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Friday, September 30, 2011

The Data on Chris Christie

The latest in the fast-moving media story lines on the race for the GOP presidential nomination is focused on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the possibility that he might throw his hat in the ring. Christie’s actions to address looming financial disaster in New Jersey have attracted much attention. Supporters claim that his attempts to curtail the spending and his outspokenness and ability to “tell it like it is” in New Jersey could translate well to Washington.

Christie is a lawyer by training (Seton Hall Law School). He became a freeholder in Morris County, N.J., and then made headlines as a corruption-busting U.S. attorney.

If Christie were to jump into the presidential race, he would begin with a recognition challenge. This would not necessarily be bad, as I will return to presently.

Christie is well known in New Jersey and in Republican political circles. He is not well-known nationally. Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin recently reviewed all extant polling data on Christie. There is not a lot of it. Between 50% and 65% of Americans say they have never heard of Christie or don’t know enough about him to have an opinion. As Charles says: “Christie looks like a lot of governors who, however well known in their home states, are far less visible nationally, or even regionally."

It’s important to remember that Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry did not have great national name identification, either, earlier this year as they began their campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination. Bachmann’s name ID among Republicans was as low as 52%, and Perry’s, 54%. Bachmann is now known by about as many Republicans as know Mitt Romney (name ID scores in the mid 80% range), and Perry is known by 79% of Republicans.

Or course, as I indicated above, facing the challenge of starting out in a political campaign with relatively low name ID comes with both negatives and positives. The process gives the politician the chance to shape his or her image, rather than dealing with an image already set in stone. But the process also carries with it intensified media scrutiny, more in-depth searching of the politician’s past record, and, almost by definition, an increasing fusillade of criticism from one’s opponents.

We’ve seen these processes at work with both Bachmann and Perry. Bachmann had a Gallup Positive Intensity Score as high as 24 in June and a score of 20 in early August, when she won the Aug. 13 Iowa Straw Poll in Ames. Shortly after that, however, and concomitant with Perry’s entrance into the race, her positive intensity begin to fall, reaching its current 8, her lowest on record.

Perry begin with a Positive Intensity Score of 21 when Gallup began tracking him in early July, and it reached as high as 25 in late August early September. Now it has begun slipping -- to 22 in the latest Gallup report, and most likely lower still when Gallup next reports the scores next Tuesday on Gallup.com.

Christie has a good chance of following this same arc: An initially high positive intensity, a surge in name recognition, followed by a downturn as he becomes better known, as his fellow Republican opponents begin to criticize him, as Republicans themselves begin to look into his positions (not all of them highly conservative) and as the media begins to scrutinize his record. Of course, every situation is different. Were Christie to jump in, he might carve out a different pattern.

Then there is the issue of Gov. Christie’s weight. No one knows for sure how much he weighs, but, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson concludes, it is likely that he is “extremely obese” by government standards, which would be a weight of more than 286 pounds for his reported 5’11” height.

Some people may argue that his weight is a personal, non-issue, but others say it is a significant variable to be taken into account were he to run for president.

ABC News’ Joel Siegel asked the question: “Is New Jersey Governor Too Overweight to Become President?

Bloomberg columnist Michael Kinsley answers that question in his recent column, saying: “Look, I’m sorry, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat.”

Robinson agrees with Kinsley's main point, saying: “Whether or not he lets himself be persuaded to run for president, Chris Christie needs to find some way to lose weight. Like everyone else, elected officials perform best when they are in optimal health. Christie obviously is not.”

Americans themselves claim not to be personally discriminatory against overweight people. Our Gallup July update this year shows that 12% of Americans admit that they have less respect for a person who is overweight. Most say it makes no difference. Only 14% say it is OK for businesses to refuse to hire someone just because they are significantly overweight.

But 42% say it is justified for health insurance companies to set higher rates for people who are significantly overweight. Which brings up some of the discussion about Christie’s weight. It’s unhealthy. Which sets a bad example for the nation’s citizens, and which statistically increases the probability that a President Christie would have health issues while in office.

Here are some of the conclusions of my colleague Elizabeth Mendes' review of our Gallup-Healthways Index data on weight and other aspects of life:

  • "The relationship between a high BMI and various health problems has been well-documented in traditional scientific literature, and Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index surveys from 2009 confirm these findings. Those who are obese are far more likely than those who are a normal weight and those who are overweight to report being diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and to have had a heart attack. Gallup has also previously reported a rise in diabetes during the past two years in the U.S., concomitant with an increase in obesity, as well as a clear relationship between diabetes and obesity across states."
  • "The rate of depression is also higher among those who are obese, with 23.3% reporting they have been diagnosed with depression, compared with 15.0% of those who are normal weight."
  • "Likely reflecting the effects of higher rates of chronic conditions, obese Americans are more likely than those who are normal weight or overweight to report that poor health keeps them from doing their usual activities. The obese are almost twice as likely as those who are normal weight to miss out on eight days or more of activities per month because of poor health."
Our data show that 42% of Americans -- as of our latest survey, from July -- consider themselves to be either very or somewhat overweight. Only 6% put themselves in the "very overweight" category.

We also get at this in a different way in our Gallup Healthways tracking by asking Americans to tell us their height and their weight -- and then calculating their BMI. This procedure allows us to estimate that 63% of Americans are overweight, including 27% who are obese. And even this procedure is based on self-reports of height and weight, and it’s likely that Americans overreport their height and underreport their weight, meaning that the true rates are higher in the population.

Based on the self-definitional reports in our consumption poll, Republicans (44%) are slightly more likely than Democrats (39%) to describe themselves as overweight. So maybe Christie would fare somewhat better in the Republican primaries than he would in a general election.

At any rate, were Christie to get into the race, his weight no doubt would become an issue. Our data suggest that most Americans claim one’s weight doesn’t affect their views of a person, but it’s difficult to pinpoint the impact of weight in a more subliminal, subconscious evaluation or reaction to a candidate. Research shows that people make quick judgments based on just looking at the face of a political candidate -- judgments that can predict the winner of political races. It’s certainly possible that quick judgments based on a candidate’s weight could also factor into a voting decision.  

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