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Fairleigh Dickinson University professor Peter J. Wooley, Ph.D. (Photo: Fairleigh Dickinson University.)

Woolley: Advantages and Disadvantages of Gov. Phil Murphy in 2021 election

By Peter Woolley, February 05 2021 10:49 am

Editor’s note: This memorandum to Republican gubernatorial candidates about the strengths and weaknesses of Gov. Phil Murphy was written by Dr. Peter J. Woolley, a Fairleigh Dickinson University professor and the founder of the FDU Poll.


TO:                 Would-be Republican Candidates for New Jersey Governor 2021

SUBJECT:     Advantages and Disadvantages of the Democratic Incumbent

FROM:           Peter J. Woolley, FDU Poll

New Jersey’s gubernatorial race in 2021 will be just one of two in the nation next year and, if competitive, will garner lots of attention. No doubt, right now there are quite of few Republicans wondering if they can possibly knock off Phil Murphy, the incumbent Democrat. If you are one of them, here are the factors to consider before you jump in.

Advantages of the incumbent

  • Registered Democrats statewide decisively outnumber registered Republicans (39%-22%) and voters who self-identify as Democrats decisively outnumber self-identified Republicans (about 46%-37%), making the path for any Republican difficult.
  • Gov. Murphy can self-fund and raise money nationally. He will have plenty of funding no matter what his poll numbers are. You will have to raise and spend at least 20 million to make a go of it.
  • The governor has had consistently high approval ratings for his pandemic response and gained high visibility with regular press conferences.
  • The guy conveys that he likes his job and is good with retail campaigning.
  • He has achieved, or made good faith efforts to achieve, key campaign promises.
  • He has the backing of the teachers’ union leaders as well as other important public employee and private sector unions.
  • Former President Trump, unlike other defeated Presidential candidates or former Presidents, is unlikely to retreat from the scene and will remain a focus of loathing for Democrats, keeping voter interest and mobilization high. Among all NJ voters, 61 percent have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party.
  • Once solid Republican suburbs such as Bergen and Morris counties continue to trend Democratic.
  • The Republican Party brand is toxic to African American voters, 94% of whom voted for Murphy.
  • The 2020 move to mail-in balloting may remain in place and facilitate higher turnouts for Democrats in particular.

Vulnerabilities of the incumbent

  • In an off-off year such as 2021, turnout is typically low, typically favoring Republicans.
  • When a Democrat is elected to national office in the year preceding, there is a backlash voting against the party of President. This helped Chris Christie in 2009, after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, and helped Christie Whitman in 1993, after Bill Clinton won the Presidency in 1992.
  • There is a good chance the economy will not recover by the fall 2021. Unemployment may be high. If so, this will work against the incumbent just as it did in 2009 against Gov. Jon Corzine.
  • Business, especially small business, strongly assert that the governor’s policies, especially tax increases and pandemic policies, have harmed them, the economy, and New Jersey. The Governor must walk a fine line between controlling the virus and sparking a backlash.
  • Even when the threat of the virus dissipates, other issues will come to the fore and the governor’s high approval ratings for handling the pandemic response will dissipate. Or, as we say in polling, what goes up must come down.
  • New Jersey’s financial position continues to deteriorate. The state owes more, has lower bond ratings, and its pensions are still woefully underfunded. The budget is hugely constrained by interest payments, platinum employee benefits, high levels of aid to school districts, demands to make pension contributions, and inelasticity in new revenues. If revenues don’t recover, or federal aid is inadequate, the July 2021 budget will be a serious political challenge, and the Democrats risk alienating important constituencies.
  • There is no love lost between this incumbent and South Jersey’s political boss, George Norcross. That boss can sandbag him. And that boss may be open to a deal with the challenger as he was in 2009 with, Chris Christie, the Republican challenger.
  • While the Democratic coalition is broad in New Jersey, like all coalitions, the bigger it grows, the more fragile and contentious it becomes.
  • Property taxes are a perennial source of dissatisfaction for homeowners and that will not change. It may never change in New Jersey.
  • Charter schools, and the quality and costs of public education generally, continue to be an important wedge issue offering the challenger an opportunity against an incumbent who is all-in with the teachers’ unions.
  • The state has an unfulfilled need for untold billions for the Gateway Tunnel, obligatory school construction, and its deteriorating water infrastructure.
  • NJ Transit is an albatross around the Governor’s neck. He is sworn to fix it, he says, even if it kills him.
  • African-American leaders have many unremedied grievances. Low turnout in urban areas can seriously hurt the incumbent Democrat, as it did in 2009. Meanwhile, there has been a slight shift nationally towards the Republican Party among African-American and Latino men.
  • The 2020 move to mail-in balloting may remain in place and facilitate higher turnouts among Republicans and non-affiliated voters.


Any Republican will face a steep uphill battle for Governor of New Jersey in 2021. Republican Chris Christie in 2009 had the advantage of 1) high profile prosecutions of corruption and 2) a weak economy. Even so, he squeaked in with less than a majority of the vote. Your ambitions might be better satisfied in 2022 when several Congressional districts will be in play with young incumbents and, possibly, the typical backlash against the incumbent party in the White House. Running for governor in 2021 might be an opportunity to raise one’s profile for a future race – the way Christie Whitman leveraged her run against Bill Bradley to make a successful statewide race the following year, or the way Jim McGreevey used his near-knockoff of Gov. Whitman to gain the nomination and the statehouse with ease four years later. But don’t bet the farm on 2021.

Peter J. Woolley is a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University where he is the founder of the FDU Poll and Director of FDU’s School of Public and Global Affairs.


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