Could Train Issue Derail Guadagno?


Polls vary in accuracy as to the head-to-head margin between candidates in a primary. They tend to be highly reliable, however, in determining trends.

A case in point is the Quinnipiac Poll published on Wednesday, May 3 on the New Jersey Republican gubernatorial primary. It shows the perceived front runner, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno holding an 11-point lead over the underdog challenger, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. The trend, however, is strongly with Ciattarelli. With one month to go before the June 6 primary, he has the momentum to close the gap and prevail.

In March, Ciattarelli trailed Guadagno by 25 points, 28-3. Now he trails by only 11, 23-12. He has quadrupled his vote total, while Guadagno has lost nearly 20 percent of hers. And she is unable to shake the mammoth albatross of her erstwhile running mate, Governor Chris Christie.

The Quinnipiac Poll shows that Christie’s approval rating among all voters is not only an abysmally low 18 percent, but also that he has an astoundingly high level of unpopularity among GOP voters. His approval rating among Republicans is 46-47, an historically unsurpassed decline for a governor once viewed as a potential presidential nominee. GOP primary voters are thus looking for a new face, and Ciattarelli fits the role.

My late dear friend, Steve Salmore, the ultimate GOP guru of politics and policy used to say that candidates usually get the campaigns they deserve. Both Guadagno and Ciattarelli have the political acumen, policy insight, and ethics to be successful governors. To paraphrase Steve Salmore, however, Ciattarelli has had a campaign he deserves, while Guadagno has not.

The wunderkind duo of Ciattarelli campaign consultant Chris Russell and campaign manager Rick Rosenberg has thus far implemented at both the strategic and tactical levels a near flawless campaign. At the outset of the campaign, nobody thought Ciattarelli would win more than one county line, his home county of Somerset. Thus far, he has won seven lines to Guadagno’s ten. Russell and Rosenberg have also developed devastatingly effective mail pieces that irretrievably tie Guadagno to Christie. If their television commercials are nearly as effective, Guadagno’s negatives will rise between now and primary day.

There is another factor that augurs well for the Ciattarelli campaign. The Republican base is extremely depressed in this primary, given the overwhelming expectation of a Phil Murphy landslide. It will be surprising if turnout exceeds 20 percent. The voters in the primary will be those Republicans who follow politics very closely. These individuals by and large spend much of their time watching cable news television shows. Also, the NBA and NHL playoffs are largely carried by cable channels and are attracting large viewerships. Thus, GOP primary voters can effectively be reached by commercials on cable television, and a non-cable network television buy is not necessary for the Ciattarelli campaign. This reduces the impact of the Guadagno fundraising advantage.

By contrast, Guadagno’s campaign has been characterized thus far by the absence of any compelling message, positive or negative. Her property tax relief proposal has failed to gain credibility with the media, given questions about how the state could fund the program. If she wins the nomination, she will face a Phil Murphy who currently has a two to one advantage over her and a 25-point lead.

Still, most media observers, who tend to be guided by conventional wisdom, continue to predict a Guadagno victory on the strength of her current lead and slight advantage in county lines. Yet there is one issue that I believe could be a silver bullet for Ciattarelli: Christie’s diversion of the funding for the ARC rail tunnel into Manhattan and his abject failure to fund and plan for an alternative project.

Christie’s soaring unpopularity was originally spurred by Bridgegate. It is now being fueled by his misfeasance and malfeasance on the Manhattan tunnel issue. If you ride New Jersey Transit trains into Manhattan and are subject to delays, as I have been, you hear passengers make comments about Christie in unprintable language. If there are serious Manhattan commuter delays on New Jersey Transit over the next few weeks, angry voters will want to send Christie a message, and voting for Jack Ciattarelli will be a perfect way to do it.

And on the New Jersey Transit issue, Guadagno’s vulnerability is not just due to Christie but largely of her own making. Both she and Ciattarelli mistakenly, in my view, opposed the 23-cent gas tax increase. Ciattarelli, however, did support Ballot Question 2 this past November, which dedicated the gas tax increase to transportation projects. This “lockbox” created a potential funding source for needed New Jersey Transit projects, including a new tunnel. In an act of supreme political and policy folly, Guadagno opposed the lockbox ballot question.

Guadagno and her political advisors were most superficial in their judgment that the gas tax and the lockbox would spur public anger. Yes, the polls did show that a majority of voters opposed the gas tax increase. Voters will always oppose ANY new tax increase. What these polls did not measure was the INTENSITY of public opposition to the gas tax increase. We now have the answer to this question. Public outcry against the gas tax increase has been virtually non-existent. The gas tax increase of 2016 was NOT the Florio toilet paper tax of 1990.

So on the basis of Kim Guadagno’s opposition to the lockbox, Jack Ciattarelli now has the opportunity to portray her over the remaining weeks of the campaign as an opponent of needed New Jersey Transit transportation funding. I authored a previous column where I compared Jack Ciattarelli’s campaign to the 1951 baseball New York Giants, who overcame a 13.5 game deficit to win the National League pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers on Bobby Thomson’s historic home run in Game Three of the playoffs. If there are significant delays and commuter problems with New Jersey Transit over the next few weeks, Kim Guadagno’s campaign may well resemble the season of those very same 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers.

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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