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Opinion: Winning with the Party Regulars Rather than the Center

Low voter turnout and poor name recognition may mean this gubernatorial election will be decided by dependable party loyalists who turn out year after year

carl golden
Carl Golden

The rule of thumb in New Jersey statewide campaigns has always been that, in primary contests, the candidates hew closely to their respective party bases; that is, Democrats run to the left and Republicans to the right.

Once successful, the victors shed some of their ideological baggage and tack toward the vote-rich and more moderate, pragmatic center.    

This year, the gubernatorial election seems to have broken the pattern.  

The chosen one

Democratic candidate Phil Murphy — open checkbook in hand — waltzed through his party’s primary by scooping up endorsements from county leaders and securing favorable ballot designations as the party’s chosen one.    

Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno overcame what appeared to be a serious challenge from Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset), but coasted to a comfortable 16-point win.

Murphy’s left-of-center bona fides were never in doubt. He ran in the spring on a platform of more spending, higher taxes on the wealthy and big business, legalization of marijuana, stricter gun control, tuition-free county college, $15 per hour minimum wage, and paid family leave, among other party touchstones, and has continued to do so.    

His most recent promise to designate New Jersey a sanctuary state to limit law enforcement authority in dealing with undocumented immigrants moved him further and more firmly to the left.  

Guadagno closes in

Guadagno quickly pounced on Murphy’s sanctuary state comment, accusing him of offering official government protection to individuals who entered the country illegally and have committed crimes while here.    

In the minds of many observers, Murphy’s pledge to seek sanctuary state designation sent a jolt of energy through Republican voters — a gift to Guadagno who has been consistently outpolled and outspent and whose message of property-tax relief and reduced government spending hasn’t gained much traction.

The issue is a divisive one, to be sure, but could have a galvanizing effect on core Republican voters to whom it is simply a question of legal versus illegal and who believe law enforcement should not be hobbled by politically correct politicians.    

Tax and spend

She has continued as well to hammer home Murphy’s tax-and-spending-increase proposals, arguing that his insistence that middle-income families will not be affected is specious at best and an outright falsehood at worst.   

Near universal consensus that his promises to fund new programs or expand existing ones have far outrun his ability to pay for them has not deterred him from continuing to do so. Murphy himself has conceded his proposals are overly ambitious and could only be implemented over time and if the state’s economy experiences robust growth and increased tax revenue.          

The candidates’ strategies of not straying far from their party bases indicate both believe general election turnout will be low and victory lies in significantly heavier participation by committed party voters.     

Appearances by former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden were designed to gin up the buzz among the Democratic base.  

In light of the apparent level of apathy and the dominance of the political environment by President Donald Trump, the candidates’ concentration on their base vote is easily understood.  

While neither will ignore the unaffiliated voters who tend to be more centrist, it’s likely they will continue to direct their efforts toward their party’s loyalists who turn out year in and year out — models of dependability.     

Low turnout

The perceived lack of excitement, energy, and enthusiasm has produced the widespread low turnout expectations, with some predicting it will fall well below 50 percent of the state’s 5.65 million registered voters.  

To support their predictions and as evidence of voter indifference, they point to polling data that has consistently shown that with the election three weeks off, upward of 30 percent of respondents admit they do not know enough about either candidate to arrive at a firm conclusion.  

The task for Guadagno, though, is a daunting one. Murphy’s lead has never fallen into single digits and his fundraising has quadrupled hers, opening the way for him to launch a saturation advertising blitz in the final two weeks of the campaign.

Moreover, Guadagno’s association with Gov. Chris Christie remains a drag on her candidacy, costing her — according to some — as much as five to six points in support.  

The political center is a powerful force and has often been the deciding factor in statewide elections.    

The center, however, is not stationary. It moves either left or right according to issues as they develop or as government grapples with them.    

It does not normally move to the ideological fringes, and history’s political landscape is littered with the dashed hopes of candidates who ran from the extremes.  

It appears, though, that this year’s gubernatorial race will lean more heavily and be decided on shared ideology than on broad-based centrist appeal.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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