One week to go. At this point, the New Jersey gubernatorial race is closer than I thought it would be, as shown by the Emerson College Poll published last Friday, showing incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy with a six-point lead over his Republican challenger, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. I remain confident, however, in my prediction of a victory by Murphy over Ciattarelli, probably in the high single digit range.
In this era of Trump, the decision of the mainstream voter in New Jersey is far more based upon party identification than on issues per se. Party identification and allegiance has become, more than anything else, a function of the voter’s attitude towards Donald Trump.
In Trump-polarized America, the typical party- registered voter will basically ignore the issue positions and often even the records of the candidates and simply proceed to vote for the standard bearers of his or her party, as long as they adhere to the party position on Donald Trump. Indeed, the Trump factor and the resulting polarization is so pervasive and emotional that Democrats and Republicans, by and large, find it repulsive to even consider voting for a candidate of the other party.
Accordingly, the Trump-caused polarization has enabled each of this year’s two New Jersey gubernatorial candidates to carry the overwhelming majority of his respective party. There are one million more registered Democrats than Republicans, so turnout is the key. If Democrats turn out in their normal gubernatorial election year percentage, Murphy wins comfortably. If Democratic turnout is subpar, the Independent voters may hold the key to the election outcome.
In that respect, the Murphy campaign anti-Trump strategy has already succeeded. The anti-Trump factor in the Murphy campaign commercials, showing in vivid detail Ciattarelli’s profound allegiance to Donald Trump, has strengthened party loyalty in each party and made it impossible for Ciattarelli to garner any significant percentage of the Democratic vote. The Murphy campaign commercial, “Our Way”, was a work of art in that regard.
Ciattarelli has surprised many pundits, including myself, however, by offsetting in part his deficiency among Democratic voters by amassing a substantial plurality among Independent voters. He has gained this advantage by winning the votes of men Independents, based upon his effective use of the tax issue.
The most potent Ciattarelli tool in appealing to these men voters is his commercial, “One Issue,” one of the most effective gubernatorial campaign commercials I have ever seen. It contains a film clip of Phil Murphy saying, “If you’re a one issue voter, and tax rate is your issue, we’re probably not your state.”
Now I would not be surprised if this Murphy statement with the resulting film clip was taken out of context. In fact, taking statements out of context is the rule, rather than the exception, in both political parties with regard to television commercials. So I think this Ciattarelli campaign commercial is fair game.
While this Ciattarelli commercial has a definite appeal to Independent women voters as well as independent men voters, the Murphy campaign has managed to retain a substantial share of women Independents by virtue of his record (paid family leave) and positions (reproductive freedom) on issues of particular concern to women. In fact, in the remaining days of the campaign, I expect this to be the pattern regarding undecided voters, with 1) Ciattarelli receiving the votes of most of the presently men undecideds on the basis of the tax issue; and 3) Murphy receiving a majority of the presently women undecideds, based upon women’s issues and his performance on Covid 19.
The major obstacle now to a Ciattarelli victory is that there are not enough undecideds left for him to make up for his deficiency among Democratic voters. The share of likely voters who are undecided is down to less than seven percent.
Most importantly, I expect the Democrats to have a successful Get-out-the-Vote (GOTV) effort, led by State Democratic Chair Leroy Jones, who is the consummate politician, a master of street politics, White and Black, grassroots politics, backroom politics, and community organizing politics.
I have had almost daily conversations with Leroy Jones over the last month. He already has a robust GOTV program in progress, focused on all three modes of voting, including election day polling sites, early voting, and vote by mail (VBM). I will describe Jones’ ongoing GOTV efforts in a column later this week.
Against Leroy Jones, the Republicans have as their State Chair Bob Hugin. He is a superb fundraiser, but he has no experience with street politics, most noteworthy GOTV.
The last time there was an election dependent on successful GOTV was in 1997, between Republican Governor Christie Whitman and Democratic challenger Jim McGreevey. The then New Jersey Republican Chair was former Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian. He and the late, lamented former State Republican Chair Frank Holman, Jr. were the two finest Republican street politicians of the past century.
In 1997, Chuck as state Chair ran the finest Republican GOTV effort in the history of the New Jersey Republican Party. Had it not been for Chuck’s efforts, Christie Whitman would have been defeated by Jim McGreevey. Unfortunately for Jack Ciattarelli, Bob Hugin is no Chuck Haytaian.
And Leroy Jones may have a major unanticipated bonus assist if Joe Biden is able to make a deal before Election Day that would guarantee passage of both his $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act brick-and mortar infrastructure package and at least $2.0 trillion of his $3.5 trillion Build Back Better social infrastructure program. Such an event would have a galvanizing effect on rank-and-file Democrats throughout New Jersey. It would result in a near double-digit Murphy victory and a comeback victory by Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial contest.
The boost to Democratic turnout would be most impactful in urban New Jersey. The African-American vote was the key to Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory over Donald Trump. Polls and anecdotal evidence suggest that while African-Americans still support Joe Biden and his policies, there is a feeling of disappointment among them that Biden has not been able to deliver on his promises. A deal this week on both these infrastructure packages would increase African-American enthusiasm for Biden to stratospheric levels and consequently most significantly increase urban, Democratic turnout in New Jersey on Election Day.
No doubt, a budget victory by Joe Biden prior to next Tuesday, November 2 would be cause for a Mardi Gras-level Democratic celebration in New Jersey on Tuesday, November 2, 2021.
Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.