Home>Campaigns>Binotto: How Murphy for Governor 2021 defied history

Gov. Phil Murphy with members of his re-election team and staffers for NJ Forward 2021, the state party's coordinated campaign. (Photo: Eric Noah Gross).

Binotto: How Murphy for Governor 2021 defied history

By Mollie Binotto, November 15 2021 7:59 am



Overcoming historical trends and a challenging national environment, Governor Murphy won re-election, beating Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli in the 2021 New Jersey gubernatorial election.

As of Sunday, November 14, the current vote count is 1,315,286 for Murphy and 1,240,818 for Ciattarelli – a margin of 2.89%, with Murphy’s lead continuing to grow as votes are tabulated.

A strong core message and a smart, aggressive turnout strategy — utilizing vote-by-mail and in-person early voting — enabled Governor Murphy’s campaign to deliver a victory in the face of historic New Jersey voting patterns, strong GOP turnout, and a challenging national environment for the Democratic Party.

Historical Context

Within a broader historical electoral context, it is important to note the following:

  • Since 1989, when President George H.W. Bush was in office, there have been 18 gubernatorial elections in NJ and VA in the year following a presidential election. In 16 out of 18 of those races, the winner has been of the opposite party as the occupant of the White House. The two exceptions are Terry McAuliffe in 2013 and Phil Murphy in 2021. Governor Murphy’s victory this year bucked deep historical trends.
  • A first-term President’s party has not won a Governor’s race in New Jersey since Ronald Reagan in 1981. Governor Murphy’s win in 2021 after President Joe Biden’s win in 2020 breaks another 40-year historical pattern.
  • Governor Murphy was the first Democratic governor to be re-elected in New Jersey in 44 years – the first time since Governor Byrne’s re-election in 1977 when President Carter held the presidency. He is also the first gubernatorial candidate to receive over 1.3 million votes in 30 years.
  • When Governor Murphy was first elected to office in 2017, the Republican Party controlled the White House, U.S. House, and U.S. Senate. Additionally, Democratic voters, upset about the results of the 2016 presidential election, had the first opportunity to voice their displeasure following the election of President Trump. In 2021, the national environment had completely flipped, with Democrats controlling the White House, U.S. House, and U.S. Senate. Despite Democratic control of all three branches of the federal government and a historical propensity for electorates to swing back towards the party out of power, Governor Murphy withstood the national political headwinds and won with even more votes than he received in 2017.

White House/Congressional Control Compared to VA and NJ Gubernatorial Results:

In spite of historical trends and national headwinds, Governor Murphy and his team won the election thanks to a proactive, multi-faceted, and multi-platform campaign to mobilize and persuade voters.

Winning Message

Over 1.3 million New Jerseyans voted to re-elect Governor Murphy because he has delivered results for New Jersey. During his first term, Governor Murphy focused on moving New Jersey forward by building a stronger and fairer economy that works for every family, not just the wealthy and well-connected. From the beginning of the campaign, our team focused on telling that story.

The Governor’s leadership has made New Jersey the best place to raise a family and made life more affordable for families by raising the minimum wage, enacting equal pay for equal work, reducing the cost of health care, childcare and college, and requiring millionaires to pay their fair share in taxes so the middle class doesn’t foot the bill. He also enacted commonsense gun safety legislation, expanded paid family leave, increased funding for public schools, and restored funding for women’s health care and Planned Parenthood after nearly a decade of cuts during the Christie Administration.

The Governor ended years of kicking the can down the road, broken promises, and policies that only served powerful special interests, with record pension payments and funding for our public schools — benefiting both students and taxpayers. Governor Murphy reformed New Jersey’s broken corporate tax incentive system by reimagining how to foster economic development through empowering innovative and diverse entrepreneurs instead of tax giveaways for large corporations.

All of these accomplishments, reinforced by a message of forward vs. backward, were critical factors in our ability to build a wide and diverse coalition of voters and successfully mobilize core base Democratic voters. Governor Murphy provides a strong example of what Democratic leadership can and should accomplish. The impact of his leadership, particularly during the pandemic, cannot and should not be overlooked in the election results.

