Fairleigh Dickinson University, whose poll (Jan. 2-6; 700 registered New Jersey voters; 336 self-identified Democrats or leaning Democratic) we quoted earlier in the week pertaining to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election, now releases the US Senate portion of their data. For veteran Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), the news can either be taken as being a bitter pill or simply a wake-up call.
Lautenberg, who will be 90 years of age at the next election, came from the business world where he was the chairman and CEO of Automatic Data Processing, Inc. In 1982, using his vast personal wealth earned through years of having a major position within the company, Lautenberg ran for his first political office, that of United States Senate. He scored a 51-48 percent win over the better-known Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-NJ-5), at the time a 72-year-old four-term congresswoman who was often seen smoking her trademark pipe. Lautenberg was easily re-elected twice, but then decided to retire from politics in 2000.
Less than two years later, when Sen. Bob Torricelli (D) met with scandal and appeared headed for defeat, the New Jersey Democratic leadership forced him to resign well after the 2002 primary. Armed with a favorable political ruling from a Democratic state Supreme Court, the party leaders successfully installed Lautenberg to replace Torricelli. He went on to save the seat for the Democrats that year, and was re-elected without significant challenge in 2008.
Having repelled cancer in 2010, the elderly Lautenberg must decide whether he will now seek re-election. Earlier this month, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who many Democrats had hoped would challenge Christie, said he would remain in his current position in 2013 but did express an interest in the US Senate seat. His laudatory pronouncements about Lautenberg seemed to indicate that Booker was not planning to launch a primary challenge against the venerable senator. But, follow-up comments several days later — relating to him saying that Lautenberg needs to quickly make a re-election decision — is leading to increased speculation that Booker will run for the Senate next year regardless of what Lautenberg ultimately decides.
The new FDU polling data will stoke the burning political flames of primary challenge. According to their results, this small Democratic polling sample (336 respondents statewide) favors Booker by a 42-20 percent margin. Furthermore, the Newark mayor out-polls the senator among men, women, whites, non-whites, the young and even the elderly. Obviously, none of this is good news for Lautenberg.
The poll’s favorability ratings should also give the senator concern. Booker, with 75 percent name ID among this polling segment, scored a 66:13 percent favorable to unfavorable index. Lautenberg, on the other hand, registered a much lower 45:29 percent ratio. His overall name ID was 83 percent.
It is a bit surprising that, after his long stint as a senator, Lautenberg is only familiar to 83 percent of his own party members. It may be equally eye-opening that this northern big city official is familiar to 75 percent of this same statewide group. The small sample segment could be the underlying reason, but this finding does give one pause as it relates to overall survey reliability.
Even though the sample size and the name ID responses signal that the poll has a high error factor, the wide ballot test spread must be taken seriously. Even a high error factor poll can be considered reliable enough when the distance between two potential opponents is so high.
The preliminary signs point to Mayor Booker entering the Senate race no matter what Sen. Lautenberg ultimately decides. Either Booker likely becomes a heavy favorite in an open seat contest, or he will engage in a primary battle with the incumbent. The early polling data suggests that he will likely see a better result than did Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ-1) when he challenged Lautenberg in 2008. In that primary, Lautenberg scored a 59-35 percent landslide win over the Camden congressman.