Jam for Christie, Clear Lane for Clinton in an Early Look at the 2016 On-Ramp

Chris Christie's popularity has been badly dented and Republican preferences for president look like a six-car pileup in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. In the Democratic lane, Hillary Clinton is well-positioned for 2016 - but has seen her own popularity pull back.

Just 35 percent of Americans see Christie favorably overall, dropping from 52 percent in a Gallup poll in June, while his unfavorable score has doubled to 40 percent. He's gone from a 32-point net positive rating last summer to a 5-point net negative now - never a comfortable place for a public figure. And he's notably weak among strong conservatives, a core Republican group.

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There's room for Christie to rebuild; 25 percent of Americans have yet to form an opinion of him. But nearly half the public, 46 percent, sees the political payback controversy that's engulfed him as a sign of broader problems with his leadership; 43 percent call it an isolated incident.

Clinton, for her part, is off her top popularity as well, though with far less drama and a softer landing. This poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that 58 percent of Americans see her favorably overall - a robust rating, if down from her particularly impressive 67 percent as she stepped aside as secretary of state a year ago. Most of her losses, moreover, occurred by last summer; she's largely stabilized since.

Thirty-two percent see her "strongly" favorably, vs. 8 percent for Christie.

In a head-to-head matchup, Clinton leads Christie by 53-41 percent among registered voters, a mere 34 months before the 2016 presidential election. Clinton's lifted to that lead by a remarkable 25-point advantage among women.

GETTING THERE - Getting there comes first, and while Clinton holds a commanding lead against Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren (who's said she's not interested), the Republican contest looks more like… well, like a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge.

Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 18 percent of registered voters in this survey back Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice-presidential nominee, and the same share like Jeb Bush, he of the presidential family and two terms as governor of Florida. Christie gets 14 percent; among the rest of those tested, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio come in with 10 to 12 percent.

While other, previous polls have been mixed, several last fall had Christie in better shape than now, peaking at 24 percent support among leaned Republicans in a CNN poll in November.

The race, of course, is not yet joined; potential candidates have not announced, others may well emerge and preferences at this stage can reflect name recognition as much as (or more than) substantive evaluations. Early frontrunners with familiar names do sometimes hold the fort - witness George W. Bush in 2000. But sometimes they don't; ask Clinton and Rudy Giuliani about 2008.

DIVISIONS - Still, the divisions are instructive. In a general election matchup, Clinton holds 90 percent of Democrats while Christie does less will within his own party, at 79 percent support. They're close (Clinton a non-significant +5) among independents.

Clinton is strong in some of the support groups closely associated with Barack Obama and Democrats in general. She whomps Christie by 61-33 percent among voters younger than 40, 60-35 percent among those with household incomes less than $50,000 and 74-19 percent among nonwhites, a growing share of the electorate. But turnout in these groups is never a sure bet.

Perhaps most striking, as noted, is Clinton's 25-point advantage among women, 59-34 percent; if nominated she'd be the first woman to run as a major-party candidate for president. Men, by contrast, divide about evenly, 49 percent for Christie, 46 percent for Clinton.

Christie, for his part, leads Clinton by a vast 65-28 points among conservatives, a group that comprises 36 percent of registered voters. He has 50 percent support among whites and 51 percent among people with $100,000-plus incomes.

At the primary level, differences among Republicans chiefly are regional and ideological. Playing to their home turf, Ryan, of Wisconsin, does best among Midwesterners, while Bush's support peaks in the South. Ryan looks better among moderates - not necessarily a good thing in Republican primaries - while Cruz does best among very conservatives and among strong supporters of the Tea Party movement.

On the Democratic side, meanwhile, Clinton, with 73 percent, leads Biden and Warren across the board.

CHRISTIE - Favorability ratings shed more light on Christie's predicament in particular. While Clinton is seen favorably by 86 percent of Democrats, Christie's popularity among Republicans falls to exactly half that, 43 percent. A third of Republicans see him unfavorably, three times the number of Democrats who give Clinton a negative score.

Further, Christie, widely seen as a political moderate, is rated favorably by just 33 percent of strong conservatives, and unfavorably by as many, 35 percent. And he's seen favorably by 38 percent of strong Tea Party supporters, unfavorably by 44 percent. Those sorts of results mark challenges for Christie in elements of his party's activist base - no matter what other traffic jams up the bridge.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 20-23, 2014, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 32-25-37 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.