Negative campaign boosts Menendez's lead

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Democratic candidate Bob Menendez has opened up a 10-point lead in the race for New Jersey's U.S. Senate seat. According to Fairleigh Dickinson University's latest PublicMind poll, Menendez now leads Republican Tom Kean, Jr. 48% to 38% with less than a week to go before Election Day. The poll shows how increased attention to the race and a barrage of negative ads from both sides have changed the dynamics of the contest.

While the number of voters not familiar with the candidates has been falling rapidly since the campaign began in earnest in late September, the proportion with unfavorable views of Tom Kean has increased substantially. In August, 44% of voters held favorable views of Kean, compared to 14% holding unfavorable views, a ratio of 3:1. In the most recent poll, 32% held favorable views, and an almost equal number, 33%, held unfavorable views. Voters are also more likely to say now that neither candidate is honest:  24% now, compared to 16% month ago.

“Negative campaigning tends to discourage cross-party voting, and this is exactly the effect we're seeing here,“ said Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University and a survey analyst for PublicMind. “As the race has gone negative, Menendez's base has come home, and Kean has lost a lot of the widespread good will he enjoyed during the summer.”

Menendez also has been bruised by the negative ad campaign, though not as badly as Kean. The percentage of voters who volunteered ethics, reform or corruption as a reason for disliking Menendez climbed five points since last month, to 20%. However, the ratio of those who view Menendez favorably to those who view him unfavorably has remained stable, about 1:1 for the past few months.

“Voters have known about Menendez's baggage for some time, so attack ads are not telling them anything new,” said Cassino. “Menendez's ads, though, are really hurting Kean. His strength in this race was voters' perception of him as someone above the fray. With that gone, he has a tough road ahead of him.”

The decline in favorable perceptions of Kean is accompanied by an increase in support for Menendez among his Democratic base, especially among minority voters.  Among white voters, the two candidates are in a dead heat, with Menendez getting 45% to Kean's 44%.  Non-white voters, however, favor Menendez by a ratio of more than 4:1, 61% to 14%. White voters are also much more likely to express reservations about Menendez's ethics: 23% of white respondents mention ethics, reforms or corruption when asked what they dislike about Menendez, compared to just 8% of non-whites who mention those reservations.

“There were concerns that Menendez would be hurt by schisms between blacks and Hispanics – groups that are normally safe bets for New Jersey Democrats,” said Cassino. “However, this just hasn't materialized. If Menendez wins the race, his margin, as for other Democrats in statewide races, may well be due to minority votes.”

Concerns about national issues, including the war in Iraq and the direction of the country, play a central role in the race.  Two-thirds (67%) of Kean voters approve of the President's job performance, while two-thirds (65%) of Menendez voters disapprove. Similarly, three-quarters of those who say the country is headed in the right direction support Kean, while 62% of those who say the country is on the wrong track support Menendez.

In previous surveys, the mere mention of Iraq was enough to increase support for Menendez by as much as 10 points, a sign that Menendez could increase his support by campaigning against the President and his Iraq policy. Half of voters continue to say that national concerns are “very strongly” influencing their vote in the election, a number that has been stable since July.

“Almost all of the voters who are against the war are now in Menendez's camp.  Continuing to hit Kean on Iraq won't get Menendez any new support, but it may help him hold on to what he's got,” said Cassino.

The PublicMind poll of 577 randomly selected likely voters statewide was conducted by telephone from October 25 through October 31 and has a margin of error of +/-4 percentage points.


Contacts: Peter Woolley 973.670.3239; Dan Cassino 973.896.7072

For more information, please call (973) 443-8661.

Copyright © 2006, Fairleigh Dickinson University. All rights reserved. FDU PublicMind Poll [Latest update 061102]