It’s been another whirlwind year here at the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, which culminated in our 200th Rutgers-Eagleton Poll this past month. In the spirit of tradition as we near the end of this holiday season, we are continuing our own tradition of reflecting on our top results of the past twelve months.
2015 proved to be an unprecedented year for politics in New Jersey and nationwide, but conversation was not necessarily focused on politics in the present; instead, the 2016 presidential election took center stage, as Donald Trump soared to the top as the GOP frontrunner. The 2016 election has hit especially close to home for Garden Staters as our own Gov. Chris Christie officially took to the campaign trail this past summer and has battled his way to become a top tier contender in New Hampshire.
The Rutgers-Eagleton Poll explored several topics about 2016, Gov. Christie, and more this past year, so with another year coming to a close, and as we raise a toast to 2016, here is a look back at five of what we consider to be our top New Jersey polling stories of 2015 …
5.) Life in the great Garden State: a lot of pride, but a lot of room for improvement
New Jerseyans had mixed feelings about their home state in 2015: when bullied, residents stood up for New Jersey and took a lot of pride in living here (56 percent said “a lot” of pride back in August), citing the state’s location, proximity, and convenience to major cities, and of course the famous Jersey shore, as the features they love most. About six in ten New Jerseyans called the state a good or excellent place to live, in general. But residents were far more negative about other aspects of the state than they had been in a long time. Assessments of the state’s direction have been more negative than positive since March 2014: about six in 10 have consistently said the Garden State has been off on the wrong track this past year, with the gap between right direction and wrong track widening within the last months of 2015. This is a complete reversal from two years ago, with this kind of negativity on state direction not felt since October 2009. And while majorities believed New Jersey was a good or excellent place to raise a family, get an education, or enjoy entertainment and recreation, 63 percent said job prospects were fair or poor, 55 percent said the same about running a business, and 79 percent rated the state fair or poor when it came to retirement. Overall, New Jerseyans believed that the state had either become a worse place to live (41 percent) or had not changed at all (37 percent) in the last five or ten years; only 17 percent said it had gotten better. Nevertheless, residents were somewhat optimistic when asked about New Jersey’s future: 32 percent thought the state would become a better place to live in the next five or 10 years, while another 38 percent said it would stay the same, and 20 percent said life here would become worse.
4.) At a crossroads with transportation: the gas tax, a depleted Transportation Trust Fund, and crumbling bridges and tunnels
The Transportation Trust Fund in New Jersey is about to go broke, and a gas tax increase seems all but inevitable as the primary funding solution. But a gas tax hike continued to be a “non-starter” with New Jerseyans throughout 2015, despite being aware of how badly road repairs and maintenance are needed. As of October 2015, 37 percent of New Jerseyans supported a gas tax increase, compared with 57 percent who did not, a slightly more negative turn since the issue was previously polled in February. There was virtually no change when residents were told the revenue would be dedicated entirely to paying for road maintenance and improvement and other transportation costs: 36 percent supported an increase, while 58 percent did not. When respondents were told a gas tax hike would cost the average driver about 50 cents more per day – or $180 annually – their opposition grew even stronger. Not even a proposed corresponding cut in estate and inheritance taxes made the gas tax hike any more appealing. Yet 54 percent believed not enough money has been spent on road, highway, and bridge maintenance. Similar feelings existed regarding spending on mass transit and the existing (poor) state of the Hudson River rail tunnels, though New Jerseyans did not want to immediately act on these repairs due to cost concerns.
3.) What 2015 election? New Jerseyans unaware of 2015 state legislative elections and legislators
With our 200th ever poll approaching this past semester, we decided to do a throwback in October by re-asking some of the very first poll questions the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll (then known as the New Jersey Poll) ever asked back in 1971. 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 remained just as uninformed about the state Legislature in our October 2015 pre-election poll. Three-quarters of Garden State residents were completely unaware that any elections would be held this past November, just slightly better than the 85 percent who were ignorant in 1971. Residents actually did 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 said that the state Assembly was on the ballot, and 3 percent mentioned the Legislature in general. Even fewer residents correctly named their own state senators. Among all Garden Staters, 8 percent gave some name, but only 5 percent actually got it right. Forty-four years and many state legislative elections later, it appears the more things change, sometimes the more they stay the same.
2.) New Jerseyans say “no” to President Christie
A presidential bid for Gov. Christie went from a probability to a reality this past summer, but the governor has had little support for his run back home in the Garden State. A month after Christie’s official 2016 announcement, seven in 10 New Jersey registered voters said he would not make a good president, and 55 percent thought Christie’s best chances for getting the GOP nomination had already come and gone. Only about one-third of New Jersey voters said he still had a shot at that point, while 6 percent said he never had one in the first place. Fifty-four percent said “presidential” did not describe Christie at all, versus 29 percent who thought it described the governor somewhat well and just 14 percent who said “very well.” In October, 67 percent wanted him to end his campaign. This post-announcement sentiment was nothing new: New Jerseyans never thought Christie was a good fit for president, even before he officially threw his hat into the ring. Even support for a Christie presidency from his own party base has waned in recent months, as Republican and Republican-leaning voters in the Garden State have consistently picked businessman Donald Trump as their top choice ever since he officially entered the race.
1.) Gov. Christie hits rock bottom in the Garden State
After riding a post-Sandy high throughout the entirety of 2013, Gov. Christie’s numbers in the Garden State began to drop precipitously in January 2014 in the wake of Bridgegate and other scandal-related allegations. But it was not until one year later, in 2015, when Christie’s ratings completely turned upside down. In our February poll, a clear majority of New Jersey voters (53 percent) felt unfavorable toward the governor for the first time ever. A majority also disapproved of his job as governor overall for the first time – 52 percent disapprove to 42 percent approve. His numbers continued to spiral throughout the year, as New Jerseyans cited his character, attitude, and untrustworthiness, as well as his 2016 aspirations and lingering Bridgegate accusations, as top reasons for their dislike and his declining ratings. By December, just 33 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Christie, the second lowest rating he has ever received. Christie’s unfavorable rating jumped back to its all-time high of 59 percent after a small improvement in October. Christie’s overall job approval likewise slipped to its lowest point yet in December: 33 percent of New Jersey voters approved of his performance, and 62 percent disapproved, representing voters’ strongest disapproval of Christie’s job performance to date. Christie has fared no better regarding his job approval on individual issues. His rating on the perennial top issue in the state – taxes – hit an all-time low in December, 23 percent approve to 71 percent disapprove. He also reached new lows on the economy and jobs (30 percent approve, 63 percent disapprove), the state budget (25 percent approve, 63 percent disapprove), the state pension fund situation (21 percent approve, 66 percent disapprove) and education (33 percent approve, 59 percent disapprove) to close out 2015. As Gov. Christie continues his campaign for president, and as the primary season officially gets underway, there is no telling what kind of ratings 2016 may bring for the governor back home.