November 2nd added yet another Garden State campaign season to the history books. But last week’s results were anything but expected (even by us). Returns across the board threw a wrench into the political cogs of a machine state where the maintenance of the status quo is almost as reliable as the morning sun rise. New Jersey is far from complete with ballot counting, but the key race outcomes are clear enough to analyze. Tuesday made clear that political outcomes are never assured and that conventional political wisdom cannot always be taken for granted, even in Jersey.
Governor: A Close Race Indeed
The close gubernatorial outcome was arguably this cycle’s most surprising result. Steaming into November, Governor Murphy led the RCP average by about eight points. Although fall polling appeared to show some late-breaking momentum for the GOP as the undecided vote evaporated, most of us thought the final gap was too significant for Ciattarelli to overcome. We rated the contest Likely Democratic to correspond with a 52-44 Murphy victory. Boy, were we wrong.
In the November 1st ratings article, we were much more generous to Ciattarelli than other forecasters. Our Likely Democratic rating represented a concerted effort to keep the race on the board after conventional wisdom had written it off. We even noted that there was a decent chance for the eventual Democratic margin to end up below eight. But a mere 3 point win was never in our sights.
- We saw Ciattarelli’s steady polling improvement among independent voters, but passed it off as insignificant because of his lack of appeal to state Democrats.
- We saw burgeoning Republican enthusiasm comparable to that in Virginia, but ignored it because New Jersey is a bluer state.
- We saw a close race from Jack’s internals, but chose to spurn them in favor of status quo surveys that proved far less accurate.
Did we get the outcome right? Yes. Governor Murphy won reelection, breaking the half-century curse on sitting Democrats. But should we consider our pick a success? Hardly. Our team repeatedly doubted signs of a favorable Republican environment and flew by the seat of our pants for it. We simply did not expect the GOP to come close in an ostensibly blue state.
Had the RGA invested more on Ciattarelli’s behalf, the result might have been closer. If Republicans had nominated Jon Bramnick or Diane Allen, Murphy probably would have lost.
Post-election counting is still padding Murphy’s lead, but enough numbers are in for us to classify this as an extremely good result for the Republicans. As of this writing, the Governor is ahead by just 2.6 points – 50.9% to 48.3%. Anyone who followed this campaign closely should recognize how mediocre that performance really is. (We said anything under 10 would be good for Ciattarelli). Had we better understood the race’s fundamentals, Tossup would have been the appropriate rating.
Why was it close?
All but two counties swung toward the GOP this year. The heaviest swings came out of South Jersey, where Murphy’s strong 2017 performance gave Republicans little room to fall further. Ciattarelli also presided over significant vote share improvements in heavily-Democratic Essex, Hudson, Union, and Camden counties.
Republican turnout was a worthy adversary against the Democratic spine this cycle. Adding to an impressive draw from South Jersey, Ciattarelli ran up numbers in the ruby red shore counties (Ocean and Monmouth) and their northwestern equivalents (Warren and Sussex).
In now-Democratic counties like Bergen and Burlington, Republicans narrowed the Governor’s margins enough to make the statewide race close. Ciattarelli also performed well in Biden-won Morris County, though the swing toward the GOP from four years ago was small.
Somerset and Hunterdon counties might have been Governor Murphy’s only silver lining. The Governor may have done poorly in both compared to President Biden, but he was still able to overwhelm down ballot Republicanism in Somerset. As of this writing, the two Democratic-trending counties are the only ones in the state that swung left from 2017.
This was the closest gubernatorial election since 1997, when Republican Christine Todd Whitman narrowly won reelection over Jim McGreevey.
Turnout was also strong this year. Over 2.5 million votes have been counted so far, exceeding the raw vote total from the 2009 election. Tuesday also marked the first time since that election that both contenders received over one million votes each. We are particularly pleased that so many New Jerseyans made their voices heard.
A Look at 2025
As election connoisseurs, we never consider it too early to start thinking about future elections. With the curse broken and Senate President Steve Sweeney on his way out, the term-limited Governor Murphy has nothing holding him back. This begs the question: who are some potential 2025 replacement contenders? Predicting an electoral playingfield four years in advance is never advisable, so take these musings with a grain of salt.
- (D) Vin Gopal, State Senator District 11
- (D) Steven Fulop, Mayor of Jersey City
- (D) Mikie Sherrill, US Representative District 11
- (R) Mike Testa, State Senator District 1
- (R) Jack Ciattarelli, 2021 nominee
- (R) Jon Bramnick, State Senator-elect District 21
If the results in the 8th and 11th districts remain the same, the GOP will come away with a net gain of one seat in the State Senate. That would give Democrats a 24-16 advantage in the 40 seat chamber. Senate Republicans were last in this position after the 2013 elections.
In the 80-member Assembly, Republicans currently stand to make a net gain of six. That outcome would yield a slightly-reduced 46-34 Democratic majority. No split delegations will be elected this year if current results hold.
We had mixed success with our predictions. Predicting state legislative elections is often difficult. Crude analysis usually stems from subjective perceptions of candidate quality and fundraising. Polling is scarce, and mediocre when it is available.
Where were we wrong?
The southwestern 3rd district was our biggest mistake. In the Likely Democratic Senate race, truck driver Edward Durr unseated long-time Senate President Steve Sweeney. You can read our article on 2021’s biggest upset here. We also underestimated Republicans Beth Sawyer and Bethanne Patrick, who ousted incumbent Democrats John Burzichelli and Adam Taliaferro in the 3rd’s Safe Democratic Assembly contest.
In the Monmouth-based 11th district, incumbent Democrat Vin Gopal seems to be on track for reelection. The rising star currently leads Republican Lori Annetta 52%-48%. Although Gopal has retaken the lead since election night, his eventual margin will still be much closer than we expected. Likely Democratic was an overestimation here.
Republicans Marilyn Piperno and Kim Eulner are also on track for narrow victories in the 11th’s Likely Democratic Assembly race. If the results hold, the GOP will have ousted incumbent Democrats Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling in an upset.
We also missed the Atlantic-based 2nd district. Swayed by another inaccurate Stockton University poll of a South Jersey Senate race, we predicted a Leans Democratic flip for Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo. Republican Vince Polistina, finally sworn in as interim Senator, has been projected winner there.
Republicans Donald Guardian and Claire Swift also defied our Leans Democratic expectations, flipping both of the 2nd’s hotly-contested Assembly seats. For a strong Biden district, down ballot Republicanism had a great night here.
Where were we right?
We are glad to report that we did not miss everything on Tuesday. As with any election cycle, some of our overarching expectations more or less held up.
Our best call came in the 8th district. We went with our gut feeling on the fundamentals there and predicted Republican Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield’s victory over party-switching Democratic incumbent Dawn Addiego. A winner has not been officially projected in the Burlington-based 8th, but Stanfield leads 51%-49% as of this writing. Republicans also held both of open Assembly seats in this district.
The only Democratic legislative pickup in Virginia and New Jersey came in the Biden+23 16th district. As we predicted, Republican Mike Pappas rode the seat’s traditional downballot Republicanism to a close loss. Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker appears to have won 53%-47% in a race that we classified as Leans Democratic. Democrats also appear to have held both Assembly seats, though by a much narrower margin than we expected.
Overall, we saw Democratic Senate candidates overperform the combined vote share of their Assembly counterparts in districts 3, 11, and 17.
In the 21st, 25th, and 39th legislative districts, down ballot Republicanism was bolstered by a good GOP environment. Jon Bramnick, Tony Bucco Jr, and Holly Schepisi upheld our predictions and won comfortably in Biden seats.
All told: a much better night for New Jersey Republicans than the political world expected.