Nationwide, there are an unusually high number of competitive races for the Senate this year, but the New Jersey race between incumbent Democrat Robert Menendez and his Republican opponent, State Senator Joe Kyrillos, is not among them.
According to the latest results from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll, Menendez leads by 16 points, 49 percent to 33 percent among registered voters. Among the subgroup of registered voters who are considered most likely to actually cast a ballot in the election, Menendez’s lead is only slightly smaller, at 50 percent to 36 percent. Still, there are some troubling signs in the race, such as Menendez isn’t doing as well as he should with select core Democratic constituencies, including liberal and Hispanic voters.
Much of Menendez’s strength is due to the unusually high level of support he commands from his fellow Democrats. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats (a category that includes independents who “lean” Democratic) say that they will support Menendez in the election – a level of loyalty that’s almost as high as that commanded by President Obama in New Jersey (93% of New Jersey Democrats say they will support the president in the upcoming election). Still, there are some signs of discontent: 11 percent of liberal voters say that they aren’t sure who they’re going to vote for in the Senate, and another 7 percent say that they’ll vote for Kyrillos.
“Menendez has had a number of spats with the administration, and there still seems to be some resentment among the liberal base,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson and an analyst for the poll. “Still, it isn’t as though liberal Democrats are going to stay home when they could be voting for Obama. They may not like it, but in a presidential election year, Menendez can afford to take them for granted.”
The campaign rejoiced in the poll.
“We think that the FDU poll, like every poll before it, has consistently shown Senator Menendez with a lead because of his record getting results for New Jersey,” said Menendez campaign manager Mike Soliman. “The middle class is under attack, and Senator Menendez is fighting back for everyone in the middle class — and those who aspire to enter it — to save and create thousands of jobs, to increase access to health care, to keep the doors open to education and to protect Medicare and social security. Senator Menendez is grateful for the support of people across New Jersey and he will continue to fight back on their behalf.”
But the commanding lead that Menendez holds obscures ethnic dynamics that may spell problems for New Jersey Democrats in the future. In his 2006 race, there was concern that African-American voters, a key Democratic constituency in New Jersey, would not support the Hispanic Menendez, but this doesn’t seem to be the case this year, as 87 percent of African-Americans in the state say they’ll cast their ballot for the incumbent senator. However, only 46 percent of Hispanic voters say that they expect to vote for Menendez, a number well below the 62 percent of Hispanic voters who say they’ll vote for President Obama in the same election.
“Democrats have recognized for a long time that they need to build support among Hispanics in New Jersey if they want to keep winning,” said Cassino. “His relatively low level of support among Hispanics should be something of a warning sign for the Democrats.”
These vote choices are also fairly crystallized. Eighty-two percent of voters say that they are “very certain” about their choice in the Senate race, and only 6 percent say that they might change their minds.
“This is a pattern we’ve been seeing across the country,” said Cassino. “We’re in such a partisan political environment that there just aren’t many people who haven’t made up their minds. In New Jersey, as long as the Democrats stay loyal, their candidate is going to win.”
The dynamics of this race stand in sharp contrast with Menendez’s first Senate election six years ago. In that race, against Tom Kean Jr, analyses showed that Menendez’s margin of victory was almost entirely due to perceived links between Kean and the Bush administration among New Jersey voters.
“Menendez has had the good fortune to run twice in very helpful environments,” said Cassino. “Last time, he was running against an unpopular administration as much as anything, and this time, he’s holding onto the coat-tails of a president who’s doing very well in New Jersey. He may not be the strongest candidate, but he has great timing.”