Obama Approval Numbers Improve, But Health Reform Support Still Weak

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STATE—According to the most recent poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind™, support for President Obama and his health-care reform proposals has begun to rebound in New Jersey, even as a rematch with Tom Kean Jr. indicates trouble for Sen. Bob Menendez in early polling of the state’s next scheduled Senate race.

After dropping below the 50 percent mark in January for the first time since he took office, Obama’s approval numbers rebounded, with 53 percent of New Jersey voters now approving of his job performance, up 5 points.

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Nonetheless, over the past year the percentage of New Jersey voters saying that the country is on the right track has dropped 13 points, from 51 percent in March 2009 to 38 percent now, and the percent approving of the job Obama is doing has also dropped by 13 points, from 66 percent in March a year ago to 53 percent now.

“Some decline from the honeymoon period is expected, but this drop was steep,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson and a survey analyst for PublicMind. “He seems to be in a cycle where health-care politics are hurting his ratings and his lower ratings are a drag on health-care proposals.”

The health-care reform proposal that has dominated the political dialogue since last year has gained a little ground among Garden State voters. Overall, 37 percent of respondents say that they will be better off if a bill passes, up 6 points from January. But 42 percent say that they will be personally worse off if the bill passes, including 4 in 5 Republicans, a figure essentially unchanged from January but up from 34 percent last July.

The question of reform fares better when voters are asked whether it would be good for the country rather than themselves. In this case 45 percent say that the country as a whole will be better off if the bill passed and 40 percent say the country will be worse off.  Nonetheless, 40 percent say that they would advise their member of Congress to vote against it, 35 percent say they would counsel support, and 25 percent say they don’t know.

“The fate of these health-care bills, like so many other major changes in the United States, is reflected in the views of independents,” said Cassino. “Since the proposals were introduced, people on the fence have been more likely to come out against than for them, and that hasn’t changed.”

The decline in Democratic fortunes since January of last year bodes well for at least one potential challenger to the state’s sitting senators. In early polling of the 2012 Senate race, Republican Tom Kean Jr. is in a statistical dead heat with incumbent Democrat Bob Menendez, 39 percent to 38 percent, with 17 percent undecided.

Only 29 percent of voters have a “very” or “somewhat” favorable opinion of Menendez; 25 percent say that they have “very” or “somewhat” unfavorable views. Kean is viewed favorably by 28 percent of voters and only 11 percent have negative views of the former governor’s son.

“In 2006, Menendez was able to turn around Kean’s early lead by tying him to an unpopular Republican president and an unpopular war,” said Cassino. “This time, he will have to campaign on his own record as a Democrat under a Democratic presidency.”

Cassino added, “Menendez’ support is affected by voters’ perceptions of Washington politics and health care.” When voters are asked about their support for the president and health care immediately before they are asked about their preferences for Senate in 2012, Menendez trails Kean 35 percent-40 percent. In 2006, FDU pollsters used a similar tactic to measure how the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq were hurting Kean.

Voters were also asked about their choice if the election were between Menendez and Republican State Sen. Mike Doherty, who has attracted the attention of Tea Party conservatives for his stances against health-care reform and deficit spending. But only about 1 in 5 voters say that they’ve heard of the Warren County Republican, and he trails Menendez in the match-up, 27 percent to 40 percent.

“When – or if – voters learn more about Doherty, we can expect these numbers to change a great deal,” said Cassino.

Change is possible sooner rather than later if the ailing Sen. Frank Lautenberg retires or is unable to complete his term. When asked who should be appointed to replace him in such a circumstance, voters respond along party lines, with 42 percent saying that Republican Gov. Chris Christie should appoint a Democrat, and 32 percent saying that he should appoint a Republican. Forty-two percent of voters have a positive view of Lautenberg, up from 35 percent in January; 29 percent have a negative view of the senator, down from 38 percent in January.

The Fairleigh Dickinson University poll of 801 registered voters statewide was conducted by telephone from Feb. 23, 2010, through March 1, 2010, and has a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points.


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