Christie's town hall strategy: Red districts, inconvenient hours

Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering during a town hall meeting on March. 4, 2014, in Toms River, N.J.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s approval ratings are down -- and the Republican, in trying to turn the page on so-called “Bridgegate,” is working hard to prove that he’s not down and out. But he's not exactly venturing into the lion's den to do it.

Christie has embarked on an ambitious traveling schedule, both nationally and statewide, despite a slew of accusations that his office abused its power. On top of his red meat speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week and several lucrative fundraising trips on behalf of the Republican Governors Association -- which Christie chairs -- the governor has taken a riskier strategy of holding several anything-could-happen town hall meetings face-to-face with residents in the Garden State.

On Thursday, he’ll visit Mount Laurel to hold his 113th town hall since being elected governor. The following week, he’ll hold another in South River. The South River Q&A will be his fifth since it was revealed that Christie’s aides and allies were allegedly involved in a scheme back in September to create traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge -- seemingly for political retribution.

Despite the national media attention, Christie has yet to face a single question at his many town halls from an angry voter about the lane closure plan or about the federal investigation into whether Christie may have improperly used Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family as he was running for re-election. While the questions at the town halls are not pre-screened, the events themselves seem to follow a similar format: Hold them in GOP-friendly towns, have them in the middle of the work day, and have Christie focus his remarks on his proposed budget or the next round of Hurricane Sandy funds.

Indeed, all of the municipalities where the governor has held town halls this year overwhelmingly went for Christie during his 2013 reelection bid, according to the New Jersey Department of State. In Middletown, 75% voted for Christie, compared to 24% for his Democratic challenger Barbara Buono. In Long Hill, 75% also voted for Christie with 24% going to Buono. In Toms River, 74% voted for Christie and 24% for Buono. In Mount Laurel, 66% voted for Christie while 33% backed Buono. And in South River, 64% voted for Christie with 35% going for Buono.

That pattern is similar on the national level as well. With the exception of Mount Laurel and South River, those same municipalities also went for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. In Middletown, 58% voted for Romney and 40% went for Barack Obama. In Long Hill, 60% favored Romney and 39% backed Obama. In Toms River, 57% voted for Romney and 42% supported Obama. In Mount Laurel and South River -- the two exceptions -- the margins were 43-56 for Obama and 41-58 for Obama, respectively.

Christie has consistently focused his opening town hall remarks on two subjects: Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts and his budget. On the recovery efforts, Christie has continually blamed the federal government for the slow response. In Middletown, N.J., he even called the Federal Emergency Management Association “the new F word.” On the budget, he’s quick to point out his spending plan doesn’t raise taxes and gives $2.25 billion to the public worker pension fund.

Another consistent Christie tactic: The town halls have all been scheduled in the middle of the work day. Dave Hopkins, the head of Burlington County-based Grassroots4Change, whose members will be at the Mount Laurel town hall and plans to ask about the bridge scandal, said it’s difficult for many to come out to such events when they have to be at work.

“A weekend would be great, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “People are at work – that’s the big issue.”

A request for comment from Gov. Christie’s office on why the town halls are scheduled in the middle of the work day and why they are held in predominantly red districts was not returned.

To be fair, the questions, Team Christie has said, have never been screened. And in Toms River last week, Christie told the crowd: “You can ask me about whatever you want to ask me about.” In establishing ground rules before the Q&A, he always jokingly warns potential questioners contemplating taking the “governor of New Jersey out for a walk” in front of the many cameras that “If you give it, you’re going to get it right back.”

Christie, who once led the pack in the nascent race to be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2016, has denied any prior knowledge of the lane closures.

Meanwhile, a new poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University finds Christie’s approval ratings are down from January. According to the survey, 41% said they approved of the governor’s job performance with 44% disapproving. In January, 48% said they approved of Christie’s job performance. And in November of last year, 61% approved.

The investigation into the bridge scandal revved up on Tuesday when lawyers for two of Christie’s former staff members attempted to convince a judge that their clients shouldn’t have to abide by a subpoena and hand over documents related to the lane closures to a state panel investigating the matter. The judge said she would make a decision at a later date.