New Chris Christie polls: the number that might worry him most

Polls show the popularity of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declining, but that's to be expected amid Bridge-gate. The concern, for him, will be the people now hearing of him for the first time.

Mel Evans/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie waves as he stands near his wife, Mary Pat, after he was sworn in for his second term Tuesday in Trenton, N.J.

Chris Christie’s poll numbers are getting worse. That’s no surprise given the nature of the Bridge-gate controversy.

The fact that Christie aides conspired to create traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J., in an apparent act of political retribution has been extensively covered in national media. Though an early Pew poll showed the public wasn’t following this event too closely, later surveys show that negative views of the New Jersey governor are increasing. That may mean the stories are having an effect.

A Pew Research survey released Monday found that 34 percent of respondents said they had an unfavorable opinion of Governor Christie, for example. That’s double the 17 percent who held that view in January 2013.

Christie’s favorable ratings fell only slightly in that same poll, from 40 percent with a positive opinion of him one year ago to 38 percent today. But the implication of the above numbers is that, in national terms, Christie’s image has changed from that of a generally-unknown-yet-somewhat-well-regarded figure, to that of somebody about whom US voters are almost evenly split.

A Quinnipiac survey released Tuesday has similar findings, with a 33 percent positive, 30 percent negative result. Quinnipiac shows what this means in theoretical election terms: Christie now trails Hillary Clinton by 38 to 46 percent in a hypothetical 2016 matchup.

Only one short month ago, Christie led the former secretary of State and first lady by one point, 42 to 41.

“New Jersey Gov. Christopher Christie’s 2016 presidential drive is stuck in traffic, sideswiped by Bridgegate, the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a statement.

For Christie, the good news is that 2016 is so far off that, in terms of overall voter opinions, these polls almost don’t matter. Many, many news events affecting the race will intervene before citizens actually go to the polls. The 2016 race indeed is underway, but at a different level. We’re in the “invisible primary” stage of the right now, in which big donors, campaign consultants, and party officials are weighing the strength and weaknesses of potential candidates to see who they’ll support.

But there is one particular number in the Pew poll which might concern Christie if he’s genuinely thinking about running for the Oval Office.

That figure? It’s the fast-declining percentage of people who say they have no opinion about Christie.

In 2013, fully 42 percent of respondents in Pew’s survey said that they had never heard of Christie, or didn’t know enough to have an opinion about him. In 2014, 28 percent said the same thing.

That’s a 14 percent swing. Coincidentally, Christie’s favorable/unfavorable matchup got worse by almost that same number – 17 percent – during that same time period.

People who don’t know you are people to whom you can still introduce yourself on your own terms. They’re easier to win over than people who’ve already heard something bad about you. That’s particularly true when “winning over” means “getting them to vote for you for president.”

To be fair, it’s just one poll. Quinnipiac’s numbers tell a different story. In their survey, the percentage of respondents who say they haven’t heard enough about Christie to have an opinion about him has actually increased a bit during the past year.

But in politics, as in life, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Christie must be hoping that Bridge-gate is not many voters’ introduction to his personality.

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