Why Sen. Bob Menendez is still favored to win in New Jersey

Posted at 4:06 PM, Oct 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-03 19:02:05-04

A Republican winning a US Senate race in deep blue New Jersey? It hasn’t happened since 1972.

Yet new polls show Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez in trouble against Republican Bob Hugin. Three high-quality polls released over the last two days give Menendez a lead of anywhere from just 2 to 11 points.

Indeed, it’s plausible that Menendez does lose. He is, however, strongly favored to win re-election, even at this point.

There are two factors competing against each other: voter dislike for Menendez and voter dislike for President Donald Trump. The latter is likely to carry the day.

Following a federal corruption trial that ended in a hung jury, Menendez saw his personal brand take a tumble. His favorable rating in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, for example, stands at 34% to an unfavorable rating of 53%. That’s bad enough for a net favorable rating of -19 percentage points.

Such a low rating would usually spell disaster for a senator running for re-election. Look at Trump’s approval rating and disapproval rating split in the same poll, though. The President has a 35% approval rating to 62% disapproval rating, which makes for a net approval rating of -27 percentage points. This is 8 points lower than Menendez’s net favorable rating.

Menendez may be disliked, but Trump is even more disliked.

Menendez also has history on his side. Opposition party senators running in midterms have won 96% of the time since 1982. They tend to lose when the President is extremely popular (like in 1998 and 2002).

You’d have to go back to 1982 to find an example of when this wasn’t true. Nevada Democratic Sen. Howard Cannon lost re-election to Chic Hecht that year. As with Menendez this year, Cannon suffered at the polls because of a scandal. Teamsters union officials were accused of bribing Cannon.

Cannon, though, was running in a much redder state than Menendez is this year. Republican President Ronald Reagan won Nevada by 36 points in 1980. Trump lost New Jersey by 14 points in 2016.

Menendez may also benefit from voters willing to pull the lever because they like the job he is doing even if they don’t like him personally. In that same Quinnipiac University poll in which his net favorability rating is -19 points, his net job approval rating stood at +2 percentage points.

A +2 net approval rating for a two-term incumbent Democratic senator still isn’t very good, however. It at least opens the door to Menendez losing re-election.

In a model I built that takes into account the polls and the fundamentals (e.g. how blue New Jersey usually is, the fact that Hugin has never held elected office, etc.), Menendez is favored to win by 8 percentage points. The 95% confidence on that ranges from a Menendez victory of 23 points (if everything went Menendez’s way) to a Hugin win of 6 points (if everything went Hugin’s way).

Put another way, the model is indicating Hugin may pull off the upset. It just isn’t very likely.