Jack Ciattarelli has catching up to do while pandemic, taxes, economy are top concerns

Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy holds a double-digit lead over Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli in the New Jersey gubernatorial election, according to the Monmouth University Poll.

Murphy has a decided edge on the campaign’s top issue – the pandemic – and also holds his own on other key concerns, including taxes and the economy.

Few voters have formed an opinion of Ciattarelli, a former three-term state legislator, and still fewer have even heard of either candidate’s running mate for lieutenant governor.

Just over half (52%) of registered voters currently support Murphy while 36% back Ciattarelli. Both candidates claim formidable leads among voters who identify with their respective parties, but Murphy holds a narrow edge (44% to 38%) among voters who do not see themselves as aligned with either party. Regionally, Murphy leads in both the northern (60% to 29%) and central (52% to 38%) parts of the state, while South Jersey is tilted slightly toward Ciattarelli (45%, to 40% for Murphy).

Polling shows that Gov. Phil Murphy (left) has numerous advantages over his Republican challenger Jack Ciatarelli (right).

“These results illustrate the challenge any Republican running in New Jersey would face this year. One place to start is Central Jersey. Chris Christie won this region by 15 points when he narrowly ousted a Democratic incumbent in 2009, but it appears to be Murphy territory this time around,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Murray added, “The key to GOP victory in the past has been winning over upper-income moderate Republicans in Somerset County and working-class swing voters in Middlesex. Both these groups have swung decidedly toward the Democratic party during the Trump era, and it doesn’t look like they are about to swing back any time soon – even for someone like Ciattarelli, who is one of their own.”

Murphy had a clear path to re-election, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released right around the time of the primary election.

When Rutgers asked New Jersey registered voters whether they would re-elect Murphy, consider voting for someone else, or definitely vote for someone else, 42 percent claimed they would definitely stick with the governor. Twenty-one percent said they are on the fence, and 31 percent would definitely vote for someone else.

Fifty-two percent of voters polled in that survey said they would vote for Murphy if the election were held today, compared to 26 percent for Ciattarelli, so the challenger seems to be slowly gaining recognition.

“Ciatterelli has his work cut out for him,” said Dan Cassino, executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, which found that Murphy had a 48% to 33% lead over Ciattarelli in a survey released on June 21, 2021.

“Being unknown is better than being disliked, but running ads in New Jersey to build up awareness is an expensive proposition,” said Cassino.

The Monmouth University poll also finds Murphy has a significant advantage among voters of color – 85% to 5% among Black voters and 69% to 19% among Latinos, Asians, and multiracial voters.

Ciattarelli holds a 49% to 40% lead among white voters, but there is a split based on education. His lead with this group is largely due to white voters without a bachelor’s degree (55% to 34%). White college graduates narrowly prefer Murphy (48% to 41% for Ciattarelli).

“There is not a lot here to suggest that a focus on turning out different types of voters will lead to a significant shift in the current state of the race. It will require something more fundamental in the issues driving the race to do that,” said Murray.

According to New Jersey voters, the most important issues facing the state right now are the Covid pandemic (41%), taxes – especially property taxes (32%), along with income (9%), sales (7%), and other (4%) taxes – and the economy and cost of living (15%) along with jobs (7%). When asked whom they trust more to handle these top concerns, voters give Murphy a clear advantage on the pandemic (46% to 21% for Ciattarelli) and a narrower edge on jobs and the economy (35% to 27%). The electorate is evenly divided on trusting either Ciattarelli (30%) or Murphy (29%) more when it comes to taxes.

“On the issues part of the campaign, you either win on the thing voters care about the most or you get them to focus on a different concern where you have the edge. Either way, the issue picture right now is very favorable for Murphy,” said Murray.

In terms of overall impressions of the two major party nominees, nearly half (48%) of the state’s voters have a favorable view of Murphy while 33% have an unfavorable opinion. Another 19% have no opinion. This is in line with voter opinion of the incumbent in May. When he first ran for office, Murphy garnered a 29% favorable and 12% unfavorable opinion, with 59% having no opinion (July 2017).

Ciattarelli registers a net positive opinion (26% favorable and 12% unfavorable), but 61% have no opinion of the former state legislator. This is nominally better than the ratings were for the last GOP nominee (18% favorable, 21% unfavorable, and 61% no opinion for Kim Guadagno in July 2017).

About a third (32%) of Garden State voters say Murphy’s political views are in line with most New Jerseyans while 22% say he is out of step. Another 46% say they are not sure about how the incumbent’s views align with the state. Fewer voters, though, have an opinion of Ciattarelli’s views – 13% say his views are in line with the state, 15% say they are out of step, and 73% are not sure.

“Welcome to New Jersey elections, where a large chunk of the electorate does not tune in until mid-October. That means Ciattarelli still has to be introduced to most voters. The question is whether the candidate or his opponent gets to make the introduction. A good bet is the Murphy team will pour resources into ads casting the largely unknown challenger as too extreme for the state,” said Murray.

The two party’s nominees for lieutenant governor are even less familiar to New Jersey voters. In fact, 80% say they have not even heard of Diane Allen, the GOP candidate and former state senator and news anchor. Similarly, 66% have not heard of Sheila Oliver, the current Democratic lieutenant governor.

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