As New Jersey voters settle on a candidate for U.S. Senate, a growing number say they will choose Democratic incumbent Robert Menendez over Republican challenger Joseph Kyrillos, according to the latest Inquirer New Jersey Poll.
Menendez now holds a 14-point lead over Kyrillos, a three-point increase from last month's statewide bipartisan poll. The survey of likely voters showed 49 percent want to reelect Menendez, while 35 percent favor Kyrillos.
Unaffiliated voters favor Menendez by 10 points, up three points from September's poll. Only 15 percent of voters remain undecided, compared with a quarter of voters asked last month.
Many people still don't know Kyrillos, a Monmouth County state senator who has spent more than two decades in the Statehouse. Only three in 10 voters said they knew him well enough to have an opinion of him, and 44 percent said they hadn't heard of him, according to the poll.
"The survey the other night was the first time I heard that gentleman's name," said John Weichman, 44, an office manager from Brooklawn, Camden County. "Last night was the first time I saw [Kyrillos] on TV."
Nearly seven in 10 voters, on the other hand, knew enough about Menendez, a U.S. senator since 2006, to talk about him.
"That's called television advertising," said Jeffrey Plaut, founding partner at Global Strategy Group, which coauthored the survey. Plaut, who lives in Montclair, added, "I was in a diner the other night, and I saw three Menendez ads playing in the background."
Menendez reported more than $10 million in cash on hand in July, five times Kyrillos' haul. Menendez, of Hudson County, is making large media buys to make sure people know his name on Election Day. Both campaigns must file additional financial reports by Oct. 15.
The poll interviewed 604 likely presidential voters statewide by phone between Oct. 4 and 8. The margin of error for the survey was plus or minus 4 percentage points. Plaut's firm, which is Democratic, worked with Adam Geller, chief executive officer of the Republican polling firm National Research, to conduct the poll.
Kyrillos has released three cable television ads in recent weeks, and his name recognition has improved slightly. About 30 percent of those interviewed said they knew him well enough to rate him, up slightly from 23 percent in September. Of those who said they knew of him, 17 percent viewed Kyrillos favorably; 13 percent viewed him unfavorably.
In South Jersey, Menendez has maintained a 20-point advantage, consistent with last month's poll results. South Jersey covers Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem Counties.
More South Jerseyans are unfamiliar with Kyrillos than with Menendez. Though a quarter of those polled said they had never heard of Menendez, 55 percent said they hadn't heard of Kyrillos.
But a sample of South Jerseyans contacted for this article said they weren't terribly familiar with either candidate. Some said they would likely vote along party lines; others hadn't yet decided how they'd vote.
"I'm on the fence," said Weichman, a registered Democrat who said he often votes Republican and may again this year. "I'm going to sort things out at the bitter end."
Marlene Takakjy, a nurse and registered Republican from Cherry Hill, said she didn't know much about Kyrillos or Menendez. But she likes Republican Gov. Christie and plans to vote for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, so she'll probably cast her vote for Kyrillos.
"I haven't given that race much thought," she said. "I know Menendez is our senator, but I don't know much about what he's done."
Among those who know him, Menendez has become more popular. His favorability ratings are up 12 points since September, with 43 percent of voters having a favorable opinion of him as opposed to 25 percent with an unfavorable opinion.
Among women, Menendez holds a 20-point edge, a margin consistent with national trends and the gender gap in the presidential race, Plaut said.
Voters without a college degree support Menendez over Kyrillos 52 to 29 percent, but that gap is tighter for the college-educated: 48 percent favor Menendez and 38 percent support Kyrillos.
Though President Obama holds a slight lead over Romney among those 65 and older, Menendez holds a commanding 21-point lead among seniors, who favor him 52 percent to 33 percent.