Cheryl Senter/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie does an interview while campaigning with Republican gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein at a VFW hall in Lancaster, N.H., Friday.

Chris Christie sinking in New Jersey: Trouble for 2016?

N.J. Gov. Chris Christie is increasingly unpopular in his home state, a new poll shows. That could take away a key selling point for the presidency, as it did for Mitt Romney.

Gov. Chris Christie is now polling at his lowest favorability rating to date as governor of New Jersey. Just 42 percent of the state’s adults view him positively and 45 percent view him unfavorably, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton poll. His favorability rating has declined by 7 percentage points during the past two months.

The (sort of) good news for Governor Christie is that his job approval rating is still above water, with 49 percent approving and 46 percent disapproving. But even there, the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. His job approval is down 3 percentage points during the past two months; disapproval is up 5 points.

If Christie runs for president in 2016 – and he’s showing all the signs – do these numbers bode ill for him? 

Let’s do a comparison with Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 and former governor of Massachusetts – a Democratic state, like New Jersey. By the time Mr. Romney left office in 2007, he was deeply unpopular in Massachusetts. That clearly didn’t prevent him from getting the nomination in 2012, but did it hurt his chances against President Obama?

In a way, it might have. Romney couldn’t deploy one of his best arguments to swing voters yearning for a more functional Washington: that he was a bridge builder in Massachusetts, able to work across the aisle.

If Christie’s numbers continue to head south, he could face the same bind.

“I’m not sure that national voters particularly care about how a [presidential] candidate might be doing in his home state,” says David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “But where it matters is that we’re seeing a dramatic partisan gap in opinion about Christie. One of his selling points has been that he can reach across [partisan] lines.”

The Eagleton Center’s latest poll shows a 53-point gap in how Republicans feel about Christie versus how Democrats feel.

“That’s probably about as large as we’ve seen in his entire time in office,” says Professor Redlawsk. “That’s the more important point, in the national context.”

Christie is also losing independents at a growing rate, a trend that threatens his image as a leader with broad support, Redlawsk adds.

So what about Bridge-gate, the scandal that broke last year over the multiday traffic jam near the George Washington Bridge as an act of alleged political retribution? Several top Christie aides were implicated (and fired), though Christie himself has so far escaped direct blame.

Christie was reelected last November in a landslide, but his ratings took a big hit after the Bridge-gate scandal broke. He recovered a bit for a while, but now that looks like a temporary blip, Redlawsk says.

The Eagleton-Rutgers poll shows voters’ top concern is taxes (24 percent) and the economy and jobs (21 percent). Bridge-gate enters the mix in issue No. 3 – corruption and abuse of power – at 16 percent. No. 4 is education, at 12 percent.

Christie has lost ground with New Jersey voters in his handling of the state budget, now 37 percent approval, down 6 points from January 2014. On the state’s pension crisis, he’s holding steady at 24 percent approval, unchanged from August, the first time the question was asked.

One bright spot is Christie’s handling of hurricane Sandy, which hit right before the 2012 election. His approval on Sandy recovery has jumped to 60 percent, up from 54 percent last February.

“Ultimately, it remains a little bit early to be thinking that responses here in Jersey ahead of the midterm are going to define what happens in the Republican primary,” says Redlawsk. “But it certainly should provide some cause for concern for Christie supporters.”

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