What happens if a state with a population roughly equal to that of Kentucky and Louisiana combined held a major election and no one noticed? That seems to be occurring in New Jersey, which is electing a new governor this year. It may be the Democrats’ biggest gubernatorial win in the state in over 40 years.
A Democratic romp in a state Hillary Clinton won easily might not seem like a surprising result. But New Jersey usually features competitive governor’s races. Over the past 40 years, Democrats have won the governor’s mansion four times to Republicans’ six. New Jersey’s current governor is Republican Chris Christie; he won re-election by over 20 percentage points in 2013. (That was when he seemed like the great GOP hope — remember those days?)
New Jersey voters head to the polls today, in fact, for primaries to select the Democratic and Republican nominees.1 Polling points to both primaries being blowouts, although there are enough undecideds for an upset in either race. Democrats appear likely to select Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ex-ambassador to Germany, as their nominee. Republicans seem poised to choose Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.
Murphy is dominating Guadagno in general election surveys so far. The latest Quinnipiac University survey, released last month, puts Murphy ahead of Guadagno by a 50 percent-to-25 percent margin. If Murphy won the election by 25 points, it would be the largest win for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey since 1973. In the polling I could find at this point in the campaign (in June or in the nearest poll taken before June),2 Murphy is in a better position at this point before the general election than any Democrat since at least 1989.
Of course, New Jersey gubernatorial polls at this point aren’t perfect predictors. We’re still a long way from November, after all. Since 1989, the margin separating Democrat and Republican candidates has shifted by an average of 6 percentage points from this point until the election. But there is some signal in these early surveys. Guadagno would need the race to shift by a historic amount to win — nearly three times as much as had happened in any of the past seven gubernatorial elections.
Of course, the race could shift by that amount. Guadagno and Murphy, at this point, are pretty much blank slates, with a majority of voters unable to form an opinion of either one. So the race could change as their name recognition climbs. The last time Democrats’ had a Goldman Sachs alumnus on the governor’s ballot line in New Jersey, for example, it didn’t turn out well for them.
That said, Murphy (so long as he wins today) is a favorite to be the next governor of New Jersey.
Why do Democratic prospects look so good in the Garden State? Primarily: Christie. According to Quinnipiac, Christie’s approval rating is just 18 percent among New Jersey residents; it’s been below 30 percent since the middle of 2016. His current rating is among the lowest for any New Jersey governor in the past 40 years. It’s a tough pull for Guadagno to escape the shadow of Christie’s low approval ratings given that Christie and Guadagno ran on a ticket together in each of the last two election cycles.
The one person I haven’t mentioned so far is President Trump. Trump may be hurting Guadagno’s prospects, too — he has an approval rating below 40 percent in New Jersey. Murphy has targeted Trump in television advertisements. And the party in the White House has lost each of the last seven gubernatorial races in New Jersey, suggesting a midterm-like penalty in the state’s governor elections. Further, Murphy’s lead over Guadagno has expanded by 9 percentage points since the early days of the Trump administration.
Still, the presidential lean of a state has had a much lower correlation with gubernatorial results throughout the nation than races for the House or Senate have over the past couple of cycles. Also, Murphy had a double-digit lead over Guadagno at the beginning of the year before Trump’s approval rating really declined.
Whatever the cause, Democrats appear poised to take control of the governor’s mansion in the 11th-most populated state in the country. That could both have huge policy ramifications and result in a rebuke to one of Trump’s earliest allies, Christie.