Phil Murphy’s Political Survival is Due to the Fact That Most of NJ Ignores Trenton

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg attributes Gov. Phil Murphy's continuing political survival to the fact that most New Jerseyans don't pay attention to state politics and New Direction New Jersey's effective commercials supporting Murphy's millionaire's tax proposal.

Like most close observers of New Jersey politics, I think that governmentally speaking, Governor Phil Murphy is a model of political and policy incompetence.  This is exemplified by the Murphy administration’s deplorable handling of the Katie Brennan case and his woeful inability to enact any of his top priority measures, including marijuana legalization and the millionaire’s tax. 

Murphy has the worst front office in modern New Jersey political history, a vast wasteland devoid of political and policy talent.  Personally, I think the appellations “Phony Phil” and “Hapless Phil” are most appropriate characterizations of the current New Jersey governor who comes to our state live and in living color from Goldman Sachs.  In terms of communication skills, he reminds me of the late Dallas Cowboys football coach Tom Landry, whom the late, great Howard Cosell labeled “a national cure for insomnia”. 

Yet in my view, the usual prevailing New Jersey public apathy towards state politics makes all this a matter of political inside baseball.  The fact is that as of now, in terms of the “outside the Trenton beltway” contest, Phil Murphy is winning the public opinion game, in. spite of his own remarkable ineptitude.  All this is confirmed by the release today of the FDU poll, which has an “A” rating from the renowned statistician Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog and is under the direction of the supremely accomplished political scientist and intellectual Krista Jenkins. 

There are two reasons for Murphy’s continuing political survival.   

The first is that the vast majority of New Jersians do not watch what I call “The Trenton Show”, the continuing news of New Jersey state government and politics. 

The second is the supremely effective television commercials of New Direction New Jersey in support of Murphy’s millionaire’s tax proposal.  These commercials are produced by the political consulting firm M+ M, under the supervision of Brad Lawrence, the David Axelrod of New Jersey and the finest election and media consultant I have observed in my four decades of involvement in New Jersey politics.  While Murphy’s “inside” governmental team resembles the hapless 1962 New York Mets who lost 120 games, the performance of his “outside” message team led by Brad Lawrence is reminiscent of the 1949-1953 New York Yankees team who won five World Championships in a row, including three World Series victories over my dearly departed and beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. 

It should be noted that the current low viewership of “The Trenton Show” by the New Jersey electorate is nothing new.  In fact, “The Trenton Show” normally only gets high viewership ratings when there is pending a proposal from the governor of a fiscal measure perceived as having a broad based fiscal impact.  Three examples of such gubernatorial proposals attracting major public attention have included 1). Brendan Byrne’s enactment of New Jersey’s first gross income tax in 1976; 2) Jim Florio’s 1990 enactment of an increase in the state sales tax and income tax; and 3) Jon Corzine’s clumsy abortive attempt to enact a huge state highway toll hike as a component of his “asset monetization” program in 2007. 

The Murphy millionaire’s tax proposal, while disastrous from the point of view of New Jersey economic competitiveness, is actually popular with the New Jersey electorate as a “soak the rich” measure.  It is not perceived by the citizenry as having a broad based fiscal impact.  Therefore, it has generated very insignificant opposition from New Jersey middle class voters. 

Aside from the usual apathy towards state government prevailing among mainstream New Jerseyans, there is another unique factor which in this era vastly decreases the ratings of “The Trenton Show.”  I speak of a competitive show known as “The Donald Trump Show” which attracts record breaking audiences, including both Trump Kool-Aid drinkers and fervent Anti-Trumpers like me.  There is no way that “The Trenton Show” can offer even a scintilla of competition to “The Donald Trump Show.” 
Night after night, millions of Americans are watching “The Donald Trump Show” played out on cable news talk shows.  I am an addict of these shows, and I only took a brief partial hiatus from my nightly devotion to Trump show episodes during this year’s NBA playoffs.  I am also an NBA fanatic as well as a political junkie, and I suspect my family has written thank you letters to NBA Champion Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse for temporarily reducing my Trump show addiction.  

Given the massive public indifference to “The Trenton Show,” the Brad Lawrence produced commercials are an ideal vehicle for the conveyance of the Phil Murphy message.  Lawrence rivals Martin Scorsese in his ability to get the players in his productions to appeal to the emotions of the viewers.  This is quite a challenge with the remarkably out of touch Phil Murphy, but Lawrence rises to the occasion.  In the commercials, Phil Murphy appears to be a model of empathy.  Frank Capra had nothing on Brad Lawrence.

Murphy’s survival during the record low viewership of “The Trenton Show” is confirmed by today’s aforesaid FDU poll.  A full 33 per cent of those polled did not even know the name of the current governor.  Yet among all those polled, Murphy has a positive job approval rating of 42-32, and among those who know Murphy is the current governor, he has a positive job approval of 43-36.  While such numbers do not mean that Murphy is a reelection lock, they are more than satisfactory ratings for a first term governor, especially when compared with other recent governors. 

There was also a significant ominous item in the poll for George Norcross and Steve Sweeney if they want to support a 2021 Democratic gubernatorial primary challenge to the incumbent Democratic governor.  Among his fellow Democrats, Murphy has an overwhelmingly positive approval rating of 61-16.    This signifies that unless circumstances undergo a most radical change, the odds are almost prohibitively against a successful primary challenge to Phil Murphy in 2021. 

It should be noted that in modern New Jersey political history, there was only one successful primary challenge against an incumbent governor, to wit, Charlie Sandman’s victory in the 1973 Republican gubernatorial primary over incumbent governor Bill Cahill.  The Sandman victory was largely due to scandals and Cahill’s departures from Republican orthodoxies, in particular, his support for the first time enactment of a state income tax.  While a major scandal in the Murphy administration remains a possibility, as we have already seen, he is highly unlikely to depart from Democratic ideological orthodoxies. 

There is one circumstance that could result in a major increase in the viewership of “The Trenton Show” and a precipitous decline in Murphy’s approval ratings, namely a state government shutdown resulting from a Murphy veto of the legislatively passed budget.  There is talk among Trenton insiders that Murphy may do this if the budget does not include the millionaire’s tax.  This would be a politically suicidal move. 

Will Murphy veto the state budget on the advice of his front office, truly “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight?”  And if there is a state government shutdown, will the slim, trim Murphy sit in the same beach chair that made the rotund Chris Christie so famous during the 2017 shutdown?  Stay tuned. 

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 under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. 

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  • 1Prop

    Murphy only survives because there is no effective GOP opposition nor is there a viable GOP challenger. His only concern is whether he can spend more money than Norcross to fend off Sweeney – again.

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