U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez is unpopular but still leading his Republican opponent Bob Hugin with three weeks until Election Day because of support among women, according to poll results released today by Quinnipiac University.

That lead appears to have shrunk in the last two weeks, from 11 points to 7 points.

The Democratic incumbent leads Hugin, a former chief executive of the biopharmaceutical company Celgene, 51 percent to 44 percent among likely voters. Only 5 percent of voters said they’re undecided, though 10 percent of those siding with a candidate say they could change their mind.

“We are seeing Republican Bob Hugin within striking distance of Sen. Robert Menendez and is now trailing in single digits,” said Mary Snow, polling analyst for the Quinnipiac University Poll.  “What we’re seeing in this race is that support from women is really key to Sen. Robert Menendez’s standing in this race.”

Women prefer Menendez by a margin of 56 percent to 38 percent. Men narrowly favor Hugin, 51 percent to 56 percent.

White voters back Hugin, 52 percent to 46 percent. Menendez leads among non-white voters, 63 percent to 28 percent.

Self-described independent voters prefer Hugin, 51 percent to 44 percent. Each candidate dominates with voters of their own party, though 9 percent of Democratic men said they support Hugin.

Menendez benefits from the state’s overwhelming Democratic tilt in voter registration, exceeding 921,000. Over 37 percent of its nearly 5.9 million registered voters are Democrats, and less than 22 percent are Republicans. Forty percent are unaffiliated, and close to 1 percent are in third parties.

“While he is in the lead and holds the lead, his favorability rating is deep under water,” Snow said.

Menendez, who last year faced trial on corruption charges that have since been dropped, is viewed favorably by 36 percent of voters and unfavorably by 52 percent – meaning that plenty of voters who don’t like him say they’re willing to vote for him.

“What voters are signaling is that they’re not particularly fond of Sen. Menendez, but they’re going to vote for him because he’s a Democrat,” Snow said.

Hugin gets positive ratings from 39 percent of voters and negative ones from 30 percent, despite Menendez’s efforts to hammer his business record at Celgene.

“Roughly 30 percent are saying they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion of him, whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view of him,” Snow said. “In this remaining time before Election Day, how does he define himself? Does he define himself through his own terms with a positive image? Or is he defined by Sen. Robert Menendez with a negative image?

“Also take into consideration the money that has been spent already on this campaign, and Bob Hugin has spent millions of his own money,” she said. “After spending so much money already, can he change people’s minds in these last few weeks?”

Hugin had spent $24 million of his own money on the campaign, as of Sept. 30, according to campaign finance records.

From Oct. 10 to 16, Quinnipiac surveyed 873 likely voters by phone. A poll of that size has an error margin of +/- 4.3 percentage points.

The website Real Clear Politics, which compiles data from multiple polls, shows Menendez leading by an average of around 6 points in the most recent polls done by Quinnipiac, CBS News/YouGov, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Stockton University.

Monmouth University plans to release its first likely voter poll of New Jersey’s Senate race Thursday.


REGIONAL BREAKDOWN

Urban (Essex, Hudson): Menendez 72%, Hugin 24%

Suburban (Bergen, Mercer, Middlesex, Passaic, Union): Menendez 50%, Hugin 46%

Exurban (Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, Warren): Hugin 53%, Menendez 47%

Phillyland (Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem): Menendez 57%, Hugin 34%

Shore (Atlantic, Monmouth, Ocean): Hugin 61%, Menendez 33%