When Chris Christie recently launched his presidential bid with a pep-style rally at his old high school, Jim O’Neill pointedly skipped the homecoming event.
“I didn't want to do anything that would have suggested, even tacitly, that I was supportive of him or his policies,” said O’Neill, the district's interim superintendent.
Christie and O'Neill once feuded over superintendent salaries, so the two have a history. But many share O’Neill’s harsh assessment of the state’s two-term governor.
Even as Christie travels the country in pursuit of the Republican nomination, his approval rating in New Jersey has plunged, to the woeful 30% range.
"There's a growing sense among New Jerseyans this guy is simply not on the job and we're seeing a state that is stagnating because of it,” said Patrick Murray, who directs polling at New Jersey's Monmouth University.
Christie is not the only governor with eyes on the White House who faces trouble back home.
Wisconsin's Scott Walker, one of the top contenders for the Republican nomination, also gets disapproving marks from a majority of constituents, as does Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, which raises an obvious question: Why should they be elected president if those who know them best aren't pleased with their performance?
The governors speak of the tough decisions they've had to make as their state’s chief executive — a contrast, they say, with the many U.S. senators, past and present, who are running for president and have never done anything but debate and vote on legislation.
“I would be bored to death,” Christie once said of life in the Senate. “Can you imagine me banging around that chamber with 99 other people? Asking for a motion on the amendment in the subcommittee? Forget it."
For Christie and Walker, though, the discontent threatens to undercut a key rationale for their presidential campaigns, the argument that support in their Democratic-leaning states shows an ability to broaden the Republican Party's appeal and, ultimately, win the White House.
The reasons for the governors’ sagging approval vary.
Jindal, who is focused on rallying the party's conservative base, has alienated old allies in the business community and Louisiana’s GOP-run Legislature by taking a hard right turn.
His refusal to consider tax hikes to close a $1.6-billion deficit, which arose in good part from earlier tax cuts, is seen by critics as an attempt to bolster his political credentials at the expense of the state's education and healthcare systems. A May poll gave Jindal a 32% approval rating.
"There's been an increasing perception in Louisiana that Bobby Jindal has moved on and cares more about the opinion of people outside the state borders than he does about people inside the state borders,” said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette who is writing a book on Jindal.
Timmy Teepell, who is managing Jindal's presidential campaign, rejected that assertion. He said Jindal had improved the education and healthcare systems and paid a price for pushing through other big changes, including a sizeable cut in the number of state employees. “Those battle scars are still fresh,” Teepell said, but will heal when residents see the benefit of Jindal’s policies.
In Wisconsin, the union-battling Walker has long been a polarizing figure, admired by Republicans, loathed by Democrats and generally supported by independent voters. But of late he’s been seen more negatively than positively — the most recent Marquette University Law School survey pegged his approval at 41% — as Walker sparred with fellow GOP lawmakers over proposed cuts to education and healthcare and other steps to close a $2.2-billion budget deficit.
His difficulties have been compounded by Wisconsin’s tepid economy, which lags others in the region.
Walker said polls go up and down. “When people see the benefits of the budget as opposed to just the media talking about the complaints locally, I think we’ll be back on track in the state as we have many times before,” Walker said on Fox News.
But of all the candidates running, none has fallen further, harder than Christie, who was once considered a front-runner for the GOP nomination but now is fighting to make the cut of 10 candidates allowed onstage for next month’s first presidential debate.
The scandal over a September 2013 traffic tie-up on the George Washington Bridge seriously hurt his reputation, even though Christie vehemently denies involvement in the political revenge plot and no evidence has surfaced to refute that claim. The episode, which came to light months afterward, quickly doused the glow of Christie’s landslide reelection and cast the governor’s combative style and brusque personality in a considerably less-flattering light.
He might have been forgiven if the state’s economy was doing better, said Ben Dworkin, who teaches political science at Rider University, just outside the capital in Trenton.
Job creation has been weak, the state's credit rating has been repeatedly downgraded — it’s now among the worst in the country — and funding to repair New Jersey’s crumbling roads and bridges has nearly run dry.
A Christie spokesman provided a long list of actions the governor has taken this year, disputing the notion he has abandoned the state.
As for the polls, “These things are all temporary snapshots in time and nothing that concerns me much at all,” Christie told reporters during an April swing through New Hampshire. “... What matters is who you are and how you present yourself to people.”
Budget wrangling and economic struggles aside, there is something else that Christie and Jindal, in particular, share: a high rate of absenteeism that contributes to a sense they are more focused on winning the White House than performing the job at hand.
Jindal spent close to half of 2014 outside his home state, according to Baton’s Rouge’s Advocate newspaper. Christie has been away from New Jersey about 40% of his second term, according to public radio station WNYC.
By contrast, Walker stuck comparatively close to home, which may be a reason his approval numbers have held up somewhat better.
There is one other GOP governor in the race, Ohio’s John Kasich, whose 55% positive rating in a February poll seems gaudy compared with his gubernatorial rivals.
He’s had differences with Republicans who run the Legislature but benefited from an economic recovery that, by some measures, surpassed the nation’s performance. He also won praise from Democrats for expanding healthcare access under the Affordable Care Act, though the latter will not play so well in the GOP contest.
Kasich, who officially announced his candidacy Tuesday, waited longer than most to start his White House bid. “The decks are cleared” now that Ohio’s two-year budget has passed, said University of Akron political analyst John Green. “So he can run for president without a perception the state's business is unattended.”
Serving as governor can be a springboard to the presidency; four of the last six had that executive experience.
But for some of those running in 2016, it may be a good thing their constituents don’t have veto power.