There’s little question in what to expect, as the candidates’ respective campaigns have been almost laser-focused in their messaging – almost all of which has been negative – up until this point.
“In some ways this race is really a case of what you see is what you get. The issues really are straightforward, and the issues that are salient to voters are really straightforward,” said Rebovich Institute Director Micah Rasmussen. “You are either concerned about Bob Menendez’s ethics problems, or you are concerned that Hugin is going to be a vote for Trump. That’s really what it boils down to.”
“I expect to hear a lot about Trump, and I expect to hear a lot about Melgen, Rasmussen said. “Those are the two people who are not in the room who we’re going to hear the most about tonight”
While the result of a New Jersey Senate race would typically be foregone conclusion, Menendez’s vulnerability over ethics issues that continue to hound the senator almost a year after the jury his corruption trial reached a deadlock have moved a typically safe seat into the competitive column.
And while polls showed the senator with a sizeable lead near the start of October, the race has narrowed over the past weeks, with Menendez’s lead over his challenger shrinking from a hefty 11 points in a Quinnipiac University poll released Oct. 3 to a much less comfortable five points in a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released early Wednesday morning.
“That’s always going to happen as we’re approaching election day,” Eagleton Poll Director Ashley Koning said of the tightening margin. “Voters are starting to tune in. They’re starting to pay more attention. Undecideds are picking sides. Independents are pickings sides, so that’s kind of what we see regardless of the specifics of the race.”
Still, that shrinking margin could prove to be a reflection of Republican enthusiasm catching up to Democrats, who have been incensed by President Donald Trump this midterm season – a season that usually sees a drop in turnout among Democratic voters, who tend to be younger and less engaged than their Republican counterparts.
But the fear for Democrats probably isn’t low turnout.
Competitive House races in the state are likely to force a swell of support in those races, and even where races aren’t competitive – say, in the heavily-blue first district or the Parts of Essex County that fall outside of the 11th district – are likely to see high turnout as a result of operations by the machines of get-out-the-vote gurus like Rep. Donald Norcross and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.
But those voters won’t necessarily vote for Menendez just because they turn out for Mikie Sherrill or Norcross or whomever else, said Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy.
“I think that their big fear is that some Democratic go into the polls under the belief that Menendez is going to win,” Duffy said. “So they cast a protest vote because ‘it doesn’t matter,’ except it does.”
Those concerns are doubly true for the ever-shrinking pool of the state’s true swing voters, said Rowan University’s Ben Dworkin.
“I think a big concern for the Menendez folks is if these voters come out and simply skip the Senate race – don’t vote for either candidate,” Dworkin said. “The Democratic numerical advantage in voter registration in New Jersey is weakened if people simply take themselves out of the voting for a key race, and if enough people do that, that can have a big impact.”
Voter registration in the state certainly favors Democrats. Of the 5.9 million voters registered in the state, about 2.2 million are Democrats, while a little under 1.3 million belong to the GOP. But the largest chunk of voters, roughly 2.3 million, do not belong to any party officially, even if they tend to vote one way or another once they have a ballot in their hands.
The closest thing the state has to true swing votes are those cast by women, suburban women especially.
Many of those women are likely to be animated by Trump administration policies that some view as anti-women, and Menendez’s campaign has spent a considerable deal of effort to paint Hugin as an anti-woman candidate, reaching back decades to highlight the candidates’ attempts to stop women from joining Princeton’s once exclusively-male dining clubs.
Hugin’s campaign has made similar efforts to win over the state’s women. Most recently, the campaign aired an ad rehashing unproven allegations claiming Menendez solicited underage prostitutes during trips to the Dominican Republic.
Those attacks could cause some women to find both candidates distasteful.
“Is it possible, sure, particularly among independent suburban white women who would typically break Republican, sure. Is it possible they go in, lodge a protest vote, absolutely,” said Montclair University’s Brigid Harrison. “My sense is that to the extent that these women are being mobilized around and anti-Trump message, that is what matters.”