How disliked was Gov. Brendan Byrne before he became a beloved elder statesman? The first poll of his administration had his approval ratings at 51%-21% (Eagleton-Rutgers, March/April 1974). By the mid-term election, Byrne was upside down at 23%-71% (Eagleton-Rutgers, October/November 1975), and Republicans picked up seventeen Assembly seats. In Byrne’s defense, some of the Assembly seats were Republican anyway, and part of the GOP success in the mid-terms was simply a market adjustment.
Byrne’s problem – supporters of the incoming Governor of New Jersey, take note – was
At the start of his re-election year, Byrne’s approval ratings were about the same: 22%-71% (Eagleton-Rutgers, January/February 1977). He went into the Democratic primary with 25%-70% approvals. (Eagleton-Rutgers, May 1977). The same poll had Byrne statistically tied with Rep. Bob Roe, 17%-14%.
The only good news for the man called One-Term Byrne was that the Democratic field included ten rivals, including Roe of Passaic; Rep. Jim Florio of Camden; former State Sen. Ralph DeRose of Essex; former state Labor Commissioner Joseph Hoffman (who quit Byrne’s cabinet challenge him); and State Sen. Raymond Garramone of Bergen. Jersey City Mayor Paul Jordan was also on the ballot, even though he dropped out after a political rival replaced him in the May Jersey City election.
Byrne pulled off a stunning victory in the primary, beating Roe 30%-23% — a margin of 41,332 votes. The others: DeRose (17%), Florio (15%), Hoffman (10%), and Garramone (1%).
In July, Byrne’s approvals were at 28%-68%. State Sen. Raymond Bateman led Byrne by five points, 40%-35%. State Sen. Anthony Imperiale, an independent, was at 13%. (Eagleton-Rutgers, July 1977). Two months later, Byrne had clawed his way into a statistical dead heat: Bateman, 40%; Byrne 38%. Imperiale, who dropped out at the end of September to concentrate on his Senate re-election bid, was at 10%. (Eagleton-Rutgers, September 1997).
The last poll had Byrne’s approvals at 34%-61%, yet Byrne was now ahead by eight points, 43%-35% (Eagleton-Rutgers, October 1977).
Byrne, upside down for most of his four years as Governor, was re-elected by a 56%-42% margin – a plurality of 295,684. Democrats lost two State Senate seats (again, a minimal market adjustment from 1973) and lost six Assembly seats.
Byrne pulled off a political miracle, re-elected in a landslide despite continuing disapproval of his job performance. Why? The print newspapers do a good job explaining the policy stuff in their obituaries.
The lesson here is that politically, Byrne pulled off some modern-day miracle. He was the last Democratic Governor to get re-elected in one of America’s bluest states. Republicans have re-elected three Governors since Byrne.