Menendez has 21-point lead on Hugin in Monmouth poll

File photos U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, left, is in a tough race against former Celgene head Bob Hugin.

Democrat Robert Menendez has a large advantage over Republican Robert Hugin in the 2018 race for U.S. Senate, according to an early Monmouth University Poll of New Jersey registered voters.

Among those voters, Menendez starts out the campaign with weak approval ratings, partly due to the fallout from his recent trial, but this negative is offset by his membership in the Democratic Party in often-blue New Jersey. Hugin, meanwhile, is not well-known in this stage of the race, which is a hindrance thus far.

A majority of voters, 53 percent, say they would vote for Menendez and about one-third, 32 percent, say they would vote for former Celgene executive Hugin if the race for senator were today.

Menendez is currently backed by almost all (92 percent) of his fellow Democrats, while Hugin is supported by 84 percent of Republicans. Independents are split, with 41 percent in favor of Menendez and 33 leaning toward Hugin. Both Menendez and Hugin are the favorites for their respective parties’ nomination in the June primary.

“Let’s be honest. It’s very unlikely that these results are predictive of the final margin on Election Day. New Jersey voters do not tune in to midterm elections until sometime in October, and fewer than half of the voters we polled now will actually show up to vote then. However, the current state of the race does speak to what is perhaps the incumbent’s biggest strength: being a Democrat in a blue state in a year that is looking very good for Democrats,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

More than three-quarters of voters, 76 percent, know Menendez was recently on trial on charges tied to bribery and misuse of office. His case ultimately ended in a mistrial, and prosecutors eventually dropped any charges that were not dismissed by a judge.

Just over half of those polled, 51 percent, said this situation makes them less likely to vote for Menendez, while 42 percent say it does not impact their vote. Currently, about 15 percent of all registered voters prefer Menendez for Senate and also unaware of his legal troubles.

“If the Republican nominee can swing over every Menendez voter who is just learning about his court case, this race could get a lot closer. But that is a big ‘if.’ For one, many of these low-information voters are unlikely to turn out in November anyway. But, more importantly, it does not take into account how tenacious Menendez can be once campaigning starts in earnest. It will take a very concerted and effective messaging effort by Hugin to turn this issue into a net gain for him,” Murray said.

The poll found that Hugin is basically a blank slate for New Jersey voters, with 82 percent saying they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. The rest are split between favorable, 10 percent, and unfavorable, 8 percent, opinions of him. Only one in five voters, 20 percent, are aware that Hugin is a former pharma executive, with 30 percent saying this piece of information makes them less likely to support him, 7 percent saying it makes them more likely and 58 saying it has no impact on their vote.

“The good thing for Hugin is that health care costs are not as much of a burning issue in New Jersey as they are nationally. The bad news for Hugin is that the Menendez team has yet to sink its teeth into this aspect of his background. The question is whether Bob Hugin is able to introduce himself to New Jersey voters, or if Bob Menendez will get to do it for him,” Murray said.

The poll was conducted by telephone from April 6 to 10 with 703 New Jersey adults, including a subset of 632 registered voters. The results have a margin of error of +/-3.7 percent for the full sample and +/-3.9 percent for voters.