I should have seen it coming.
Strip away the ideologues and the party pros on both sides and average voters often go with who they like.
And Jack Ciattarelli was – and is – a very likeable guy. Most people who meet him like him.
This is not meant to say Phil Murphy is dislikable.
But in the end, it seemed as if people who supported Murphy liked his philosophy while those who decided to back “Jack,” – a regular-sounding name to be sure – simply liked him.
Guess which side was more committed.
I submit this theory in an attempt to explain, albeit retroactively, why the race for governor in a blue state was still a race a day later.
To buttress this point, it’s necessary to look at the campaigns.
Murphy did something odd for a politician. He didn’t really mix all that much with average voters.
He had many staged events. There was a rally in Perth Amboy with teachers and a few in Newark with the Hispanic and LGBTQ communities. There were also a few events with unions.
And then, of course, there was the celebrity tour. Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Jill Biden, Amy Klobuchar and to use a common Murphy quote – “a cast of thousands” – trekked to New Jersey in hopes of pumping up Democratic turnout.
Some of these spectacles were fun – the Bernie rally certainly was – but the reality was that just about all the people attending them were going to vote for the governor anyway.
Ciattarelli tried a different approach.
He went out and met “real” people. He did it, as he said, travelling up and down the state “eight days a week.”
He was at diners, pizza joints, coffee shops and all sorts of festivals and fairs. Sure, local Republicans would work hard to whip up a crowd, but these forays also enabled Ciattarelli to interact with probably thousands and thousands of regular folk.
He also held many “town halls.” These were unscripted events where the candidate gave his stump speech and then took questions.
Ciattarelli was good at this. His speech always included the type of family stories that appeal to many.
His mother, who was 4-foot-11 “on a good day,” had a kitchen drawer in which rested a wooden spoon.
“She never said, ‘wait till your father gets home,'” Ciattarelli would relate, leaving no doubt about the purpose of the spoon.
Then, there was the story about the candidate’s parents having “one high school diploma between them.”
Ciattarelli said that when he first told that story, his mother was not amused.
She told her son, “Dammit, if you’re going to tell that story, make sure you say I’m the one with the high school diploma.”
That story always got laughs.
Murphy did none of this.
Hard to tell if this was his decision or a campaign consensus. The bottom line was that the governor seldom interacted with, if you will, “the masses.”
It’s not as if the governor is unequipped to do this. Over the last four years, he’s been overheard joking about his passion for the Red Sox and the predilection for those named “Murphy” to enjoy a few adult beverages.
But any sign of a “regular guy” persona was lost on those who didn’t really know him.
Now, it is understood that there were some headwinds here that the polls seemed to miss.
Many Republicans were angry about a lot of things – shutdowns, masks in school, licenses for the undocumented, the 2020 election.
That group was always going to oppose Murphy. But that’s not why the race is so close.
Ciattarelli spent the last 22 months meeting average Jerseyans, many of whom liked “Jack” personally.
That’s why they voted for him.