Will politics of pandemic response help Murphy?

He’s looking to be the first Democrat in over four decades to win a second term. His handling of COVID-19 as governor may be key to campaign
Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office; CC BY-NC 2.0)
April 9, 2021: Gov. Phil Murphy receives his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

From a political standpoint, the coronavirus pandemic has not been all bad for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat now looking to win a second term after his party’s essentially uncontested primary Tuesday.

Murphy has enjoyed strong public support for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which emerged here in March 2020, making it hard for Republican challengers to gain traction against the governor during the primary season.

How the pandemic politics evolve in the months to come remains to be seen and depends largely on the pandemic itself, which has infected more than 1 million New Jerseyans, including at least 26,000 who have died, although the pace of spread has slowed dramatically in recent months. On Nov. 2, New Jerseyans will vote for their next governor and select candidates for all 40 seats in the state Senate and the 80 that make up the state Assembly.

Murphy will now face former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who won the Republican primary. In that GOP race, Ciattarelli faced Hirsh Singh and Phil Rizzo, who had both pitched themselves to the party’s increasingly conservative base, and Brian Levine.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said you can’t separate Murphy’s popularity today from his COVID-19 response, which involves regular media briefings on the pandemic that are also livestreamed directly to the public. This platform allowed New Jerseyans to see him as a leader in action, much as Superstorm Sandy did for former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, he said.

Long-term effects of crisis response  

“These crises — as long as you don’t blow it — can have long-term positive effects as far as public opinion,” Murray said. Christie’s response to the devastation left by the 2012 storm generated widespread constituent support in advance of his 2014 reelection bid, Murray noted, but Bridgegate and other scandals had soured public opinion significantly by the time he left office four years later.

READ: Ciattarelli tops in GOP governor contest with some tense Democratic legislative races

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The Monmouth institute found that while 41% of New Jerseyans had a favorable opinion of Murphy in September 2019 — before the pandemic — that had grown to 50% by May 2021, according to a telephone survey in mid-May of 700 residents. Murphy’s very public COVID-19 response may also have boosted his name recognition. In 2019, 21% said they had “no opinion” of Murphy. This year that dropped to 16%.

Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling also found the pandemic has been good for Murphy politically, although support for his response is starting to slip. While the governor’s favorability ratings declined to 47% from 54% in October 2020, a telephone survey of 1,000 residents in May showed nearly one-third gave him an A grade on his handling of the pandemic, up from just over one-quarter in the fall.

“The ‘rally around the flag’ effect the pandemic has had on Gov. Murphy’s ratings in the past year is inevitably coming to an end,” Eagleton polling director Ashley Koning said. Factoring in Murphy’s marks on other issues — like the economy, education, transportation and crime — his overall first-term grade drops to a C, the poll said.

Murphy’s ratings the envy of most politicians

“But the governor still garners the kind of ratings most politicians envy, especially in a re-election year and during an increasingly polarizing crisis and recovery process,” Koning said.

Polling by multiple organizations has shown that political identity may be the largest factor in whether people get immunized against COVID-19, with Republicans far less likely than Democrats to get vaccinated.

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said the public support for Murphy is likely to continue in coming months if the impact of the pandemic continues to wane. “The public has been very understanding and very forgiving and they’ve stayed with him,” Rasmussen said. “Why would (the public) defect now?” when things are improving, he said.

While Murphy’s approval rating has slipped over the past six months, Rasmussen said it would likely take a big rise in COVID-19 cases or serious concerns about the governor’s management of the pandemic to put him in danger politically. “Those are reasons you could see further erosion,” Rasmussen said, but with the state’s reopening seemingly on track, “you’d have to think people would feel more positive” about Murphy’s role.

The potential political impact of the pandemic is harder to gauge on Republican candidates, who had looked to capitalize on glitches in the Murphy administration’s COVID-19 response while also touching on GOP campaign staples, like taxes and government spending. But much of the focus in the Republican primary has been on former U.S. President Donald Trump, who was eagerly embraced by Ciattarelli’s two closest competitors.

Ciattarelli’s big challenge

For the more moderate Ciattarelli to beat Murphy in the fall, “it would take something really drastic,” Murray told NJPBS’ Michael Aaron last week. “Jack Ciattarelli needs a new negative — which means he needs something to be more relevant to voters right now than Phil Murphy’s handling of the pandemic, which he is getting good marks for.”

Rasmussen agreed Ciattarelli has limited options to defeat the sitting governor in November, but noted a lot can change between now and then. “There’s a temptation to throw ideological red meat at the Trumpers,” he said. “But he’s a smart politician. He’s been around for a while. He seems to understand that’s not a card that works well in New Jersey.”

Hirsh Singh, the only other Republican candidate to raise enough funds to qualify for a spot in state-sponsored debates, worked that red-meat angle against Ciattarelli. Singh sought to capitalize on his decision not to debate Ciattarelli in an event hosted by NJ PBS, the home of NJ Spotlight News, even though he had previously agreed to the terms. He erroneously claimed the network required him to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the virtual event, a format he said imposed on his freedom of speech. A COVID-19 test was required per company policy, not a vaccination.

Going forward, Ciattarelli could instead choose to focus on the cracks in Murphy’s pandemic response, like the high death rate in the state’s nursing homes, or other “government competence” issues, Rasmussen said. Murphy’s oversight of nursing homes, where more than 8,000 residents and staff died of the virus, has become a prominent issue for Republican candidates and was the focus of Ciattarelli’s first TV ad in the primary.

How to make the argument

But Rasmussen warns that approach comes with another risk as the economy improves and the virus recedes. If you remind voters of the darkest days of the pandemic, they could then conclude that Murphy has since led the state into better times, he explained. “The problem for (Ciattarelli) is, that gets to be a harder argument to make,” he said.

Ciattarelli, a former Somerset County freeholder and mayor who ran for the state’s top job in 2017 but lost the GOP primary to Christie’s Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, has been campaigning for a second shot at Murphy since last summer. His campaign website highlights his goals of lowering taxes, boosting economic growth, addressing immigration, securing elections and making health care more affordable.

“I do believe that Phil Murphy’s decisions failed us. We lead the nation in nursing home deaths,” Ciattarelli told Fox News in May. “I believe this administration has been incompetent. I believe we can do better and when I’m governor we will.”