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Cartoon by Daryl Cagle. Licensed to the New Jersey Globe by PoliticalCartoons.com.

N.J. governor’s race may be fought without abundance of independent polls

Quinnipiac, who once polled New Jersey almost every month, won’t say if they’ll play in 2021

By Nikita Biryukov, January 21 2021 11:59 am

New Jersey may not see the abundance of independent polling in the 2021 governor’s race, with some polling outfits saying they won’t start until after the primary election and one major pollster remaining non-committal about playing in the state at all this year.

The Quinnipiac University poll was once the gold standard for tracking public opinion in New Jersey, reporting job approval ratings for governors and U.S. Senators on an almost monthly basis for more than 20 years.

Mary Snow, a polling analyst for Quinnipiac declined to say whether the firm would survey the burgeoning contest to be the state’s chief executive, citing a policy barring discussion of their polling schedule.

“We never talk about our polling schedules,” Snow told the New Jersey Globe.

The Connecticut-based Quinnipiac cut its teeth on polling in the tristate area and has increasingly gained national recognition, largely after hiring legendary journalist Maurice “Mickey” Carroll to run its operation.

Quinnipiac started out in New Jersey with two late 1997 polls that accurately tracked the tightening of the gubernatorial race between incumbent Christine Todd Whitman and challenger James E. McGreevey,

In 2017, Quinnipiac put out a staggering seven polls on the race between Gov. Phil Murphy and former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, including a handful of primary polls.

Quinnipiac polled the 2001 gubernatorial race 12 times and kept up a similar pace through the next three races for governor.  They polled New Jersey’s U.S. Senate race 11 times in 2000, 9 times each in 2002 and 2006.  The first head-to-head poll between Gov. Jon Corzine and Republican Chris Christie was released in August 2008, a toss-up that jump-started the race for governor that year.

It’s not clear how active Quinnipiac will be in polling the governor’s race this year, if it does so at all, but prominent New Jersey pollsters do plan to be involved.

Patrick Murray, director of the nationally recognized Monmouth University Poll, said his organization would poll New Jersey’s races, as it has in past years.

“We’ll definitely be engaged in our home state as much as we have been in past elections,” said Murray, who has become one of the nation’s top political pollsters.

Monmouth polled the 2017 gubernatorial race three times, with the earliest of those coming in July, after Guadagno and Murphy secured their parties’ nominations. Murray suggested that would again be the case.

“We probably won’t start until after the primary anyway ,” he said.

The Rutgers-Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, which twice measured gubernatorial candidates’ approval ratings in 2017, could be the only New Jersey pollster to survey the primary.

“We will definitely be putting out a spring poll, and I would say most likely a fall pre-election poll,” Eagleton Poll Director Ashley Koning said. “Beyond that, I’m just not sure, but we always try to make sure we get one a semester at the very least.”

Starting in the early 1970s, Eagleton spent decades as the top pollster in New Jersey.  For years, they partnered with the state’s largest newspaper to release the prestigious “Star-Ledger/Eagleton poll, before budget challenges caused the Star-Ledger to drop its sponsorship.

While Quinnipiac repeatedly polled 2017’s races for gubernatorial nominations, it’s unclear whether researchers they plan to do so again, and the Farleigh Dickinson University Poll doesn’t intend to poll the race for governor until the summer, meaning likely after the state’s June 8 primary.

“Definitely one over the summer, and maybe one in the fall for the race,” FDU Poll director Dan Cassino said. “So definitely one, probably two.”

In 2017, FDU polled the race for governor three times, twice in the primary.

The pollsters’ primary reluctance is likely driven by the expectation that this year’s gubernatorial primaries will bring little excitement and fewer surprises.

Murphy is seeking re-election unopposed and is considered a sure thing for the nomination. Things are less certain on the Republican side, but former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli has emerged as a clear favorite following former Republican State Chairman Doug Steinhardt’s withdrawal from the race earlier this month.

Ciattarelli still faces four challengers — Ocean County Commissioner Joe Vicari, former Somerset County Freeholder Brian Levine, businessman Joseph Rudy Rullo and perennial candidate Hirsh Singh — but party leaders began to align behind him after Steinhardt dropped his bid.

Since then, he’s been endorsed by more than half of the state’s 21 Republican county chairs.

The reluctance on primary polls is rooted in more than just a belief that Ciattarelli will come out on top, Murray said.

“One of the things that we know is that New Jersey voters don’t tune into the gubernatorial election until the very end,” he said. “So, a lot of your early polling will just be kind of a read of the lay of the land, as it were, rather than a specific evaluation of the candidates.”

Primary polls may not catch voters’ eyes in the best of times, and these hardly are.

“It’s very hard to focus on more localized and statewide elections for citizens in the first place, and then add a pandemic on top of that — multiple interwoven crises,” Koning said. “If citizens are fatigued, it’s not something that’s going to be at the top of their list.”

General election polls could draw a greater number of eyes. Such polls will be among the first indicators of how voters feel about the Democratic Party with former President Donald Trump out of office.

“We might get some quote-unquote ‘national play’ because of that, because we’re always seen as a bellwether, but there’s nothing exciting, at least not right now, that’s going to be going on,” Koning said.

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