Many see Rutgers-Camden, Rowan Merger as Political
By Patrick Murray, the Monmouth University Polling Institute
GOVERNOR CHRISTIE’S JOB rating from New Jersey residents has slipped slightly, but hits the coveted 50 percent mark, according to the latest Monmouth University/NJ Press Media Poll. At the same time, his grades on cost cutting, schools, and property taxes have notched up a bit.
Currently, Governor Christie earns a 51 percent approve to 35 percent disapprove job rating among all Garden State residents. Among registered voters, his rating stands at 50 percent approve to 38 percent disapprove. This registered voter approval number is down 5 points from the ratings he received in our February 2012 poll.
The gender gap in the governor’s ratings, which closed for a short time in the fall, has widened again. Currently, 59 percent of men approve of Gov. Christie while 28 percent disapprove. Among women, approval stands at 43 percent and disapproval at 42 percent. On the other hand, his standing among public worker households has improved to 44 percent approve and 43 percent disapprove – up from 32 percent to 61 percent just a few months ago.
There have been some changes in the governor’s job rating over the past two months. Some groups have become more positive, while others have become more negative. Gov. Christie’s overall rating remains positive, so I’m not ready to say his ratings are slipping. But this poll indicates that the political sands are shifting. He has skillfully navigated those shifts in the past. We’ll be following these numbers to see if he can continue the positive track in public opinion he has maintained for the past year.
Voter opinion of his performance on key issues is an important element as the governor looks toward his 2013 re-election bid. The poll asked New Jerseyans to grade Gov. Christie’s performance on controlling costs and cutting waste, improving schools, and providing property tax relief. The percentage of New Jerseyans giving the governor positive grades on these three issues is up between 8 and 13 points since last August, while the percent giving him negative grades is down between 6 and 10 points.
Gov. Christie gets his best grades in the area of controlling costs and cutting waste. Nearly half the public give the governor a positive grade of A (18 percent) or B (29 percent), while just 1-in-5 give him a poor grade of D (11 percent) or F (10 percent).
He also does well on education. Nearly 4-in-10 grade him an A (13 percent) or B (24 percent) compared to 3-in-10 who say he deserves a D (14 percent or F (16 percent). This marks the first time in Gov. Christie’s tenure where more New Jerseyans give him a positive rather than a negative grade on school improvement.
While the governor’s grades on handling property taxes have also improved over the past year, this remains a weaker area. Currently, just under 3-in-10 residents give Gov. Christie an A (11 percent) or B (17 percent), while just under 4-in-10 give a D (16 percent) or F (21 percent) on his handling of the issue that prior polls have shown to be the state’s most pressing concern. These grades are similar to the 31 percent A/B to 38 percent D/F split he received in a July 2010 poll early in his term.
Two competing tax cut proposals are currently vying for support in Trenton. Gov. Christie has proposed a 10 percent across-the-board income tax cut, while Senate President Steve Sweeney has proposed a 10 percent property tax credit on residents’ income taxes. When asked which one they prefer, New Jerseyans select the property tax credit by a 2-to-1 margin, 61percent to 32 percent over the income tax cut. There is no difference in these results by residents’ party identification. [Note: These results reflect New Jerseyan’s initial reaction to the proposals based on how much they assume each will benefit them. Moreover, the Monmouth poll question wording did not tie either of these proposals to the politicians proposing them, and therefore, the results do not reflect any “anchoring” that the public may attach to either plan’s sponsor in evaluating these proposals.]
A couple of other issues have been in the news recently that are indicative of the political climate’s shifting sands. One involves the defunct Hudson River ARC Tunnel project which Gov. Christie canceled over a year ago. This has been in the news again because of a General Accounting Office report which has been used to suggest that the governor’s projections of New Jersey’s share of the cost may have been overstated. About 1-in-3 (35 percent) New Jerseyans are aware of this news.
Overall, 26 percent of New Jerseyans agree that the governor made the right call when he canceled the tunnel project while a similar 27 percent disagree. Nearly half – 46 percent – have no opinion on this. Among those who have heard the recent news reports, 37 percent back the governor’s decision while 43 percent think it was a bad choice.
Regarding the fallout from the GAO report, half (50 percent) the state thinks that Gov. Christie probably overstated the tunnel costs while just 26 percent say his projections were basically accurate. Among those who have followed the recent news reports, 54 percent say his estimates were overstated compared to 31 percent who say they were accurate.
During the first two years of his term, most New Jerseyans have given Gov. Christie credit for making tough choices. With the 2013 election looming, it is likely that more issues will arise to dent the perception that he is above mere politics. How the governor handles these challenges will have a significant impact on his future success.
The plan to restructure higher education in the state is another issue which led to a political firestorm. The proposed merger of Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the UMDNJ medical school gets a thumbs up from 36 percent of state residents and a thumbs down from 20 percent. Another 43 percent have no opinion. In a February poll, shortly after the plan was introduced, 31 percent said it was a good idea to 13 percent who said it was not. Opinion in the most affected Route 1 Corridor counties of Mercer, Middlesex, and Union is more positive – 48 percent say it is a good idea to just 14 percent who say it is a bad idea. This is up from 35 percent good to 16 percent bad just two months ago.
The idea to fold the Rutgers-Camden campus into Rowan University, on the other hand, has generated greater opposition as residents hear more about it. Currently, 23 percent of New Jerseyans say it is a good idea while 33 percent say it is a bad idea, and another 44 percent have no opinion. In February, statewide opinion was split at 20 percent good idea to 22 percent bad idea. Among those in the most affected Delaware Valley counties of Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester, opposition to the merger is higher – 25 percent call it a good idea, while nearly half – 47 percent– see it as a bad idea. Two months ago, Delaware Valley opinion stood at 25 percent good idea to 36 percent bad idea.
Only 1-in-4 (26 percent) New Jerseyans say the merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan was proposed mainly to improve higher education in the Garden State. More (45 percent) say that it was done mainly to benefit powerful political interests. Another 3 percent say both considerations figured equally into the plan and another 26 percent offer no opinion.
This sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.