Democrat has big lead over Republican in New Jersey election for governor

Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy maintains a sizable lead over Republican Jack Ciattarelli, according to the Monmouth University Poll although its final release before the New Jersey governor’s election shows the margin has narrowed over the past two months.

A top issue for voters in the current poll —taxes— is an area where Ciattarelli has a decided advantage, but respondents say Murphy is the more trusted of the two major party contenders across a wide range of policy areas.

Even though the Covid pandemic has diminished as a voter concern as education has risen as a priority, the Democratic incumbent maintains a lead because he has a clear edge on both issues. The poll also finds that Garden State opinion of President Joe Biden – who appeared at a groundbreaking event in Kearny this week – has dropped into negative territory.

Half (50%) of registered voters support Murphy while 39% back Ciattarelli. Only one percent of the respondents say they are voting for another candidate, even though there are three of those on the ballot: Green Party nominee Madelyn Hoffman, Libertarian candidate Gregg Mele, and Socialist Workers Party contender Joanne Kuniansky also appear on the ballot.

The state posted a statement from each candidate for governor online.

Republican Jack Ciattarelli, Green Party nominee Madelyn Hoffman, Libertarian candidate Gregg Mele, and Socialist Workers Party contender Joanne Kuniansky are hoping to replace incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy.

This 11-point margin is a slight decrease for the incumbent from results in September (13 points, 51% to 38%) and August (16 points, 52% to 36%).

Support levels among various demographic groups are generally in line with where they stood last month. The most notable exception is the senior vote (age 65+), which has gone from a 53% to 37% lead for Murphy in September to a smaller 48% to 43% lead in the current poll.

The movement among older voters shows that Ciattarelli’s constant attacks on Murphy’s job performance have created undecided voters while producing very few converts.

Murphy has consistently polled ahead of Ciattarelli, President Biden won New Jersey with 57.1 percent of the vote in the 2020 election, and there are a million more Democrats registered to vote than Republicans, so the GOP contender is probably doomed because he failed to drive progressive Democratic voters away from Murphy on such issues as marijuana, racial justice and the Governor’s inaction against rape and misogyny.

Progressive Democratic critics have said Murphy betrayed voters who cast ballots to legalize cannabis when he signed a law making possession of large quantities of marijuana a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Murphy continues to hold a large advantage among black voters (83% to 6%) as well as Latinos, Asians and other voters of color (63% to 22%). He also has a small lead among white college graduates (49% to 43%), but trails Ciattarelli among white voters without a bachelor’s degree (35% to 55%).

“We’ve had a couple of debates and a slew of advertising since the last Monmouth poll. Ciattarelli has chipped away at Murphy’s lead but hasn’t delivered the knockout he needs,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

A range of probabilistic electorate models* show Murphy with a lead between 8 and 14 points depending on the scenario.

These margins ranged from 9 to 19 points in prior polls. A traditional likely voter model similar to one used by Monmouth during the 2017 gubernatorial campaign gives the incumbent an 11-point lead (51% to 40%).

The traditional “cut-off” model includes registered voters who cast a ballot in at least 2 of the last 4 general elections and report being “certain” or “likely” to vote, or have already voted.

Ciattarelli actually has a lead among those who intend to vote on Election Day, ranging anywhere from 5 points (47% to 42%) to 12 points (51% to 39%) depending on the turnout model.

However, Murphy enjoys a large 63% to 26% margin among voters who have already cast their ballots or who intend to vote early.

Both major party candidates command the support of their respective partisan bases; 93% of self-identified Democrats back Murphy and 87% of self-identified Republicans back Ciattarelli. Self-described independents are evenly divided (41% for Ciattarelli and 40% for Murphy).

Another way to look at partisan support is based on how voters are actually registered. Murphy is backed by 75% of registered Democrats and Ciattarelli is backed by 75% of registered Republicans.

Pundits tend to point to New Jersey’s large group of “unaffiliated” voters – those who are not registered with any political party – as a key to winning New Jersey elections. This year, those voters tilt toward the incumbent (46% to 40%).

“Even if we figure in potential error margins for these partisan group results, Ciattarelli cannot win this race based on registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters alone. That outcome would require a pretty sizable collapse of Democratic turnout,” said Murray.

New Jersey issue priorities have been shuffled a bit over the past few months. Back in August, the pandemic and taxes were the top concerns named by New Jersey voters. Now, no single issue dominates.

From a list of seven different policy areas asked about in the poll, “taxes” emerges, nominally, as the top issue (27%); followed by jobs and the economy (20%), schools and education (16%), and the pandemic (15%). The remaining issues register in the single digits: i.e. crime (7%), abortion (5%), and transportation infrastructure (4%).

Ciattarelli has an advantage over Murphy on being trusted more to handle taxes (39% to 29%), but Murphy has a larger edge on education (42% to 27% for Ciattarelli) and the pandemic (45% to 26%), as well as abortion (39% to 23%) and transportation (36% to 24%). The two candidates are about evenly matched on handling jobs and the economy (34% Murphy to 33% Ciattarelli) and crime (32% Ciattarelli to 30% Murphy).

