The New Jersey Governor’s Race Gets Closer under the Radar

Left: New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy speaks during a news conference in Trenton, N.J., September 12, 2019. Right: New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli appears on Fox News, October 25, 2021. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters, Screenshot via Youtube)

With the Virginia governor’s race monopolizing the news, less attention has been paid to this one.

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Worries for Democrats, missed opportunities for Republicans

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P olitical journalism has focused intensely on the Virginia governor’s race for a bunch of reasons: It’s close, it’s a traditional bellwether, the state is home to a lot of national politics reporters, and the Democratic candidate has been prominent on the national stage for decades. Comparatively less attention has been paid to New Jersey, a state Democrats have won by at least 14 points in six of the last seven presidential elections, by nine or more points in seven straight Senate races, and by 14 points in Phil Murphy’s first race for the job in 2017. The New Jersey governorship nonetheless used to rotate between parties — while every Democrat to win the job since 1961 has won by double digits, no Democratic governor has been reelected since 1965, and Republicans ousted incumbent Democrats by 3.6 percent in 2009 and 1 percent in 1993, also winning squeakers in 1997 and 1981.

Murphy should have been a prime target if the state had not drifted so far into the blue column. New Jersey has taken a 1-2 punch from COVID and COVID lockdowns: the highest death rate of any political subdivision on the planet, but also the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country (7.1 percent as of September 2021). Forced to choose between keeping his constituents safe and keeping the state open for business and schooling, Murphy chose neither. He infamously shared Andrew Cuomo’s ruinous early policy of sending infected senior citizens back to nursing homes.

Unfortunately for Republicans, assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli has not made much successful hay of all this, while Murphy — like Terry McAuliffe in Virginia — has centered his campaign around Donald Trump. If you live in the New York or Philadelphia media market, you have undoubtedly been bombarded with Murphy ads that invariably talk about Trump. Just this weekend, Barack Obama was in New Jersey tearing into Ciattarelli for attending a Trump rally at Bedminster after the election in November 2020 with “Stop the Steal” signs.

For all of that, though, this race may well be a lot closer than in 2017, and as in Virginia, the reasons why suggest bad news for Democrats when they are running in places less favorable than New Jersey. Monmouth’s mid-September poll found Murphy’s margin down from 16 to 13 compared with August, despite 50 percent of the voters having no opinion of Ciatterelli. Then Stockton’s mid-September poll found Murphy up nine points, with 48 percent still having no opinion or no knowledge of his opponent. There has only been one poll since then, an Emerson poll in mid October that found Murphy’s lead down to six points and his favorability just below 50 percent (a 49–47 advantage), usually a danger zone for incumbents, with 20 percent of those polled still saying they’d either never heard of Ciattarelli or had no opinion of him. Emerson adds:

Seven percent (7%) of voters are still undecided; among the undecided voters, 59% are leaning towards Ciattarelli and 41% are leaning towards Murphy. When these voters are allocated, the race tightens to four points, with Murphy at 52% and Ciattarelli at 48%. . . . Among those who have already voted, Murphy leads 76% to 24%. Murphy also leads among those who are somewhat likely to vote, 45% to 40%. Among very likely voters, Ciattarelli leads 48% to 45%.

Democrats are not acting as if this race is a walk in the park, as Obama’s presence campaigning in New Jersey shows. Torrents of money are being spent, albeit partly reflecting how few other major races there are in 2021 and how expensive it is to run TV and radio ads in a state split between two pricey media markets:

The campaigns and outside groups for Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican rival Jack Ciattarelli have spent $45,871,086 in the general election, nearly twice as much as what was shelled out about this time four years ago, according to figures released Monday by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. . . . In the past week alone, independent groups spent more than $7.4 million. . . . Around this time four years ago, when Murphy ran against former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, there was $23.8 million in spending reported. . . . [While each campaign has spent around $12.5 million,] pro-Murphy groups have spent $18,351,164 for the governor’s re-election bid compared to $2,704,854 for Ciattarelli. . . .

Murphy’s largest backers have come from Our NJ, a group funded largely by union groups and the Democratic Governors Association, which spent $5,577,673. Next is Garden State Forward, funded by the state’s largest teachers’ union (the New Jersey Education Association), which spent $5 million. The DGA also spent another $1.3 million to back Murphy. The amount of outside spending is about double what it was in 2017.

Why is this race competitive? Look under the hood of the Emerson poll. Ciatterelli has a whopping 24-point lead with independents (56 percent to 32 percent). In 2017, according to exit polls, Murphy won independents by four points (50 percent to 46 percent). Ciatterelli leads by nine points with men (50 percent to 41 percent); in 2017 Murphy won men by 15 points (56 percent to 41 percent). Murphy leads by 16 points with 18–29-year-olds (58 percent to 42 percent), and by six points with 30–44-year-olds (47 percent to 41 percent); in 2017 he won the former by 48 points (73 percent to 25 percent), the latter by 29 points (63 percent to 34 percent). And here we find yet another data point for a trend: Ciatterelli leads among Hispanic voters by three points (45 percent to 42 percent). Murphy won them by 65 points four years ago (82 percent to 17 percent). Ciatterelli also draws 20 percent of the black vote, compared with 4 percent for Republican Kim Guadagno in 2017.

Digging into the crosstabs of the Monmouth September poll, Ciatterelli was already up by five points with independents (44 percent to 39 percent), and down one point with men (44 percent to 45 percent), but drawing just 4 percent of the black vote (Monmouth breaks out age groups differently than Emerson, and lumps Hispanics in with all other non-white and non-black ethnic groups). There will undoubtedly be some close examination of the final outcomes with Hispanic voters; Emerson also has Glenn Youngkin winning Hispanics where other pollsters do not, so it is possible that there is something different in how Emerson locates voters to poll or asks them about self-identification.

On issues, this, from Emerson, does not look like good news for a Democrat:

A slim majority (51%) of New Jersey likely voters believe taxes should be the first priority for the next Governor. Sixteen-percent (16%) believe jobs should be the first priority, 13% healthcare, 6% New Jersey transit, 4% crime, and 9% believe something else should be the next Governor’s first priority.

With this race polled only once in the past month, it is difficult to get a fix on how close it is, but all the signs point to an outcome that could be tight enough to have Republicans regretting being massively outspent and perhaps second-guessing their candidate or aspects of his message and strategy. A Ciatterelli victory is considerably less likely than one for Youngkin but would be an even bigger political earthquake if it happened. The more likely outcome that should be a warning sign for Democrats is if Murphy’s final margin looks anything like Emerson’s four-point race when undecideds break at the end. If the Democrat wins by four to six points in a state Joe Biden carried by 17 points, while outspending his opponent more than 2-to-1, that bodes poorly for Democrats in places that were already competitive.