Bullying Leader or Leading Bully?

Much has been made of New Jersey Governor Christ Christie’s initial harangue over the state’s loss of Race to the Top funds.  The governor lambasted federal bureaucrats and the Obama administration for not accepting revised information, although subsequent evidence indicates that such information was never provided by the state.

The governor’s political opponents say this incident was just another manifestation of Christie’s bullying personality.  Those more sympathetic see the governor’s self-titled “rants” as the product of a refreshing leadership style.

There is little doubt that Chris Christie approaches his job with a much different style than his predecessors.  One question on the punditry’s mind is how the public perceives this style.  Is Christie seen as a leader or a bully?

The Quinnipiac University Poll attempted to address this question by asking voters straight out:  “Would you describe Governor Christie as being more of a bully or more of a leader?”  Their June poll found New Jersey voters split at 44% for leader and 43% for bully.  By August, opinion had shifted to 51% leader and 39% bully.

One striking thing about those numbers is how closely they match the governor’s overall job performance rating, which was 44% approve to 43% disapprove in the June poll and 51% approve to 36% disapprove in August.  In fact, the results are nearly identical.

The folks at Quinnipiac were kind enough to provide additional information on the job approval and leader/bully questions from the August poll.  Their results show that fully 86% of those who approved of Christie’s job performance called him a leader (just 5% chose bully) and 84% of those who disapproved of Christie saw him as a bully (only 10% chose leader).  That’s a very high correlation.

The morning the June poll was released, New Jersey 101.5 radio host Jim Gearhart discussed it on the air.  One caller identified himself as a participant in the Quinnipiac poll.  He thought that a little bullying on the governor’s part was actually a good thing for the state.  However, the caller chose “leader” in response to the poll question because he felt that the other answer would be interpreted as a negative opinion of the governor.

This participant’s choice in response is what some pollsters call an “expressed belief” – that is, answering a poll question to send a message rather than answering it literally.  Based on the strong correlation between the approve/disapprove question and leader/bully question, this one participant was probably not alone.

[Coincidentally, ABC News pollster Gary Langer just posted a blog on this concept with regard to public “belief” that Barack Obama is Muslim.]

Another concern that Jim Gearhart raised that morning is whether “leader” and “bully” are necessarily mutually exclusive concepts for voters.  We can’t tell from the Quinnipiac poll because the choice was presented as “either/or.”  However, the Eagleton-Rutgers Poll also released results this month which shed some light on the leader versus bully debate.

Eagleton-Rutgers presented poll participants with eight different terms and asked them to rate how well each describes Governor Christie (i.e. very, somewhat, or not at all well).  Among those terms were “Strong Leader” and “Bully.”

Their results found that 36% of New Jersey voters felt that strong leader describes Christie very well and another 34% somewhat well – a total of 70%.  On the other hand, 25% said bully describes the governor very well and 24% somewhat well – a total of 49%.

Obviously, there must be some overlap between the two.  Dave Redlawsk at Eagleton was kind enough to provide me more details on his poll.  Just 4% of New Jersey voters think that both strong leader and bully describe Christie very well.  Interestingly, this 4% result is identical to the percentage of participants in the Quinnipiac poll who both approved of Christie’s job performance and saw him as more of a bully than a leader.

If we expand our pool to those who feel that both characteristics (leader and bully) are at least somewhat apt descriptions of the governor, we get up to just around 30% of all participants in the Eagleton poll.

This suggests that the majority of New Jersey voters see “leader” and “bully” as mutually exclusive concepts when it comes to assessing their governor.  Whether this exclusion is tied intrinsically to one’s overall opinion of the governor or is truly a difference in the underlying concepts is a matter of debate.

The cautionary tale here is that the meaning of poll questions may be different for those of us who write the questions than it is for those who answer them.  Bottom line:  Be careful of taking the results of poll questions too literally.