Think No One Cares About Christie’s Bridgegate? Think Again.

The media narrative holds that Christie’s escaped with impunity, but they’re making the wrong comparisons.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
Jan. 16, 2014, 7:17 a.m.

If you’ve been read­ing the head­lines on re­cent polling, you might be un­der the im­pres­sion that voters don’t care very much about Chris Christie’s bizarre re­venge traffic scan­dal.

After all, a new Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll found that 60 per­cent of re­spond­ents na­tion­wide say their opin­ion of New Jer­sey’s Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor hasn’t changed. And only 18 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans said they are even fol­low­ing the con­tro­versy “very closely” — less than the num­ber who said the same about the cold winter weath­er (44 per­cent), the eco­nomy (28 per­cent), and the un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance de­bate in the Sen­ate (19 per­cent).

If polls don’t speak for them­selves, head­lines do. The Huff­ing­ton Post de­clared, “Bridge Scan­dal Has Little Im­pact on Chris Christie’s Na­tion­al Rat­ings,” while The At­lantic went with “Why Don’t More Amer­ic­ans Care About Christie’s Bridgeg­ate? Polit­ic­al Sci­ence Ex­plains.”

But wheth­er Amer­ic­ans care “a lot” or “a little” about Bridgeg­ate de­pends on what you com­pare it to, and to com­pare it to something as ubi­quit­ous as the weath­er is to com­pare it to the wrong thing. It makes quite a bit of sense for people to be pay­ing more at­ten­tion to the weath­er, the eco­nomy, and un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance, be­cause those are things that af­fect people all around the coun­try.

Last week’s po­lar vor­tex was felt by 240 mil­lion people, stretch­ing from the Dakotas to the Deep South, and the eco­nomy and un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance com­bined af­fected more than 300 mil­lion. Traffic prob­lems in New Jer­sey, even polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated, Ma­chiavel­lian-style traffic prob­lems, take a back seat.

People in New Jer­sey — which is to say people who were dir­ectly af­fected — are, in fact, pay­ing at­ten­tion. A Mon­mouth poll taken re­cently shows that Christie’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ing stands at just 58 per­cent with­in the Garden State. That’s down from a month ago, when his ap­prov­al stood at 65 per­cent. It’s also the first time his ap­prov­al rat­ing has dipped be­low 60 per­cent since su­per­storm Sandy struck the state over a year ago. The takeaway: Res­id­ents who are in­formed and af­fected do care quite a bit.

Across the pond, the scan­dal du jour is that French Pres­id­ent Fran­cois Hol­lande is hav­ing a love af­fair that in­volves moon­lit-scoot­er rides with a young­er act­ress. This is a vir­tu­ally known fact, yet 84 per­cent of sur­vey re­spond­ents in France say it has not changed their opin­ion of him. Now sex scan­dals are dif­fer­ent from polit­ic­al scan­dals and should be treated dif­fer­ently, but some sci­ence sug­gests that people typ­ic­ally care more, not less, about sex scan­dals. If that’s the case, the politi­cian hav­ing his cake and eat­ing it isn’t Christie, it’s Hol­lande.

People aren’t apathet­ic about Christie at the na­tion­al level, either. A new NBC News/Mar­ist poll found 29 per­cent of re­gistered voters view Christie fa­vor­ably while 32 per­cent view him un­fa­vor­ably. Al­though 68 per­cent say the polit­ic­al up­roar has not had any ef­fect on their opin­ion of Christie, one in five like him less be­cause of it. Among those who’ve heard about the bridge scan­dal, 32 per­cent think he’s “mostly not telling the truth,” and 26 per­cent con­sider him a bully.

The NBC News head­line ac­com­pa­ny­ing that sur­vey? “Poll: Christie cruis­ing through bridge scan­dal (so far).”

It is cer­tainly true that Amer­ic­ans seem to care far less about this than do the Sunday talk shows and the talk­ing heads on MS­N­BC. But that Amer­ic­ans are not as ob­sessed with the Christie scan­dal doesn’t mean they don’t care about Bridgeg­ate; it means in the first weeks of 2014, they aren’t as ob­sessed as the na­tion­al me­dia is with a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion that will take place in 2016. Amer­ica, you might sur­mise, is a little bit saner than that.

Re­call that the Bridgeg­ate charges have not even been proven. We still don’t know wheth­er Christie was in­volved in a re­venge plot to snarl traffic on the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge. In­deed, he’s flatly denied it. If he is shown con­clus­ively to have been in­volved, you can bet his poll num­bers will get worse.

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