Murphy still holds sizable lead over Ciattarelli, poll finds

Challenger unknown to 61% of registered voters

By: - August 18, 2021 11:00 am

Republican Jack Ciattarelli, left, and Gov. Phil Murphy sparred Tuesday night about the state’s response to Hurricane Ida, COVID-19, and Ciattarelli’s appearance at a pro-Trump rally. (Amanda Brown and Danielle Richards for the New Jersey Monitor)

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy continues to lead GOP challenger Jack Ciattarelli, but voters give the Republican the edge on taxes, a Monmouth University poll found.

Registered voters prefer Murphy by 16 points, 52% to 36%, and the enthusiasm gap Republicans have relied on does not appear to have materialized.

The governor leads among high- and low-turnout voters, including a 16-point edge with individuals who voted in 2017’s gubernatorial election.

“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 Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

The head-to-head poll is Monmouth’s first of the general election cycle, though the governor’s edge is similar to the 48%-33% lead a Farleigh Dickinson University poll reported in June.

2021 campaign issues

Murphy is hoping to be the first Democratic New Jersey governor to win re-election since 1977.

The pandemic remains at the forefront of voters’ minds.

More than four-in-10, 41%, said COVID-19 was the most important issue, but a combined 52% of respondents named taxes — whether it be property taxes (32%), income taxes (9%), sales taxes (7%), or others (4%) — as the key issue, though each type of tax was polled individually.

The challenger has embraced conservative positions on the virus, opposing school mask mandates and calling for broader vaccine exemptions, but those issues appear to have done him few favors. The governor’s advantage on the pandemic is clear: Just under half the respondents, 46%, trusted Murphy to handle the virus, while only 21% said the same of Ciattarelli.

The electorate is evenly split on taxes, giving Ciattarelli an exceedingly narrow 30%-29% edge. Voters do prefer the challenger on jobs and the economy. The challenger leads by eight points on that issue, 35%-27%.

As far as silver linings for Ciattarelli go, it’s a slim one.

“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,” Murray said. “Either way, the issue picture right now is very favorable for Murphy.”

Voters of color overwhelmingly support Murphy. That includes 85% of Black voters who prefer the governor and 69% of Latino, Asian, and multi-racial voters.

More white voters support Ciattarelli, 49%, than they do Murphy, 40%. That advantage is driven by white voters without a college education, with whom Ciattarelli holds a 21-point edge, though Murphy has a narrower lead with white college graduates, 48%-41%.

Geographically, Murphy’s advantage is centered mainly around voter preference in North Jersey, where voters prefer him by a margin of about two-to-one, 60%-29%.

Central Jersey voters, including ones in key counties that delivered former Gov. Chris Christie his electoral victories, also prefer the governor, though by a far narrower 52%-38% margin.

“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,” Murray said. “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.”

Ciattarelli has the edge in South Jersey. There, 45% back the challenger, compared to 40% for the incumbent.

Jack who?

Still, the challenger remains unknown to vast swaths of the electorate. Just over six-in-10 said they had no opinion of the former assemblyman, though those who knew him gave him a favorability rating of 26% to 12%.

That means he’s better liked, if no more well known, than 2017 gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno, who had an upside-down 18% to 21% favorability score in July of 2017.

Murphy is far better known — just 19% of voters had no opinion about the incumbent — and his 48% to 33% favorability is no cause for concern.

Name recognition for the state’s candidates for lieutenant governor is even lower. Four-in-five said they had never heard of Ciattarelli running mate Diane Allen, a former state senator. Two-thirds said the same about Murphy running mate Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver.

“Welcome to New Jersey elections, where a large chunk of the electorate does not tune in until mid-October,” Murray said.

The live-caller poll of 810 registered New Jersey voters was conducted between Aug. 11 and Aug. 16 and has a margin of error of 3.5%.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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