The campaign’s message was grounded in a vision for a stronger and fairer New Jersey where getting big things done made people’s lives better. As the Governor said, “If you want to see America’s future, look to New Jersey.” Not only did we tell this story, but we did so in an inclusive way that spoke directly to all voters, especially base Democrats and communities of color.

With that message, the campaign maximized its spending within the context of a capped budget spending over $9.7 million on television, where we dominated on broadcast both in terms of GRPs (Gross Ratings Points) and dollars spent throughout the months of September and October.

Through our messaging, we focused on both mobilization and persuasion. We developed strategically driven targeted universes in our cable TV and over the top and connected television platforms like Sling, Roku, Hulu and other platforms to efficiently reach those voters.

Coalitions Media and Outreach

Our mobilization efforts highlighted the Governor’s accomplishments and presented information to voters in a culturally competent manner.

We conducted qualitative and quantitative analysis that helped the campaign speak to economic issues important to communities of color, as well as suburban enclaves. Those efforts directly pushed back on Republican tax messaging. In total, we spent over $1.38 million on direct mail and programmatic digital targeted to Black and Brown communities. These efforts also complemented television and radio buys targeted to those same communities, totaling $916,000. This spending does not include the investment made by the New Jersey State Democratic Committee for mobilization efforts, which included an additional $1.3 million investment in mail and an additional $2.5 million in direct voter contact specific to communities of color.

In all, our paid media efforts to mobilize communities of color totaled over $6 million.

Turnout Analysis

From the beginning, the Murphy for Governor 2021 campaign understood that early voting — both by mail and in person — would be critical to our efforts. Reviewing historical election trends, and tracking Republican enthusiasm, we knew our path to victory required our voters coming out early. That effort was designed to be — and in fact served as — our firewall in the face of a national GOP voter surge.

With at least a floor of 1.883 million voters who voted for President Trump in the 2020 presidential election, we understood that we would need to mobilize our base, which had not produced more than 47.6%  of the vote in the last four gubernatorial election cycles – including Governor Murphy’s 2017 campaign.

Murphy for Governor and the New Jersey State Democratic Committee focused our efforts on promoting the utilization of vote-by-mail for registered Democrats and Murphy supporters. We used mail, digital, and field operations to promote vote by mail applications and then chased those votes for almost 40 days.

Building off of historic turnout in 2018 and 2020, our efforts to increase the number of supporters with mail-in ballots paid off. The number of Democrats who had elected to receive permanent absentee ballots moved from 353,077 to 536,143 – an increase of 183,066 enrolled vote-by-mail voters since 2018. Today, Democrats now comprise 56.9% of all permanent vote-by-mail recipients, while unaffiliated voters comprise 24.7% and Republicans comprise only 18.2% of those choosing to vote by mail.

Throughout the months of September and October, we tracked the progress of our vote-by-mail ballots and knew — with vote-by-mail alone — that we had established a firewall of 495,328 votes by Monday, November 1. Vote-by-mail voters accounted for 394,574 of those votes and in-person early voters accounted for 100,754, based on our internal analytics.

For the first time in state history, voters were also able to take advantage of nine days of in-person early voting, which served as a secondary mobilization opportunity. We successfully used mail, digital, organizing, and coalitions organizing in order to promote the very first year of in-person early voting. Per our scoring, we were able to successfully push over 100,000 of our voters to the polls during this critical window.


Governor Murphy won re-election and withstood a national GOP wave seen in Virginia, New Jersey, Long Island, and Pennsylvania. Despite a challenging national environment and deep-seated historical trends favoring a Republican victory, the Governor’s campaign defied history and won due to a sharp message capitalizing off of his strong record in office, strategic spending, and investment in vote-by-mail and in-person early voting education and organizing.

Mollie Binotto was campaign manager for Phil Murphy’s 2021 re-election campaign.

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