Record spending by so-called independent committees on a New Jersey gubernatorial election made this year’s contest the second most costly in state history, according to the state election watchdog’s analysis following the filing of their final reports by candidates and committees.
The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission tallied the total amount spent on both the primary and general elections at $79.1 million, with nearly a third of that spent by committees acting independently to support one of the candidates. Democrat Phil Murphy, the governor-elect, spent $36.4 million and, including independent spending, got $55.5 million in support. Republican Kim Guadagno, the lieutenant governor, spent $9.1 million and had $11.8 million in total support, including independent spending.
Considering slightly fewer than 2.2 million New Jerseyans voted in the general election, a new record low turnout of about 38.5 percent of those registered, each vote cost $16.22.
New Jersey is always an expensive place to run a campaign, as it does not have its own network television stations and is located between two of the most expensive media markets in the country. Still, Murphy had locked up all 21 party committee endorsements in the primary and led Guadagno by double digits throughout the summer and fall, begging the question of the necessity of all that spending.
“There is no doubt New Jersey is an expensive place to run a campaign, but $79 million is crazy,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University. He said both candidates started as virtual unknowns and so would have to spend a lot on TV advertising. Still, “Murphy started up by 15 points and stayed that way or better all throughout the campaign. This was never really a contest except among New York and Philadelphia TV stations who competed for most candidate ad buys.”
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, agreed.
“This cake was baked more than a year ago,” he said. “It’s interesting that more was spent on the primary than the general election. And that was mainly because Murphy spent a significant amount to increase his name ID and then backed off in the general election because it turned out not to matter much given the underlying mood of the electorate.”
A stacked deck
By all accounts, the deck was stacked against Guadagno because, as lieutenant governor, she was associated with the wildly unpopular incumbent Gov. Chris Christie. With a healthy majority of voters in this blue state also voicing anti-Donald Trump sentiments, Murphy had much in his favor without spending a dime.
Still, it would be unwise for any candidate to take anything for granted, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
“In the modern world of campaigning, with new headlines that shape the political terrain breaking every day, no one really wants to take that chance,” he said.
As high as that total was, it could have been an even more expensive race had Murphy not agreed to limit his spending in the general election by participating in the state’s public-financing program.
“Had he elected to self-finance, as he did during the primary election, the overall number might have been much higher,” Dworkin noted.
Of the total spent on the election, roughly 70 percent was spent either by Murphy or on his behalf. More than 40 percent of the total spent to elect Murphy came from the candidate’s personal funds and those of his wife.
Candidates spent more in the primary than in the general election: $34.3 million vs. $20.3 million. That’s in part because of the larger number of candidates — six Democrats and five Republicans — but mainly because Murphy used close to $23 million of his own money to win with a lopsided 48 percent of the vote that included his getting more than twice the votes of the second-place finisher. Murphy’s decision to accept matching public funds in the general election kept the total spent by the seven candidates lower than in the primary. And despite being limited by state law in the amount he could spend, the Murphy campaign still wound up laying out more than 71 cents of every dollar expended.
On the other hand, independent groups spent significantly more in the general election than in the primary and the year leading up to it: $15.4 million vs. $9.1 million. Murphy benefitted the most from this spending, backed by nine committees that were responsible for 85 percent of all the independent dollars spent. Guadagno had only the Republican Governors Association behind her, spending about $2.4 million to help her.
The Republican suffered due to an inability to raise significant funds. She got only 40 percent of the total $9.3 million maximum she could have received through the state’s public matching-funds program, which provides gubernatorial candidates with $2 for every $1 raised. Murphy maxed out in receipt of public funds in the general election, and because the law provides limited exceptions to the $13.8 million spending cap, he was also able to spend about $700,000 more, for a total of $14.5 million. Guadagno, meanwhile, spent $5.6 million.
The lion’s share of both major candidates’ general election campaign spending was on advertising, predominantly for television spots. More than two-thirds of the Murphy campaign’s budget, or slightly less than $10 million, paid for media time. Guadagno spent even a greater proportion on media: 71 percent of her campaign’s total spending, or $4 million, paid for cable TV and other ads.
It’s not clear that all the money spent on advertising bought much. Murray said that a majority of voters “told us they really didn’t know what either of the candidates stood for.”
While expensive, this year’s campaign still did not reach the levels of the 2005 race that pitted Democrat and winner Jon Corzine against Republican Doug Forrester. A total of $88.1 million was spent that year, which in today’s dollars would equal more than $111 million. With two wealthy men facing off, that year’s spending was marked by large personal outlays: Corzine spent $43.1 million of his own money, while Forrester shelled out $29.9 million. What that race had little of was spending by independent committees — less than $408,000.
Independent spending has risen precipitously in each gubernatorial election since then, with this year’s $24.5 million about 19 percent higher than the amount spent in 2013.
“The $24.5 million spent independently on the election not only sets a new record but reflects the growing dominance of these groups in national and New Jersey elections,” said Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director.
That total may be slightly overstated due to double counting of funds, as some of the independent committees gave money to one another. Still, the amounts expended by the most generous committees are large. The pro-Murphy Committee to Build the Economy spent $6.5 million, followed by $2.4 million in support for Murphy from Our New Jersey, the Democratic Governors Association’s committee here. The RGA spent about $100,000 less than its Democratic counterpart in backing Guadagno.
The record-breaking total is giving ELEC more ammunition, it hopes, in getting the state’s election laws updated to require greater transparency for these groups.
“Public disclosure rules for these committees are woefully outdated,” Brindle said. “Some of these groups deserve credit because they voluntarily disclose their contributions and expenditures. But New Jersey’s current law is so inadequate that most independent spending can be done without voters ever knowing who provided the funds. We continue to urge both parties to consider passing ELEC-recommended legislation that would correct this massive loophole.”
It’s unclear whether ELEC’s effort to require more accountability by independent committees will have greater success in the new Murphy administration than it has had. Election reform was not addressed by either major party candidate this year and Murphy’s spokesmen did not return a request for comment.
There is one potentially good sign, though. Murphy’s supporters, led by his campaign manager Brendan Gill, have formed a committee to promote his agenda as he begins to try to fulfill his campaign promises. While this organization is an issue-advocacy group that will be exempt from disclosing its contributors and spending activities — provided it does not coordinate directly with Murphy — Gill has vowed the group will not be funded by so-called dark money and will disclose who contribute to it.