Despite a growing political maelstrom over aides successfully pressuring transportation officials to shut down multiple lanes of the George Washington Bridge last fall, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has so far held on to his popularity, polls released Monday show.
Christie, a potential 2016 Republican presidential nominee who won re-election in a landslide in 2013, still has a 59 percent statewide job approval rating, according to a Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press survey. Though that's the first time since before Hurricane Sandy he has fallen below 60 percent, it's still a number that would make most politicians jealous.
"It looks like the bridge incident has dimmed Christie's more than year-long Sandy afterglow just a bit," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, in a memo accompanying the poll results. "Still, his job performance numbers remain strong and suggest that the governor can bank on some continued goodwill as this story develops."
But Murphy said the public's drop in positive views of Christie as a person could be a harbinger of trouble ahead.
"There is now a gap between the public's view of Christie's job performance and his personal behavior," he said. "There has been a shift from a largely positive opinion of the man to a situation where some New Jerseyans are not quite sure what to think of him."
About 44 percent of residents have a favorable impression of Christie, versus 28 percent who have a unfavorable impression and 28 percent who are undecided, according to the poll. That compares with 70 percent who had a favorable impression one year ago.
According to Murphy, Christie's political future rests in whether or not New Jersey residents decide they can continue to trust their brash leader, more than whether or not they think he purposefully bullied the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee who declined to endorse him for re-election.
"Questions about the governor's integrity are much more important to New Jerseyans than anything about the punitive aspect of this incident," he said. "The bullying charge has always carried little weight with New Jerseyans, because Christie was always seen as going after other politicians, who are fair game. This story so far hasn't changed that perception."
The Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll surveyed 541 New Jersey adults from Jan. 10 to 12 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percent.
A new national survey, by the Pew Research Center, showed that not only did the rest of the country not pay much attention to bridge-gate, most say their opinion of Christie hasn't changed lately. Christie has denied knowing of the plans to close the bridge lanes, which were disclosed in emails from his top political aides.
Just 18 percent paid very close attention to Christie's two-hour press conference on the matter last week, according to Pew, compared to 44 percent who tracked the major winter storm weather.
But Christie is not out of the woods yet, as state Democratic lawmakers delve into investigating the ordeal and federal officials opened a separate inquiry into funds used in an ad campaign following Hurricane Sandy.
"I don't think it's credible for a governor to have his chief of staff, his communication director, his deputy chief of staff, his chief counsel, all involved in email communications on the day this took place and the days after, talking to not only the problems that were created in Fort Lee but also talking about how to spin it to the press," Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski said Sunday on CBS' Face The Nation. "I don't think it's possible for all of those people to be involved and know and for the governor to absolutely have no communication."
Christie is scheduled to deliver his "State of the State" address Tuesday, which will provide him with an opportunity to push back against the mounting questions about the culture of his administration, which some say might have led to the strong-arm tactics.