The scandal enveloping Sen. Robert Menendez has taken a significant toll on the New Jersey Democrat's approval ratings, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll released early Thursday that shows the percentage of Garden State voters who approve of the way Menendez is handling his job as senator has fallen 15 percentage points in a month.
Now, only 36 percent of New Jersey voters approve of Menendez's job performance, while 41 percent disapprove. That is a sharp drop from one month ago, when a 51 percent majority approved of Menendez, and only 33 percent disapproved. It also represents a 20-point decrease from late November, when 56 percent of voters approved of Menendez.
Ethics watchdogs and conservative groups have questioned Menendez's relationship with a campaign donor, Florida doctor Salomon Melgen. Menendez repaid Melgen last month for two flights on Melgen's private plane to the Dominican Republic, and the New York Times reported earlier this month that Menendez intervened on Melgen's behalf in two Medicare disputes. Melgen's offices were raided last month by federal investigators.
The conservative website The Daily Caller reported that Melgen also allegedly supplied Menendez with underage prostitutes in the Dominican, though investigators have found no evidence to corroborate those accusations, according to the Washington Post.
Before being asked specifically about the scandal, only 28 percent of respondents to the new poll say that Menendez "is honest and trustworthy," compared to 44 percent who say that he is not. Respondents were then asked if they have read or heard "anything about the controversy surrounding Senator Menendez and his ties to a political donor." Seven-in-ten voters say they have, and 28 percent say they have not.
Asked if this "controversy" makes them "think less favorably" of Menendez, 48 percent say it has, and 40 percent say it has not. But 59 percent of those who said they had heard about the controversy say it makes them view Menendez less favorably, while just 35 percent say it makes no difference.
"More than two thirds of voters have heard of his troubles," said Quinnipiac University Polling Institute director Mickey Carroll, "and the more they know, the less they approve."
Only 28 percent of voters say they are "satisfied" with the way Menendez is handling the situation, and 60 percent say it is worth investigating, including 67 percent of those familiar with the scandal. Notably, the poll never mentions the specific accusations against Menendez, including the unsubstantiated prostitution charges.
A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll conducted earlier this month had showed little or no significant movement in Menendez's approval rating. But the Quinnipiac poll is more recent and may represent changes in public opinion driven by increasing media coverage of the allegations against Menendez.
Menendez was reelected to a second six-year term last year, so barring resignation or removal, he will not appear on a ballot again until 2018. But the poll also tested the possible, high-profile matchup to replace Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg between Newark Mayor Cory Booker and longtime television host Geraldo Rivera. Booker, the Democrat, leads Rivera, 59 percent to 23 percent, the poll shows. Booker's image ratings continue to improve in the Quinnipiac poll: 59 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of him, compared to only 11 percent who view him unfavorably.
Booker may not have a clear path to his party's nomination, with Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone considering the race. The poll tested only Booker and Rivera, however.
The poll was conducted Feb. 13-17, surveying 1,149 registered voters. The margin of error is plus-or-minus 2.9 percentage points.