Last week, the non-partisan Quinnipiac University Polling Institute showed a hypothetical 2009 gubernatorial race in a dead heat, with U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie leading Gov. Jon Corzine by just one point – 41%-40% — well within that poll's plus or minus 2.5% margin of error. But a new Zogby International poll released today, conducted for Garden State Equality, shows Corzine with nine point lead over Christie.
Republican State Chairman Tom Wilson said the numbers show today's poll slightly skewered towards Democrats. As of June 3rd – after a huge influx of new Democratic registrants for the February presidential primary and, to a lesser extent, Republican ones — New Jersey had 1.68 million registered Democrats, 1.03 million registered Republicans and 2.23 unaffiliated/independent voters. The poll's sample group was made up of 331 Democrats, 226 Republicans and only 246 independent/unaffiliated voters.
"We know in New Jersey that's not exactly how the makeup goes," said Wilson.
Still, Wilson said, the poll shows troubling numbers for Corzine.
"Even if we take it at its face value, I think it shows again that we have a governor who's got some significant problems. Here we are 14 months from his reelection and he's barely scraping 45% of the vote. That's not a good place to be as an incumbent and it's as a direct result of the way he's conducted himself in office," said Wilson. "The decisions he's made, the taxes he's raised, failure to improve the economy, sweetheart insider deals like you're now seeing with (former gubernatorial aide) Gary Rose."
Democratic State Chairman Joseph Cryan had a different take on the results.
“It’s an encouraging thing for us. As the numbers continue to show, the Governor’s numbers are rising. People respect the hard decisions for the long-term, and the message from the polling, whether Zogby, Quinnipiac or any other poll, is that the numbers continue to improve," said Cryan, an Assemblyman from Union County.
Montclair University Political Science Professor Brigid Harrison was baffled by the difference between the two polls. Although she acknowledged that it's tempting to downplay the Garden State Equality results because the group leans left by its nature and typically endorses Democrats, she said that Zogby isn't the type of pollster to manipulate questions or results to suit its clients' agendas.
"Zogby is not going to fudge results because of who's paying the contract. Otherwise it really denigrates their name if they're just doing this as a gun for hire. Part of it is they need to be accurate," she said.
But political observers found that the poll's most interesting results weren't the Corzine/Christie head-to-head matchup, but the large percentage of voters who didn't know enough about Christie to give him either a favorable or unfavorable rating. In the Zogby poll, 45.4% of respondents felt they didn't know enough about Christie to develop an opinion of him – despite Christie's frequent appearance in state newspapers. In the Quinnipiac poll, that number was 69%.
To Harrison, Christie's relative anonymity bodes well for Corzine, even if his lead is only in the single digits and Christie has strong favorability ratings among those who do know of him.
"I think that is what Governor Corzine and his campaign staff will be looking at, because those are the voters that Gov. Corzine will be targeting in negative campaigning," she said.
Corzine will have plenty of money to finance that negative campaigning. Christie has shown in the past that he's a prolific fundraiser, but he doesn't have the nearly unlimited resources that Corzine does.
That interpretation in stark contrast to the one included in last week's poll, which was conducted during the same time period. In a polling memo, Quinnipiac pollster Clay Richards said the numbers – and Christie's relative anonymity – showed a tough reelection ahead for Gov. Corzine. In that poll, 69% of respondents didn't know enough about Christie to render a favorable or unfavorable opinion, while Corzine had an upside down rating of 39% favorable to 46% unfavorable.
"Jon Corzine is in trouble. Since most New Jersey voters say they don't know a lot about Christopher Christie, Gov. Corzine's record and inability to unscramble the state's budget mess is pulling him down," he wrote.
Wilson said that more New Jersey voters will come to know of Christie as the election approaches – providing he chooses to run. Rather, it's just another the makeup of the state's media market, dominated by New York and Philadelphia, that makes it hard for the New Jersey U.S. Attorney to make it onto living room television sets every night.
"I think it speaks as much to the way people get information in New Jersey as to anything else. And if you were to put him up against (Assembly Speaker) Joe Roberts, for example, in name identification, Chris's is probably 3-4 times what Roberts's is."
Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute's New Jersey Project, said that ethics and corruption, which for decades didn't register as election-turning issues in New Jersey, have recently come to the fore during Christie's high profile prosecutions. If anything, she said, it shows that it's too early to get a good gauge on an election over a year away.
"Let's put it this way: Corzine's not going to have — it looks like at this point — an easy reelection bid. And if Christie is running against him, of those people who know Christie it looks like he can give him a run for his money," she said. "But at this point you don't have a really good picture of that because of the high percentage of people who don't have any impression or knowledge of Christie"
Neither of the polls included other potential gubernatorial candidates – former Bogota Mayor Steven Lonegan, bio tech millionaire John Crowley, U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, and Senate President Richard Codey – in their head to head matchups.