assistant Kathleen Rogers on this release.
The full text of the release is below. Click here for a PDF of the release with text, questions, and tables.
WHAT ELECTION? JUST AS IN 1971, NEARLY ALL NEW JERSEYANS UNAWARE OF STATE ASSEMBLY RACES THIS NOVEMBER
FEW CAN NAME THEiR OWN STATE SENATOR
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Forty-four years after the first press release from the Eagleton Institute of Politics’ inaugural poll reported little awareness of the then upcoming 1971 state legislative elections, New Jerseyans today remain uninformed about the Legislature, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Three-quarters of Garden State residents are completely unaware that any elections will be held next week, just slightly better than the 85 percent who were ignorant in 1971, in what was then called the New Jersey Poll.
But residents actually do worse than four decades ago when taking into account whether those who named a specific office(s) on the ballot were correct: just 6 percent rightly say that the state Assembly is on the ballot this year, and 3 percent mention the Legislature in general.
Even fewer residents can correctly name their own state senators. Among all Garden Staters, 8 percent give some name, but only 5 percent actually get it right.
Knowledge about control of the Legislature is more widespread: half of residents are aware that Democrats are in charge, slightly better than the 43 percent who knew in 1971 that Republicans ran the show.
Residents’ low levels of political knowledge most likely feed into ambivalence toward the Legislature. Continuing a longstanding trend, 40 percent have no opinion or are unaware of the state Legislature, 28 percent are favorable, and 32 percent are unfavorable. Asked about the parties within the Legislature, about one-quarter feel favorably toward the Republicans and one-third toward the Democrats. Another third of New Jerseyans have no feeling toward either party.
“As we approach Rutgers-Eagleton’s 200th poll, we are revisiting some questions from its earliest days. It appears that the more things change, the more they stay the same – at least when it comes to awareness of state government,” said Ashley Koning, assistant director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers. “In general, citizens know relatively little about state government, so as the Poll’s first director Stephen Salmore said in 1971, it is ‘depressing but not really surprising.’ In particular, this is an off-year election, and with the General Assembly at the top of the ticket and the only office appearing on every New Jersey ballot, Legislative elections are definitely not on New Jerseyans’ radar this November.”
In another constant in almost a half-century of polling, residents continue to cite taxes and the economy and jobs as the most important problems facing the Garden State; each is named by about one in four residents. They also think the government is making very little progress toward solving anything, no matter their top concern.
Results are from a statewide poll of 935 adults contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Oct. 3 to 10, 2015. The sample has a margin of error of +/-3.6 percentage points. Interviews were done in English and, when requested, Spanish.
Widespread lack of knowledge of races, individual representatives
When asked to name which state office(s) are on the ballot this November, even the quarter of respondents who claim they know do not necessarily have the correct information. Five percent wrongly guess the state Senate, 3 percent mention another office besides one within the state Legislature, and 12 percent believe there will be no elections held at all next week. Registered voters do little better, with 9 percent correctly mentioning the state Assembly and 4 percent saying the Legislature overall.
Awareness increases steadily with age: senior citizens are most likely to correctly state that the Assembly is up for election, at 10 percent, compared to 1 percent of millennials. The latter group is instead the most likely cohort to say the do not know which office(s) will be on the ballot.
Those from the most affluent households and who are the most educated also reach double digits in accuracy, with 12 percent and 14 percent, respectively, knowing about the state Assembly races. Public union households are in this camp as well, at 15 percent.
In addition, residents with an opinion on state Republicans, state Democrats, and the state legislature as a whole – whether favorable or unfavorable – are more likely to be aware of the state Assembly races.
Similar patterns emerge among those who correctly identify their state senator. Older residents, those from more affluent households, those most educated, and those with an unfavorable opinion of the state Legislature tend to know their representatives slightly better than their counterparts – though these numbers barely reach 10 percent.
“When it comes to races at the state level, the same demographic groups who were most aware when we first polled this topic in 1971 continue that tradition today. Over 40 years later, we still see disparities according to factors such as age and education,” noted Koning. “Nonetheless, even among the most knowledgeable groups, New Jerseyans are still largely uninformed.”
The top three most often correctly identified state senators are Steven V. Oroho (R-24), Thomas H. Kean, Jr. (R-21), and Loretta Weinberg (D-27). State Sens. Sandra B. Cunningham (D-31), Bob Smith (D-17), and Kean, Jr. are the three most likely to be mistakenly named by residents as their own representatives.
More awareness of state parties, control, and overall Legislature
While New Jerseyans may not know about next week’s election or which state senator is currently representing them, Democratic control of the State House is correctly assumed across the board – though to varying degrees. Those who identify with parties are more likely to do so than others (50 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans). Once again, residents who are older, more affluent, more educated, have a household member in a public union, and who have an impression about the state Legislature tend to answer correctly more than their counterparts.
Many groups are more likely to have no impression of the state Legislature at all than to lean one way or the other. Among those with opinions, Democrats are more favorable than unfavorable toward the Legislature, while independents and Republicans take a more negative view. Views are mainly divided by party support, with those who tend to side more with the Democratic Party in general also more likely to have a positive view of the Democrat-controlled state Legislature. Yet among those aware that the Democrats have control, 42 percent are unfavorable, versus 30 percent who are favorable.
When asked separately about Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature, residents are only slightly more likely to form an opinion. Thirty-seven percent of New Jerseyans are favorable toward Democrats in the state Legislature, while 28 percent are unfavorable; 35 percent remain unsure. Twenty-four percent feel favorably about Republicans, compared to 41 percent who do not, and 36 percent who are unsure.
Typical party allegiances play an especially large role in favorability of the individual parties. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats have a favorable impression of their own party in the Legislature, while 63 percent of Republicans feel the same about the state GOP.
Different decade, same problems
Over four decades ago, 26 percent of New Jerseyans cited taxes as the number one problem in the state, and the same is true today. The economy, including jobs and unemployment, ranks close to taxes, as it has over the past several years, at 23 percent; this is similar to its 1971 showing at 24 percent, when the category also included poverty and welfare. “Education and schools” comes in third at 11 percent, half the proportion citing that problem in the very first poll. “Crime and drugs” took second place in 1971 (at 24 percent), but now has dropped to fourth, at 9 percent. Six percent now mention something related to traffic, transportation, and infrastructure, compared to 11 percent back then. Residents continue to have issues with government as they did 44 years ago, including spending and corruption.
No matter the problem mentioned, just 1 percent believes the government is doing a great deal about their particular issue, and 15 percent say a fair amount is being done. More than half – 54 percent – say very little is being accomplished, 26 percent say nothing at all, and 4 percent are unsure.
Those who cite one of the top two concerns drive this negativity on the state government’s progress: on taxes, 53 percent say very little and 33 percent say nothing at all is happening, while 59 percent and 22 percent, respectively, say the same about the economy.