“Ciattarelli’s attack on Murphy as being out of touch on taxes has resonated with some voters, but not enough to change the overall issue picture for this campaign. Even though concerns about the pandemic have lessened, the shift toward education policy basically produces the same benefit for Murphy. He is viewed as the better candidate on both issues,” said Murray.

Murray added the following on comparisons to the Virginia election: “There are some interesting parallels in the issue environment for the country’s two gubernatorial races this year. There has been a swing in both states from voters’ being concerned with the pandemic to a greater focus on schools.”

“In Virginia, the Republican candidate took advantage of a gaffe by the Democrat to shift the conversation from Covid safety protocols to parental input on the curriculum,” said Murray. “In New Jersey, though, the Murphy camp has maintained control by tying the two issues together in an ad attacking Ciattarelli’s positions on school mask and vaccine mandates. This probably helped preserve the incumbent’s advantage in both areas.”

A key metric that differentiates the New Jersey election from the Virginia race is that the partisan enthusiasm gap, while evident, is nowhere near as stark.

Overall, 27% of Garden State voters say they are more enthusiastic about this gubernatorial election than usual, including 38% of self-identified Republicans and 24% of self-identified Democrats.

This is slightly larger than September’s enthusiasm gap (34% Republican to 25% Democrat). However, in Monmouth’s poll of Virginia voters taken last week, 34% of all voters in that state were more enthusiastic, with a much larger gap between Republicans (49%) and Democrats (26%).

There have also been some partisan fluctuations in self-reported motivation. Over the past three months, about two-thirds of all registered voters have consistently said they are very motivated to vote in the election for governor (67% in the current poll).

In August, more voters who identify as Republican (77%) than Democrat (65%) reported being very motivated.

This gap flipped in September (76% Democrat to 73% Republican) but has flipped back again in the current poll (77% Republican to 72% Democrat), although the GOP advantage on this metric is not as large as it was in August.

“The partisan difference in voter motivation seems to be related to the national mood as much as anything going on in the New Jersey campaign. Republican enthusiasm may help narrow the gap a bit down the stretch, but it’s not clear that it can close it in the next few days,” said Murray.

Looking at the national picture, President Joe Biden’s job performance rating in the Garden State has dropped into net negative territory – 43% approve and 49% disapprove.

His prior ratings from New Jersey voters showed him with majority approval levels (51% in August and 55% in May). By contrast, Murphy has maintained a positive rating as governor since the pandemic began.

He currently stands at 52% approve and 39% disapprove, a result that is basically in line with his ratings throughout this year. About one-third of New Jersey voters (32%) say Murphy has been able to get more things done in Trenton than Biden has in Washington.

Just 7% say Murphy has done less while nearly half (47%) say the two men have been able to get the same amount done.

“The president’s visit on Monday may have done more to boost Biden rather than Murphy when you look at their approval ratings,” said Murray.

In terms of overall impression of the two gubernatorial candidates, just under half (45%) of the state’s voters have a favorable view of Murphy and 37% have an unfavorable opinion, with 18% giving no answer.

Ciattarelli registers a net positive opinion of 37% favorable and 25% unfavorable – but that also means about 4 in 10 voters (39%) still have no opinion of the Republican nominee (although this is down from 50% in September and 61% in August).

This finding is not unusual for a non-incumbent. Republican Kim Guadagno in 2017 (39%) and Democrat Barbara Buono in 2013 (40%) recorded similar levels of “no opinion” in Monmouth’s final polls of those contests.

Even Murphy was relatively unfamiliar to voters when he won office four years ago (34% no opinion). One needs to go back to Republican Chris Christie in 2009 to find a challenger with better name recognition (just 19% no opinion).

The Monmouth University Poll was conducted by telephone from October 21 to 25, 2021 with 1,000 New Jersey registered voters. The question results in this release have a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points. The poll was conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, NJ.

Monmouth’s electorate models for the 2021 election are not forecasts.

They are designed to present a range of reasonable outcomes based on voter intentions at this moment. Monmouth tests a variety of models where each registered voter is assigned a probabilistic weight between 0 and 1, based primarily on past voting history, with adjustments for self-reported likelihood to vote, motivation and other factors.

Further adjustments are applied to the aggregate sample based on turnout propensities among different demographic groups (e.g. by race, gender, education). The two scenarios included in this report show the extreme ends of the range of possible outcomes from the model testing.

New Jersey is one of two states that hold statewide elections this year, although the Democratic stronghold has gotten far less attention than more competitive Virginia.

Registered voters who choose to vote by mail can drop their ballots in a secure ballot drop box or at their county’s board of elections office before 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Voters can also send their ballots in the mail, but they must be postmarked on or before 8 p.m. Nov. 2 and those ballots must be be received by the county’s Board of Elections by Nov. 8.

Citizens who vote by mail will not be able to return their ballots at in-person early voting poll locations or their Election Day poll locations.

Registered voters can also vote in-person on Election Day by visiting their local polling place between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Nov. 2.

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