Mikie Sherrill and Assemblyman Jay Webber will spar in two debates Tuesday evening, the first such contests in the district since they won their respective parties’ nominations in June.
The debates may end up giving little more than a nudge to the needle as voters rarely watch such events without already having made up their mind, Rowan University political science professor Ben Dworkin said, but the contests will still provide the two with an opportunity to establish themselves or attempt to force an error out of their opponent.
“I think Mikie Sherrill has to hold her own as the new candidate, the person who hasn’t been in elected office for years and continue to push her campaign message, that according to polling, has been pretty effective so far,” Dworkin said.
Unlike Sherrill, Webber has run for office seven times and is a former Republican State Chairman.
In a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday, Sherrill led Webber 48%-44%. That four-point lead, obtained using Monmouth’s standard turnout model, expanded to seven point when pollsters applied a model predicting a surge in Democratic turnout.
The results of that poll a stark reversal for the historically-Republican district. Retiring Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who has held the seat since 1995, has never won re-election by fewer than 19 points.
“It’s rare that you really see undecided voters somehow switching because of a debate,” Dworkin said. “So Webber needs to find a way to reach the independent voters in the district who are, at least according to the polls, straying away from their traditional Republican roots.”
Webber might be able to accomplish that by forcing mistake out of Sherrill, though such mistakes rarely make a difference, Dworkin said.
Whatever lofty goals the candidates hope to accomplish tonight, one thing should be at the top of the list.
“For candidates, debate strategy starts with something akin to a doctor’s Hippocratic oath,” Dworkin said. “First, do no harm.”