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Opinion: For Gov. Chris Christie, October's Been the Cruelest Month

Does the governor’s recent drop in the polls indicate that New Jerseyans want him to pay more attention to the Garden State

carl golden
Carl Golden

In his 1922 epic poem “The Waste Land,” English poet, essayist, and playwright T. S. Eliot opened with the line “April is the cruelest month … ”

For Gov. Christie, though, it’s October. This October.

Consider: + For the first time in four years, more poll respondents hold an unfavorable view of him, 45 percent to 42 percent.

  • His 49 percent to 46 percent job approval rating is a statistical draw.

  • Only 20 percent describe him as trustworthy and less than a third said he is somewhat trustworthy.

His handling of tax matters, the state’s economy, education, budget, and the public pension issue rank from 24 percent to 39 percent -- all sharp declines from earlier surveys.

  • Forty-five percent of respondents identified taxes and the economy as most worrisome, but in a startling and potentially troubling finding, 16 percent said corruption and abuse of power were major concerns -- ahead, even, of education.

  • Finally, in a poll of voters in Iowa, where Christie has spent significant amounts of campaign time, he received six percent support, finishing seventh in the field of potential presidential candidates.

Picking through the rubble strewn about by the poll findings, it is difficult to discover very many bright spots. What had been Christie’s strengths up to this point -- tough, outspoken, no nonsense, unafraid to make the difficult decisions and make them stick, implacable foe of official misconduct -- seem to have been undermined by the poll’s conclusions.

His extensive travel schedule on behalf of congressional and gubernatorial candidates around the country -- he’s made appearances in 36 states at last count -- may be a significant contributing factor to the decline in the number of people who feel he’s dealing effectively with New Jersey’s problems.

It may be that a tipping point has been reached, where a perception has grown that the out-of-state political jaunts have come at the higher cost of paying attention to issues at home.

While there has always been a bit of pride taken in a governor who achieves national recognition, it can quickly turn to discontent if people believe the chief executive is overly distracted, leaving their concerns unaddressed and their problems ignored.

He hasn’t been helped by the cascade of published reports of sluggish economic growth, anemic job creation, budget shortfalls, the domino effect of casinos closing in Atlantic City, a soon-to-be-bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund, allegations of political influence involved in the investment of public pension funds, and the year-long saga of closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

Pressure will mount for decisive action on all these issues, as well as developing a balanced budget with more realistic revenue projections to avert the all-too-familiar last minute scramble to cut spending and divert money from other programs to head off a deficit, and confronting the perennial demand for greater control over local property taxes.

A few years ago, Christie learned the hard way the perils of being an absentee governor when a devastating snowstorm hit the state while he was vacationing in Florida and refused to return because he didn’t want to disappoint his family.

He didn’t make the same mistake twice. When Hurricane Sandy laid unprecedented waste to huge chunks of the state, Christie seemingly was everywhere, a ubiquitous presence on television surrounded by emergency personnel, comforting victims of the storm, and exuding a calming demeanor. He saw his job approval ratings soar to over 70 percent as a result.

There is, of course, ample time for Christie to re-assert his control of the political dialogue in New Jersey and take the lead in confronting the issues which have so vexed the state’s people.

Once the November election passes, presumably the governor’s travels will be curtailed for a time.

He will be in a position in the next few months to revive the town hall forums that have served him so well in the past. His message will once again dominate, his persona will again be a larger than life one, and he will exert control over the public policy agenda.

He’ll belabor his critics, question their understanding of issues, slap legislative Democrats around, and ridicule the media. He will, in short, return to the public stage as the governor with whom those responding unfavorably in the polls expressed their disenchantment.

Whether a full-bore campaign such as this will turn the trick and re-ingratiate Christie with voters and taxpayers remains to be seen. It would be foolish to discount its impact, however.

In the meantime, he’s remained open and candid about his interest in pursuing the Republican presidential nomination and has promised to reach a decision by next spring -- a time frame that cannot be re-adjusted without imperiling his ability to establish an effective organizational and fundraising apparatus.

His flirting with a national campaign has produced a fair amount of speculation over whether he would launch a campaign while remaining governor -- there exists nothing to prohibit it --- or step down at some point, elevating Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno to the top office.

While Christie, like most elected officials, insists he will not be swayed or influenced by polls and will not conduct the business of government based on public opinion surveys, he is most certainly aware of the message in the latest findings.

In times of crisis -- be it a once-in-century hurricane or a budget deficit -- people want assurances that their elected leader is fully engaged.

They’ll not respond well to a governor standing knee deep in the snows of Iowa or New Hampshire. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruelest month,” but for Christie the other eleven may not be a stroll in the sunshine, either.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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