UPDATED: Two polls see Booker as big early favorite

Newark Mayor Cory Booker addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. on Sept. 4, 2012. (Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON -- Most political watchers had Newark Mayor Cory Booker as the favorite in New Jersey's abbreviated senate race. Now we have an idea of just how big a favorite he is: a huge one.

A Quinnipiac University poll out this morning says Booker gets 53 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary, compared to just 10 percent for U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, of Central Jersey, and 9 percent for U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, of the Shore, who plans to formally announce his candidacy today.

UPDATED: A Rutgers-Eagleton poll out Monday afternoon came up with similar results. It found that 55 percent of registered Democratic voters and independent-leaning Democrats back Booker in the August primary. Pallone got 9 percent and Holt got 8.

There's been an argument made that if only Pallone or Holt was in the race, they might have a better shot at Booker, since they wouldn't split the liberal Congressman vote. But even if you combine their take in this early poll, they still have less than half the support of Booker. (Matt Katz and I broke down the race in Sunday's Inquirer.)

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who just Sunday night told party leaders she is entering the race, was not included in either poll.

Just how hard a climb it will be for the Congressmen was reflected in how few people know them: 68 percent didn't know enough about Pallone to form an opinion, and 67 percent said that about Holt, in the Quinnipiac poll.

Rutgers found that roughly 70 percent of voters don't have an opinion of or recognize Pallone or Holt.

"It's Newark Mayor Cory Booker in a runaway in this first look at the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Frank Lautenberg," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Who are those other guys? The record shows that Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt are big in their districts, but, state-wide, no one knows them."

Said Rutgers' David Redlawsk: "Booker has the most visible statewide profile by far among the Democrats running, and name recognition is critical in such a short campaign. At the same time, we surveyed registered voters, and special election turnout is notoriously difficult to predict. We shouldn't write anyone off just yet."

In a potential general election match up against Steve Lonegan, the only well-known Republican so far running, Booker has a 54-27 lead, according to Quinnipiac. Pallone and Holt also lead Lonegan, but by smaller margins.

The numbers come with a caveat: the thinking inside Democratic circles is that overall popularity might not matter as much with an odd August primary that could be dominated by a small slice of voters. Pallone and Holt, the argument goes, are well-known within the Democratic establishment after many years of service, and perhaps viewed more favorably by some because of their consistently liberal records, compared to Booker's effort for bipartisan appeal.

As Redlawsk noted, no one knows exactly who will actually show up for an August vote.

But at a certain point, all the party machinery in the world can't make up for the kind of name advantage Booker has. Holt, Pallone and Oliver have a long way to go and a short time to get there.

Also chipping away at the theory that the party establishment can help the underdogs is Katz's story last night that South Jersey political power George Norcross is endorsing Booker. Norcross is a managing partner of the company that owns the Inquirer.

The Q Poll surveyed 858 New Jersey voters with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. The poll included 306 Democrats with a margin of error of 5.6 percentage points. It was done June 7-9.

Rutgers polled 888 New Jersey adults and has a 3.3 percent margin of error. Its subsample of 763 registered voter subsample has a 3.6 percent margin. Rutgers polled 364 registered Democrats and Democratic leaners, with a 5.1 percent margin of error.