The second and final gubernatorial debate between Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Republican, and Phil Murphy, Democrat, was held at William Paterson University in Wayne on Wednesday night, and saw repeated stances on popular topics as well as repeated lines of attack from both candidates on their opponent.
The moderators were news journalists from Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York who continued to press the candidates on pensions, taxes and infrastructure as well as raise new questions around social issues and the state’s cities.
Seizing on comments made by Murphy in the first debate, moderator Jessica Dean asked him about his desire to make New Jersey a sanctuary state and the possibility of losing out on federal funds if the Trump administration threatened to withhold them. Murphy responded that it would be an “empty threat” and that he would take legal action against the White House if federal funds allocated for New Jersey were withheld. In response, Guadagno discussed a specific criminal case with an illegal immigrant and the need for law enforcement in such cases.
The next question involved property taxes, and Guadagno said Murphy lacked specifics on his plan and that he will raise property taxes. She said she would lower them. Murphy responded by saying taxes have gone up 17 percent during her tenure.
Throughout the debate, each candidate repeated attacks about the other including Murphy’s common refrain of the number of days Guadagno had been in office with Gov. Chris Christie, and Guadagno’s remarks about Murphy’s career as a Goldman Sachs millionaire as well as his desire to raise taxes.
Guadagno defended her association with Christie at multiple points throughout the debate. In response to Murphy’s accusation that Guadagno has been with Christie “every step of the way,” Guadagno said she expressed misgivings to the governor in private.
“Quite frankly, anybody who knows me knows I’m not Chris Christie,” said Guadagno.
Guadagno continued to push her message of lowering the tax burden on middle-income families by tackling property taxes. The lieutenant governor attempted to shift the Christie comparisons onto her opponent by saying she publicly opposed the 23 cent gas tax hike, whereas Murphy supported the measure.
The latest polls put Phil Murphy 15 percentage points ahead of Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Even taking into account a potential polling error, Gudagno’s chances are looking dire. How will the candidates’ performance affect the election and what do voters take away from debates?
“[In debates, voters] get a feel for candidates, whether property taxes are going to be reduced, or an arbitration cap, any of those specifics don’t resonate with voters but a feel [for the candidate] can matter some,” according to Saladin Ambar, senior scholar of Eagleton Institute of Politics’ Center on the American Governor
Ambar, who also serves as an associate professor in Political Science at Rutgers, said there are multiple political science studies that show voters often don’t pay attention to policy specifics during televised debates.
Instead, voters pay attention to a larger narrative on the candidates and how they feel about each one.
Ambar said Guadagno managed multiple “feel good moments,” such as her handling of microphone problems in the first debate or her interaction with the crowd in the second debate, but none of these moments were enough to change the state of the election.
“I don’t think there was any consequential moment that people are going to leave with,” Ambar said, adding that Murphy’s lead allowed him to pass through the debate unscathed unless he made an enormous gaffe.
In terms of narrative, Guadagno focused on portraying Murphy as a man who can’t keep his promises; Murphy framed Guadagno’s candidacy as the third term of Gov. Chris Christie.
But the attacks on Murphy are not particularly effective in the current political landscape.
“We’re in an era where there’s a presumption [that] all politicians [are] stretching the truth,” Ambar said. “In a world where doubt is the prevailing thought, passing more doubt isn’t nearly as effective as it was years’ past.”
On the other hand, Murphy’s framing as Guadagno being a continuation of the current administration is highly effective in “change elections” — elections where there is no incumbent running.
“Mruphy has been able to get voters to see Guadagno as another term for Christie,” Ambar said. “While she may continue to move up somewhat in the polls, it’s not likely to make much of a difference.”
For his part, Murphy repeated his promises to fund pensions, infrastructure and free college education, but offered no specifics on funding them.
His reticence to offer specifics was seen throughout the debate. For example, when a question directed at Murphy asked if he would renew the 2 percent salary cap for police officers and firefighters in the state, he refused to commit to an answer.
“I would like our voters to know I make decisions based on the facts,” Murphy said, explaining that a report on the issue would be released in December. When pressed by moderator Kristine Johnson for an answer, Murphy declined to articulate a position.
Murphy continued his framing that New Jersey had been let down by the current administration and insufficient growth of the economy had left “tens of billions” on the table. Murphy mentioned New York maintaining 179 innovation incubators, compared to New Jersey’s 15 as an example of a missed opportunity.
One topic that came up repeatedly was New Jersey’s cities. For example, one question revolved around Atlantic City and gambling. Murphy spoke of increasing a non-gaming economy for the beleaguered city, but favored gaming in the Meadowlands. Guadagno wanted to ensure Atlantic City was stabilized first, but would be open to putting gaming in North Jersey on a ballot.
Another city related question was around gentrification and how would the candidates work to not let it affect long-time residents of cities like Newark and Jersey City. Guadagno discussed tax credits as a way to ensure businesses hire local citizens, and referenced a company in South Jersey and how it affects Camden and its citizens.
When the questions turned to social issues, one of the bigger topics was the legalization of marijuana. Guadagno opposes it, favoring decriminalization as an alternative. She cited a 48 percent increase in traffic deaths in the state of Colorado, which some have attributed to an increase in marijuana usage. For a candidate that’s eager to make the state more affordable, abandoning the potential revenue of being the first state with legalized marijuana in the New York metropolitan area seemed like an odd choice.
Murphy stated his intention to legalize marijuana. Although he stressed that his stance was a “social justice issue,” Murphy has said in the past that marijuana legalization would provide millions in tax revenue. The state of Colorado reported $1 billion dollars in marijuana sales, less than 12 months after legalization.
Voters are well-versed in the money problems facing the state and the need for massive funding in several key areas. Guadagno has positioned herself as the candidate who will save the state money, whereas Murphy promises to figure out the arithmetic to make spending work.
Guadagno seized an opportunity late in the debate to press on Murphy’s vague answers. When each candidate was offered the opportunity to ask the other a question, Guadagno asked how Murphy planned to pay for everything. Murphy’s response meandered for a few seconds before an audience member shouted for him to answer the question.
Guadagno may have had more debate highlights, but has failed to generate excitement for her candidacy in an election that’s defined by widespread apathy. Murphy remains in the lead according to polls taken in the last few weeks.
With the election three weeks away, New Jerseyans are skeptical that either candidate will be able to carry out what the state needs.
Election day is Nov. 7.