The reason New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has begun to punch back more forcefully against accusations of bullying and cronyism is suggested in a new poll showing the road-closure scandal surrounding the governor has cut into what once was his chief asset: a perception of blunt honesty.
A national survey by the Pew Research Center and USA Today showed that almost 6 in 10 Americans who had heard of the controversy do not believe his assertions that he did not know that his aides were involved in closing lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge last September — causing a massive four-day traffic jam — until evidence of it became public recently.
Even among Republicans, 42% said they did not believe Christie, as did 60% of independents and 67% of Democrats.
Christie's initial response to the scandal was to fire two aides linked to it and express rare public contrition. But as varied agencies have moved to investigate the matter, promising that it will stay alive for months, if not longer, and other politicians have claimed retribution at his hands, Christie has gone on offense.
Over the weekend, his staff pushed back hard against a claim by the mayor of Hoboken that Christie had sent word he'd hold up Superstorm Sandy recovery funds if the mayor did not support a development sought by Christie allies. In an appearance Monday morning, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, one of the two people alleged to have forwarded the demand to Mayor Dawn Zimmer, called the assertion "completely false."
Christie's initial reaction to the scandal was premised on it not spreading much beyond New Jersey and dying down well before the 2016 presidential contest, in which he has been expected to be one of the major Republican combatants, roars to life. Indeed, polls taken last week showed that only 18% of Americans were following the story closely (and most had not altered their view of Christie.)
Now, however, 45% of Americans say they have heard "a lot" about the scandal and another 28% had heard at least "a little" — and as knowledge of it is spreading views of the governor appear to be shifting.
Compared with a survey taken one year ago, disapproval of Christie has risen 17 percentage points, to 34%. Approval remained essentially the same, moving from 40% to 38%. That is not an exact before-and-after comparison, since so much time has passed between polls. But without the bridge scandal, Christie's romping reelection win should have pushed those disapproval numbers down, not up.
To be sure, much of the negative change was driven by partisans. Among Democrats, Christie's unfavorability was up 25 percentage points, to 43%. Among independents, a group that can lean Republican in many national polls, disapproval was up 18 percentage points. Among Republicans it was up 7 percentage points, to 27%. (Not surprisingly, the bad reviews rose most sharply among residents of the Northeast, those most familiar with both New Jersey politics and the effect of the state's landmark bridges.)
It is true that Christie's popularity among Republicans was holding steady — the percentage of GOP voters who gave the governor positive reviews was almost precisely the same as a year ago, and within the poll's margin of error of about 3 percentage points.
But part of Christie's political strength has rested on his ability to attract differing voters, at least in a general election. His resounding victory in November rested in good part on attracting far more women and minority voters than most Republican candidates can summon. So his plummeting numbers among other groups were verging on ominous for his long-term appeal to voters and his most critical audience now, political donors.
All told, the poll suggests that Christie is now walking on difficult political turf -- his long-nurtured reputation as a bipartisan truth-teller threatened, and voters willing to believe the worst even though no firm evidence has yet emerged directly linking him to the lane closures.