In less than nine months New Jersey will decide whether Chris Christie will continue his dominance in the Garden State for another four years.
With a commanding lead in every statewide poll, including Kean University’s recent NJ Speaks survey, Christie appears to have little to fear from his likely challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono of Middlesex County. The governor already was popular before his widely praised handling of Hurricane Sandy, but his leadership during the storm and his attacks on his own party for stalling federal aid have sent his numbers into the stratosphere. The most recent Kean NJ Speaks poll showed the governor with an approval rating of nearly 80 percent, an astonishing figure.
So, is the governor’s race a done deal? Perhaps not, because while the governor’s poll numbers are high, there are other metrics that suggest the campaign certainly will get tighter as voters begin to pay greater attention.
The current unemployment rate in NJ is 9.6 percent, just a tenth of a percent lower than it was four years ago, when Christie assailed then-Governor Joe Corzine for his handling of the state’s economy. Of course, no governor has power of national and global economic trends, but it will be interesting to see if Senator Buono uses the same tactics that Christie used to defeat Corzine.
And then there’s the state budget. The lead fiscal analyst for the state legislature, David Rosen, estimates that there is a $700 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Rosen was the target of Christie’s ire last year when the two vehemently disagreed over the projected tax revenue for the year, a battle of estimates that most agree was won by Rosen. The Christie administration tacitly acknowledged this when it stopped pushing for more tax cuts.
The biggest issue may just be looming. Federal storm relief funds soon will be flowing into the state, but, as New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently pointed out, the distribution of this money will take time. Will the owners of damaged businesses and homes grow impatient? Will there be stories about waste and inefficiency? The governor already has had to answer criticism of no-bid contracts given to a politically connected refuse removal company, which may have driven up the cost of storm clean-up. These kinds of stories could give Senator Buono material for the campaign trail.
Nobody knows what the next nine months have in store for us. Ask George H.W. Bush about approval ratings. He enjoyed an approval rating of 89 percent at the end of the Gulf War in February 1991 and seemed like a sure thing for re-election in 1992. But a sluggish economy and the federal government’s slow response to Hurricane Andrew drove down those numbers, leading to his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton.
So, while Chris Christie certainly is in a strong position for re-election, he can’t take those sky-high approval ratings for granted. Voters can be very fickle – and very demanding.
Shane Derris is the Assistant Director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.