Nearly 70 percent of Americans say the bridge-closure scandal engulfing Chris Christie has not changed their opinion about the New Jersey governor, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll. In addition, 44 percent of respondents believe he’s telling the truth about his knowledge of the events surrounding the controversy.
And far more Americans view him as a strong leader rather than as a bully.
But the survey also shows that the potential 2016 Republican candidate has lost ground to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an early hypothetical presidential match up and now trails her by 13 points.
Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, explains that, overall, this is good news for Christie.
“The numbers suggest it’s far from politically fatal for him,” he says of the scandal, adding: “This is a developing story, so the extent of the damage down the road is an open proposition.”
But the down side for Christie, according to Miringoff: Americans “are getting to know to him, and that’s maybe not the best way to introduce himself to a national audience.”
The poll – conducted Jan. 12-14 – comes after released emails showing that a top Christie aide, as well as his Port Authority appointees, conspired to close local-access lanes to the busy George Washington Bridge as retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly emailed Christie Port Authority aide David Wildstein back in Aug. 2013, just weeks before the lane closures.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied.
In a subsequent news conference last Thursday, Christie announced that he had fired Kelly, but also said that he had no knowledge of or role in the lane closings.
Most haven’t changed their opinion of Christie
According to the survey, 18 percent of American adults say the scandal makes them like Christie less, compared with 5 percent who say it makes them like him more.
But a whopping 69 percent say it hasn’t changed their opinion of the New Jersey governor.
Still, a combined 71 percent of respondents say they know either “a lot” or “some” about the story.
In addition, a plurality – 44 percent – believe Christie is mostly telling the truth, 33 percent say he’s not and another 23 percent are unsure.
(There’s a political divide to these responses, however: 61 percent of Republicans say he’s telling the truth, while 41 percent of Democrat don’t think he is.)
And more respondents view him as a strong leader (47 percent) than as a bully (27 percent).
Christie trails Clinton in a national match up
Despite those numbers, Christie has lost ground to Hillary Clinton in an early hypothetical presidential match up. In this current poll, he trails Clinton by 13 points, 50 percent to 37 percent among nationwide voters.
But in the same poll a month ago, Clinton’s lead was a mere three points, 48 percent to 45 percent.
“Up against a likely Hillary candidacy, the argument that Christie is positioned to win back the White House [for Republicans] is far from automatic,” Miringoff says.
What’s also problematic for Christie is that his favorability rating is upside down – with 28 percent viewing him positively and 30 percent viewing him negatively.
By comparison, Clinton’s fav/unfav rating is a net positive (50 percent positive, 38 percent negative), while President Barack Obama’s is a net negative (41 percent to 48 percent).
Measuring the GOP’s 2016 field
That said, Christie is leading the pack – barely – in an early trial heat of potential Republican candidates.
When Republicans voters were asked whom they support if the GOP primary or caucus were held today, 16 percent picked Christie, 12 percent sided with 2012 running mate Paul Ryan, 9 percent said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and 8 percent said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Those percentages are virtually unchanged from last month.
Rounding out the rest of the field: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., (7 percent); Texas Gov. Rick Perry (6 percent); former presidential candidate Rick Santorum (5 percent); Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, (5 percent); Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (4 percent); and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (3 percent).
Still, 25 percent said they were undecided.
“It’s about as wide open as it can get,” Miringoff says.
The NBC/Marist poll was conducted Jan. 12-14 of 1,200 national adults (margin of error of plus-minus 2.8 percentage points), 1,039 registered voters (plus-minus 3.0 percentage points) and 385 Republican voters (plus-minus 5.0 percentage points).