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Gov. Phil Murphy. (Photo by Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe.)

What to look for when Monmouth poll releases Murphy job approvals

Governor’s performance could indicate general election vulnerabilities

By Nikita Biryukov, May 04 2021 6:03 pm

Approval ratings for Gov. Phil Murphy set to be released Wednesday as part of a Monmouth University poll could signal closeness in November’s gubernatorial election, or they could portend a steep and narrow path to victory for his would-be Republican opponents.

The pandemic-era governor saw his approvals soar into the 70s in the weeks and months after the state reported its first case of COVID-19 last March. Though his ratings have fallen, a Stockton University poll released in late March found 58% of adults approved of the job Murphy was doing.

The number, though it was the highest recorded for Murphy in any Stockton poll to date, was a sharp decline from overwhelming approvals recorded last year. Race watchers shouldn’t be surprised to see those numbers edge downward in Wednesday’s poll.

“As we move further and further from the crisis point, you would look for numbers to come back to earth,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “The question is are enough New Jerseyans staying with him, and so far, that’s been the case. His numbers have continued to be good.”

Though Republicans have railed against Murphy’s response to the pandemic — with jabs over deaths at the state’s long-term care centers, virtual schooling and restrictions that have been lifted slower than in other states — few of those criticisms have transferred into voters’ views of the governor.

“As long as there’s not some kind of catastrophic event to send his poll numbers downward akin to a Bridgegate or a presidential run, not that he would do those things, even if his numbers continue to drop ever so slightly, it’s that name recognition and really it’s the progress with the pandemic, which will influence his ratings over the next several months which will propel him to a second term,” said Ashley Koning, director the Rutgers-Eagleton poll.

In some ways, the pandemic was a boon for Murphy. In June 2019, a Farleigh Dickinson University poll found a third of New Jersey voters did not know the governor’s name. By April 2020, just 8% had no opinion of the governor, a Monmouth poll found.

In the intervening months, Murphy has been a staple on cable news networks, where he appears frequently to discuss the state’s pandemic response.

Thousands of residents still view his livestreamed virus briefing from the Trenton War memorial, even when such briefings provide no update on virus restrictions imposed by the governor. When he makes news, as he did at Monday’s briefing, viewership roughly doubles.

At the same time, the governor has largely stayed off the campaign trail. Though he has endorsed a handful of candidates, mainly at the state level, his public profile has stayed on the virus and off polls.

“Governor Murphy is not focused on approval ratings but on leading our state to the other side of the pandemic and building a stronger and fairer New Jersey that works for every family,” Murphy campaign spokesman Jerrel Harvey said.

Without a primary opponent, the incumbent likely won’t lose much sleep if fewer New Jerseyans think he’s steering the state in the right direction than did in months past, but the campaign of his likely Republican opponent, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, is preparing for opportunity in case Murphy’s approval ratings fall.

“We’re encouraged every day by the growing number of New Jerseyans who are fed up with Gov. Murphy and his out of touch policies. Inconsistent lockdowns, disrespect for small businesses, taxes that are through the roof. As more folks get to know Jack, they know he can fix it,” said Eric Arpert, Ciattarelli’s campaign manager.  “Governor Murphy sees the same trend, by the way, which is why he’s scrambling to follow Jack’s lead and throwing reopening crumbs.”

The last Monmouth poll that tested Murphy’s approvals, in April 2020, had the Democratic governor at 71%-21%.

Former Somerset County Freeholder Brian Levine, Hudson County pastor Phil Rizzo and perennial candidate Hirsh Singh are also seeking the GOP nod for governor.

A bad result for Murphy would mean an underwater approval rating. There’s been little to suggest that sort of backlash from voters, though Rasmussen said it would be unsurprising if his approval rating edged downward.

“There’s nothing to suggest the public has changed its tune wholesale since the last time we looked at the rating,” Rasmussen said. “Again, as we move further and further from the crisis point, you would look for numbers to come back to earth.”

But a poor result could energize New Jersey Republicans, he said, though even that’s no guarantee of a close race in November.

“I think we have more competition right now when it comes to judging Taylor Ham versus pork roll and what to call it than what we’re seeing as of now for the governor’s race,” Koning said.

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