Politics unusual

The 2020 general election was like no other. Will this year’s gubernatorial campaign be just as strange?

Daniel J. Munoz//January 4, 2021

Politics unusual

The 2020 general election was like no other. Will this year’s gubernatorial campaign be just as strange?

Daniel J. Munoz//January 4, 2021

President Donald J. Trump meets with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy Thursday, April 30, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. – OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY JOYCE BOGHOSIAN

The 2020 presidential election was widely regarded as historic and unprecedented. COVID-19 and mass social distancing prompted tens of millions of voters across the nation to cast mail-in ballots rather than showing up in person at the polls. With hundreds of thousands of Americans dead, a total loss of normal routines and peace of mind, and some of the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, the pandemic and its effects were front and center during the campaign.

President Donald Trump’s handling of COVID-19 was considered a driving factor in his loss to former Vice President Joe Biden. And Trump used the mass pivot to vote-by-mail as the grounds for unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud.

But some New Jersey election watchers argue that with the vaccination process in place and a return to normal expected sometime in the middle of the year, more pedestrian issues could dominate the 2021 gubernatorial campaign, which could work against Gov. Phil Murphy.

Others argue that the waning of the pandemic and an economic recovery could help push Murphy to a landslide victory.

“All types of public polling indicates that people are very pleased how he’s led the state through this crisis and pandemic,” said Brendan Gill, an Essex County-based Democratic strategist who managed Murphy’s 2017 campaign.


Two Republicans have declared their intentions to seek the GOP nomination: former state Sen. Jack Ciattarelli and former state Republican Party Chairman Doug Steinhardt.

“The challenge that both Steinhardt and Ciatarelli have had is how you continue to navigate this lack of acknowledgement, even right now, that Donald Trump has lost the election, the inability to even recognize that Biden is president-elect,” Gill added.

But the election is 11 months from which is an eternity in politics. And voters can have very short memories.

“All expectations are that life will return to some modicum of normal by the time fall falls around,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University    Polling Institute at the West Long Branch university. “If we get back to normal, it’s possible that other issues become very important standard economic issues – property taxes, cost of living, those are the things that matter most.” Murray suggested that back to normal could very well mean a return to the less impressive poll numbers than what Murphy saw during the pandemic.

Elected leaders often benefit from that kind of effect – a natural or man-made disaster leading to soaring poll numbers. Beneficiaries include New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during the current pandemic, former Gov. Chris Christie from Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and in 2001 for both New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and President George W. Bush as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.


“[W]hen an executive is seen as a good crisis manager, they are awarded for that; they are seen as somebody who gets the credit for that,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. Murphy’s “stratospheric” poll numbers, he suggested, are “going to come back to Earth.”

And should life return to enough of a pre-COVID normal in time for the November elections, then whichever challenger the Republicans pick could certainly try to exploit a potential weakness in New Jersey’s economic performance, like the high cost of living.

“[Poll numbers] simply moved from being a middle of the road approval rating to a solidly positive approval rating. They can move back to that middle of the road category by the time we get to November,” Murray said. “Or [Murphy] could come out of COVID with a strong economy.”

Murray suggested that the efforts of Ciattarelli and Steinhardt to win the support of “a very right-wing Republican Party” ahead of the June primaries could alienate them from New Jersey’s broader voting population. And that, Murray said, could be the angle of attack for Murphy’s campaign and the Democratic party.

“If we get a Republican primary candidate that’s all about gun rights and abortion, that’s a hard sell to turn around in the general election … it opens the strategy for the Murphy campaign, even if Murphy is not as popular in November as he is right now … he says regardless, this person is not acceptable.”

Steinhardt, like many Republicans – most notably Trump – has been a staunch anti-masker, with many photos depicting him at campaign events where few, if any masks are being worn.    “Steinhardt may be tempted to talk about the masks being overkill, you heard that in a lot of opening messages,” Rasmussen said. “There’s a sense of pushback that this is oppressive, but that is not something you’re going to see in the numbers in New Jersey. There’s grumbling, nobody’s happy, but people understand.”

Ciattarelli has been spotted at numerous Republican-led, anti-COVID restriction rallies, some with Confederate flags – a potentially alienating factor for the broader New Jersey population. With both having long political careers, their attempts to frame themselves as outsiders, as Trump was able to do, could be a much harder sell, according to Rasmussen.

“All expectations are that life will return to some
modicum of normal by the time fall falls around.”
– Patrick Murray