Tuesday’s election results — which weren’t decided until Wednesday evening — were not what recent polls, media reports and discussions over the last three months were suggesting.
How could so many have predicted an easy win for Gov. Phil Murphy — and been wrong about the “easy,” if not the “win”?
On Wednesday, with legislative upsets brewing and when the gubernatorial race was still too close to call, Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said elections are about turnouts, and Republicans seemed to have gotten boots on the ground to turn out voters.
“Gov. Murphy took a lot for granted with his ‘Get out and vote’ campaign,” he stated. “In New Jersey, it is usually an article of faith that, if Democrats fund a well-oiled street operation, they will win. But that didn’t happen.”
Rasmussen was surprised about the tight race, but said there were warning signs.
“Not the brightest flashing lights, but there weren’t too many urban voters coming out before Election Day — and that is a big flag, because they are the strength of the Democrats.”
Rasmussen said he believes there’s a lot of soul-searching going on in the Democratic Party in the state Wednesday, because the Democrats didn’t perform at their normal level of campaigning.
“Where was Hudson? Where was Essex? These counties weren’t seeing the early voters they should have been,” he said. “While they did spend time in Newark, and in parts of the North, results are indicating they didn’t do everything that could have been done.”
Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship at Rowan University, said the results were certainly a surprise to him.
“Republicans will say they knew it would be close, but not this close,” Dworkin stated. “Today’s initial thoughts and speculations as to why this race is too close to call will be very different than a month from now. Initially, we can say the Democrats underperformed in some areas. Hudson and Essex counties in particular.”
Dworkin feels the key to winning a statewide race lies in developing a big margin in one’s base counties.
“Republicans won in their two base counties of Monmouth and Ocean,” he said. “In Hudson and Essex, the Democrats did win, but not by as much as they should have, which shows the pluralities were upset.”
“Elections are about which New Jerseyans turn out to vote, and this turnout shows that voters said they are ready to think differently,” Rasmussen said.
“A lot of people were driven by school board voting and taxes. By a little bit of deductive reasoning, it is clear there were some things that were not working in Murphy’s favor: masks in schools and taxes,” he added.
Dworkin said there were obvious things the Democrats should have paid more attention to.
“The headwinds the Democrats were facing played instrumental roles in this election. Specifically, the disapproval rating of President (Joe) Biden contributed to a depressed Democratic turnout; the democratic dysfunction in D.C. also weighed on voters; and the overall general frustration of the electorate.”
Dworkin said it is not good for incumbents when voters are unhappy.
“There is a sour mood in the country, and voters are upset about COVID, education, the economy, gas prices and having no auto inventory to purchase a fuel-efficient car.”
As for mail-in votes?
Every year, the state throws in more curveballs to the already understaffed county clerks. Usually they are fast to implement, but, this year, there were added technical issues.
“The early voting was not on all counties’ radar screens, and they had to become familiar with, master these new systems and deploy them — not easy tasks,” according to Rasmussen.
Which begs the question of whether or not this was the right time for these understaffed and underfunded offices to take on such a task. Maybe it should have been done one step at a time or maybe not for a major election.
“This year, they were not allowed to count the votes early and we do not know who counted what. Voters have every right to be impatient, because they expect results,” Rasmussen said.
Dworkin believes mail-in votes are a tremendous advantage for democracy and positive for campaign operations on both sides, but says the system is a government investment issue.
“County clerks are understaffed and they are under a lot of pressure to do things correctly, effectively and quickly. We just need to get used to the fact that we now have election season; especially in close elections,” he said.
But overall, he said, “There are many benefits to vote by mail, especially these past moths during the pandemic.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Rasmussen speaking about gubernatorial campaign and has been edited on 11/06/21 at 7:55 a.m. EST for clarity.