Is New Jersey's Senate race close or not?

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Democrat Cory Booker, left, and Republican Steve Lonegan shake hands before their first debate of the U.S. Senate campaign in Trenton, N.J., Friday, Oct. 4, 2013. (AP photo)

By Jonathan Tamari / Inquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – Is New Jersey's Senate race getting closer or not? Conflicting polls out Monday paint two different pictures of the contest that conludes Wednesday.

A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released this afternoon indicates that Democrat Cory Booker will win in the blow-out many expected, giving him a 22 point lead over Republican Steve Lonegan.

But a Monmouth University poll also out today showed a 10 point lead for Booker, much tighter than many expected. The 10 point margin is similar to other recent surveys from Quinnipiac University and Stockton College, which found Booker with 11 to 12 point leads.

The likely difference: no one is quite sure how to predict voter turnout, given the odd mid-week, mid-October special election. The biggest question in the race is who gets their voter to to the booths. 

The confusion of having a Wednesday election day was unwittingly illustrated by the Republican National Committee Monday, when it sent out an erroneous tweet urging people to get to the polls Tuesday. It quickly corrected itself, but the message just reminded us how rare it is for people to think about a Wednesday vote.

The two polls do find some common ground in the damage the race has done to Booker. Each find his unfavorable ratings soaring as Lonegan pounds his record in Newark and questions his authenticity. In both polls Booker is increasingly seen as an ambitious self-promoter - even though more voters agree with his positions on the issues.

Those findings tell us why many Democrats have said that even though they expect Booker to win by double digits, this campaign has done damage to his well-honed brand.

Lonegan, though, has also suffered as voters learn more about his views. In particular, the Rutgers poll found that independents who watched last week’s two Senate debates favor Booker 59 percent to 37, while independents who didn’t watch come down in favor of Lonegan 45-42.

Lonegan staked out hard-right positions on a number of issues in the debates despite New Jersey’s leftward lean.

Even with the smaller gap -- 10 points -- Booker is still heavily favored. But given Booker's political star power and the factors in his favor -- more money, more name-recognition, a strongly Democratic state and an opponent with staunchly conservative views -- most entered the race expecting a bigger win for the Newark mayor. (Though most any politician would be happy with a 10-point victory, if that's what transpires).

The Rutgers poll sees Booker with an even bigger win, though: it said likely voters favor him 58-36.

“Voters we talked to seem to have moved back in his direction,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. “The debates presented a stark picture of the differences between the candidates, which appears to have led independents to prefer Booker.”

Booker, however, has taken his hits. He has a 54 percent positive rating, but that's down nine points from Rutgers’ early September poll. His unfavorability has grown to 32 percent (from 19 percent) and 34 percent see Booker as mainly concerned with self-promotion. 

Still, 48 percent of voters said his campaign makes them feel hopeful and 47 percent believe he has made progress as mayor of Newark.

Lonegan’s favorables are up eight points to 30 percent, but his unfavorable ratings have climbed even more: to 34 percent (up from 22 percent on Sept. 11).

Now lets look at Monmouth’s poll, which has Booker with a 52-42 lead, down from a 13 point edge two weeks ago and 16 point lead in August, according to previous Monmouth surveys.

Despite Booker being seen as more in-step with New Jersey’s views, independent voters prefer Lonegan 48 to 43.  That’s an 11 point swing -- two weeks ago Booker led 46-40 among independents.

Again, Lonegan has hurt Booker by raising questions about his motivations.

“Concerns about Cory Booker’s intentions to serve New Jersey continue to persist and his favorability ratings continue to drop.  At the same time, voters clearly prefer Booker’s political views over Lonegan’s.  The message seems to be that Garden State voters don’t like to feel that their support is being taken for granted,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

A plurality of 48 percent told Monmouth that Booker’s main attraction is the national spotlight compared to 37 percent who say his focus is on New Jersey.

Booker’s personal rating was 51 percent favorable to 30 percent unfavorable among likely voters. That's still a strong rating, but it's the third consecutive drop for Booker. His net personal ratings (favorable minus unfavorable) have fallen from +46 in June, to +34 in August, +26 two weeks ago to +21 in the current Monmouth poll.

As in the Rutgers poll, Monmouth found that Lonegan is also taking a beating. His net personal ratings have dropped from +14 in June, to +11 in August, +7 two weeks ago to +3 in the current poll.  Currently, 38% of likely voters view him favorably compared to 35% who hold an unfavorable view. 

A majority of voters – 55 percent – told Monmouth that Booker’s views on the issues are in line with most New Jerseyans, while just 37% who say Lonegan’s are in-line with the Garden State. Which makes it all the more surprising that Monmouth has only a 10-point difference between the two.

The Rutgers poll sampled 513 likely voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points. The likely voters are from a sample of 798 registered voters polled statewide using live callers to landline and cell phones from Oct. 7-13.

The Monmouth poll surveyed 1,393 New Jersey voters likely to vote in the special election. The poll was conducted by telephone from Oct. 10 to 12 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.


You can follow Tamari on Twitter or email him at jtamari@phillynews.com.