By Patrick Murray
Gov. Christie’s speech on Tuesday, Jan. 8, was one of the most unique State of the State addresses on record. In a year when he is up for re-election, he did not feel the need to offer one single proposal as a hook on which to campaign.
His record over the past three years and his indispensability to the Sandy recovery effort are more than enough to earn him a second term. And the opinion polls support that view.
First, let’s look at his record. A number of observers – mainly Democrats – argue that Chris Christie needed Sandy to win re-election. The polls don’t bear that out. Certainly, Sandy has made his case for a second term much easier, but he was in a strong position before the storm hit.
This is no more evident than in public reaction to the biggest policy failure of his first term – the Legislature’s refusal to give him the income tax cut he campaigned on in 2009.
The governor started 2012 with a 53 percent job approval rating. In January, he proposed what was supposed to be his crowning achievement – and the main plank in his re-election campaign – a 10 percent income tax cut. His subsequent job rating clocked in at 55 percent, even though 69 percent of state residents said that property taxes should be the higher priority. Just 19 percent wanted the focus on income taxes.
It was not to be. By May, Christie was forced to endorse Senate President Steve Sweeney’s property tax credit after polls showed that state taxpayers preferred a property tax credit to an income tax cut by a 2-to-1 margin. And still, the governor’s job rating sailed north of 50 percent.
By June, the property tax deal fell apart when Dems used state revenue shortfalls to put the kibosh on it. Christie even called a special legislative session in July to enact the plan, but the Democrats said they wouldn’t act on it until the state had the money to pay for it – a sentiment which 54 percent of Garden State residents endorsed. And still the governor’s approval rating stood at a solid 53 percent.
Add to this the unprecedented defeat of not just one, but two, of his Supreme Court nominees and you would think that Gov. Christie should have been hobbled. Instead, he wasn’t even dented. Not even a scratch.
Let’s look at it another way. The top two issues in the state remain jobs and property taxes, even after Super Storm Sandy. Neither issue has had much of an impact on Gov. Christie’s public standing.
The jobs situation is fairly easy to explain. As much as the Democrats attack Christie for the lack of a jobs stimulus package, most governors would be able to escape bearing the brunt of the blame. Voters tend to view the state’s jobs outlook as a symptom of the national economy and mainly Washington’s responsibility.
The state’s property tax issue is another matter. If anything lands on the governor’s doorstep, it should be this problem. The state’s property tax is one of the main factors driving people out of the state – or at least considering whether to leave New Jersey. When Christie took office, 71 percent of his constituents said they would be very upset if their property taxes didn’t go down during his term.
While the governor touts his 2 percent cap on property tax growth, the public is still upset that their taxes have not gone down. When asked to grade the governor on his handling of the issue, only 30 percent give him an A or a B. Another 31 percent say he only deserves a C and 32 percent saddle him with a D or an F. And in that very same poll, he still earned a 69 percent overall job approval rating from New Jersey voters!
As I stated elsewhere, by all rights this issue should be the governor’s Achilles’ heel. But it isn’t. When asked who is most responsible for the lack of property tax relief, 32 percent blame the Legislature, 33 percent blame either their local government or school board, and just 17 percent blame the governor. This also explains why it is difficult for the Legislature – which has spent nearly all of the past three years with a negative job rating – to get anything to stick to Christie.
So knocking him out this November was going to be a tough proposition to begin with. Then along came Sandy.
Gov. Christie did not need Sandy to seal his re-election prospects. But it certainly has made it a heckuva lot easier. For one, it is the main reason why Christie didn’t need to even consider throwing in a minor policy proposal in his State of the State address.
On Saturday Night Live, the governor quipped that the ubiquitous fleece jacket he wore during the storm’s aftermath was permanently attached to his skin. That was no joke. Metaphorically at least, that fleece is now his permanent campaign raiment. There is no questioning that Gov. Christie sincerely feels the impact of Sandy on his state. But he is also aware of its political value.
Before Sandy, Gov. Christie embodied the spirit and personality of New Jersey (whether or not we were willing to admit it). After Sandy, he became New Jersey personified.
The governor ended his speech Jan. 8 by challenging the state’s political class to “put aside destructive politics in an election year.” Take out the word “destructive” and you have a pretty good idea of just how bold Christie’s speech was. He is daring his opponents to bring politics into this election!
The message is: Defeating Chris Christie is the equivalent of defeating New Jersey. Brilliant!
Patrick Murray is the founding director of the Monmouth Polling Institute at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.