A New Jersey Democrat seeking a boost less than three weeks before an election could not do much better than bringing President Barack Obama to a rally in the blue bastion of Newark.
Obama, in a suit jacket and collared shirt without a tie, did not disappoint the crowd of 700, drawing ear-splitting roars and chants of “Four more years!” as he made his first public appearance stumping for a candidate since leaving office in January. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy, Obama’s ambassador to Germany from 2009 through mid-2013, was clearly pleased with the excitement among his backers.
But it’s not a given that Obama’s appearance will bring Murphy more votes.
Murphy’s opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, pointed out at a press conference she held a few hours before Murphy’s rally, that a campaign appearance Obama made while president in the fall of 2009 to support then-Gov. Jon Corzine’s re-election bid failed, bringing Gov. Chris Christie and herself into office.
“It didn’t work then and it’s not going to work today,” she said.
“The experience in New Jersey has been that Obama's popularity isn't transferable,” agreed Ben Dworkin, director of The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. “Turnout for Jon Corzine in 2009, despite the very active involvement of then-President Obama, was simply not as high as Democrats had hoped."
According to the Murphy campaign, winning votes was not the primary purpose of the visit. The late afternoon rally at the Robert Treat Hotel in the heart of the state’s largest city was the kickoff of the Murphy get-out-the-vote effort and in that, it was likely successful.
"Obama's visit to campaign with Phil Murphy probably won't lead directly to a surge in turnout, but it does motivate paid and volunteer staff on the campaign, and when they are energized, they are more likely to work that much harder to get out the vote on Election Day," Dworkin added.
For her part, Guadagno ducked the question when asked last week about whether she would ask President Donald Trump to campaign for her in New Jersey. Her campaign did not respond to that question on Thursday.
But Dworkin said a Trump visit to New Jersey likely would not help the Republican candidate.
"I think it's pretty clear that whenever President Trump campaigns, the coverage revolves around Trump — what he said, how he said it, etc. I don't think the president coming to New Jersey would help the lieutenant governor because she needs to focus media attention on herself and her message,” he said. “In addition, the president isn't particularly popular in New Jersey right now and his presence would almost surely motivate Democrats and independents to work even harder to oppose Guadagno.”
There was no question Obama’s visit motivated the Democrats at Thursday’s rally. And both Murphy and Obama sought to capitalize on that, urging the crowd not to view the Democrat’s double-digit lead as a guaranteed victory and to work hard to get as many voters as possible to the polls on November 7 to support Murphy.
“We have 19 days to go and we can take nothing for granted,” said Murphy, who also dressed more casually for the event. “It’s up to us to fight back and we must. We can take nothing for granted over these next 19 days and the choice could not be clearer.”
“None of this happens unless people get involved, unless people get engaged, unless people go out and vote,” Obama said. “And you can’t take this election for granted. You can’t take any election for granted. I don’t know if you all noticed that. You can’t take any election for granted. You’ve gotta run through the tape.”
Obama cited Murphy’s character and “spirit of service” as one reason to elect him and also praised his work as ambassador when “we were on the brink of the worst not just financial crisis but potentially the greatest depression we had seen since the 1930s … to help put the world economy back on track.”
He also cited the candidate’s plans for the state as a key reason to elect him.
“There’s only one candidate who’s actually going to have your back as governor,” Obama said, referencing Murphy’s campaign slogan, and then referencing his own from nine years ago, he added, “only one candidate who can bring the change that New Jersey definitely needs.”
He cited Murphy’s support for a higher minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and healthcare “protected from political gamesmanship,” as bolstering the middle class and keeping young people in the state.
“If you walk out of here and somebody says, ‘Quick, what’s Murphy stand for?’” the candidate said, in summing up his platform. “We stand for a stronger, fairer economy that works for every New Jersey family.”
After giving a litany of his plans, including making college affordable, funding Planned Parenthood, signing gun safety laws, and “doing something about climate change,” Murphy took a jab at the unpopular Christie, in his last three months of office.
“I will commit to you right here, I’m not going to the beach by myself,” he said, referring to Christie and his family’s vacation at an empty Island Beach State Park while it was closed due to the brief state government shutdown in July. As the crowd cheered and laughed, Murphy added, “When I go, we all go.”
But they also gave other reasons to make Murphy the next governor, relating to the current administration in Washington and its policies.
“In 19 days, the world is going to be looking at New Jersey,” he said. “In 19 days, the world is going to look and see what kind of politics do we believe in, what kind of community do we believe in, what are our priorities, what are our values, what do we want to teach our kids what kind of message do we want to send to them?”
Several speakers used the election of Donald Trump, while not always mentioning him by name, as a lesson in telling the crowd that everyone must take this election seriously or else.
U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr., Newark’s congressman, helped warm up the crowd, asking if they missed Obama, then said, “He’s here in New Jersey because he understands how important this is, so you need to understand how important this is. You know if we don’t go out there on that Tuesday and have as many people pull that lever for Phil Murphy … don’t let it slip up again. You see what we’ve got now, right?”
“Look, I’m preaching to the choir right now, I know how that is, but your mission is to go out and get some people that don’t understand,” Payne continued. “Ladies and gentlemen, we see what we have in Washington. We don’t need it in the State House as well.”
“We will not let Trump and the Republican party erase President Obama’s legacy,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th). “We’ve gotta have somebody who’s powerful in Trenton that will do the opposite and will fight to keep the Obama legacy.”
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka really fired up the crowd when he said Obama “will always be my president, now and forever” and said New Jerseyans have a chance to send the first statewide message to Trump.
“We get to push back in the state of New Jersey,” Baraka said. “We get to raise our voices against what’s happening in the White House. We get to strike a blow for the home team ... We get to push back against the old Nazism and white supremacy that is raising its ugly head in this country … Most of America did not vote for Donald Trump and most of New Jersey will be with Phil Murphy and Sheila Oliver on November 7.” Murphy’s running mate Oliver, an Assemblywoman representing Newark and former speaker of the state’s lower legislative house, was also a crowd favorite as they chanted her name as she climbed to the stage. She further stressed their campaign message.
“We have to change the dialogue in New Jersey,” she said. Recalling an incident in which Christie yelled at a man critical of the governor’s actions in the superstorm Sandy recovery, Oliver said, “We can’t afford another four years of ‘sit down and shut up.’”
She also urged the crowd not to get complacent.
“We need you,” she said. “The other side is up 24/7 trying to steal our momentum from us … Nine years ago, we won a tremendous victory with three simple words, ‘Yes, we can.’ We need that same energy right now to change our state but most importantly, to keep Barack Obama’s legacy alive. So, New Jersey Democrats, let’s do what we do best. We know how to rock the vote. November 7, we’re not leaving anything on the table. Let’s take our state back.”
Obama ended the rally issuing a call to action.
“I don’t care what the polls say, I don’t care what the pundits say,” he began. “What matters is what’s happening in communities and what’s happening in neighborhoods and what’s happening on your block. Elections matter. Every vote counts. The issue here is not what someone else does, this is entirely under your control. If you don’t like how things are going, you go vote. And not just vote yourself, you’ve gotta get your friends, you’ve gotta get your neighbors.”
Obama’s final words seemed to move beyond the importance of voting for Murphy next month.
“You’re going to have to do it after Phil and Sheila get elected,” he said, getting as close to talking about the Trump policies as he would. “And when you do, if you play your part, not only will you make Phil Murphy the next governor of New Jersey … but you’re going to send a message to the country, and you will send a message to the world that we are rejecting a politics of division, we are rejecting a politics of fear while we are embracing a politics that everybody counts … a politics of hope.”