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2021′s election results may signal some new, troubling trends for Dems and the GOP

By Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on December 20, 2021.

Last month’s gubernatorial election sent shockwaves through New Jersey’s political world. An incumbent governor, who got positive reviews for handling the biggest health crisis in a century, won re-election by a relatively small margin in a state where his party has a million voter registration advantage.

With the election results now certified, we see patterns that point to a shifting dynamic in the partisan coalitions that have characterized New Jersey politics for a generation. Overall turnout, as measured by the number of votes cast for governor, increased by 22% from 2017 to 2021. The greatest jumps came in heavily Republican areas, such as the northern shore and the northwest corner of the state. This surge in traditionally Republican areas was significant but does not really tell the whole story.

Turnout also increased by a larger than average percentage in the southern part of the state. More importantly, support for the Republican candidate increased by an especially large margin there. The total number of ballots cast for Jack Ciattarelli in 2021 jumped by at least half over Kim Guadagno’s 2017 result in Gloucester (up 69%!), Atlantic, Camden, Cape May and Cumberland counties.

Ciattarelli also did relatively well in northern Democratic strongholds — or, more specifically, incumbent governor Phil Murphy did worse. For example, in Hudson County, Ciattarelli got 11,000 more votes than Guadagno did four years ago, while Murphy’s ballot count was basically the same in both elections. In fact, outside of South Jersey, the biggest growth in the gap between Republican and Democratic vote totals from the prior election occurred in traditionally blue Essex, Hudson and Passaic counties.

Murphy’s ballot total in each of these three supposed Democratic bastions was relatively flat from 2017. However, this countywide stability actually masks a significant drop in urban support for Murphy. We can divide Essex County into two regions; one comprised of the four cities where Murphy got at least 90% of the vote in both elections (i.e. Newark, East Orange, Orange, and Irvington) and one with the remaining, more suburban, part of the county. Murphy actually increased his ballot total by just over 10,000 votes in suburban Essex. In urban Essex, though, the number of Murphy ballots actually dropped by more than 7,000 from four years ago. The story is similar in Passaic County. The Democratic vote total dropped by almost 2,400 in the city of Paterson at the same time it increased by nearly 2,800 in the rest of the county.

Another region with interesting results is Central Jersey, specifically Hunterdon, Mercer, and Somerset counties. Even though these counties have a mix of party control, they showed the greatest stability in terms of the partisan gap. In other words, the winning candidate’s margin in 2021 was very close to the same party’s lead in 2017. It is true that the competitive 16th district legislative race – the only GOP seat that Democrats flipped this year – spans parts of these three counties and accounts for some of the Democratic engagement there. But this pattern of stability extends to towns outside of the 16th district as well.

So what does this all mean? We have to acknowledge that these aggregate results may not apply to every voter group within these geographic areas. However, the overarching implications are compelling:

(1) The South Jersey results suggest the last vestiges of the white working class faction of the Democratic Party may have vanished, at least in any sizable number. Republicans can probably count on these voters to stay in their column.

(2) The urban North Jersey results indicate that a hitherto reliable cornerstone of the Democratic base feels it is not being heard. These results should be the canary in a coalmine for Democrats.

(3) The Central Jersey results suggest that the reasons why higher socioeconomic status former Republican voters left the party during the Trump era remain a problem for the GOP image in New Jersey. That is something that could change if the party rebrands (although that does not appear to be likely any time soon).

And what of the ultra-progressive wing that has become the face of the Democratic Party? Polling shows that progressive economic policies have widespread support, but in-your-face messaging around those policies is turns off many voters. The 2021 election results suggest that woke-based campaigns do not bring out more woke voters.

Take a look at the results from Montclair, perhaps the epitome of woke-ness in New Jersey. Murphy’s vote total there went up by 11% from four years ago. That is no more than his average increase statewide and pales in comparison to the 39% municipal increase in Republican ballots. If the Democratic Party is going to capitalize on its built-in registration advantage in the future, it probably needs to go back to basics, at least in the way it communicates with voters.

‘I blew it.’ Maybe it’s time to get rid of election polls.

By Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed on on November 4, 2021.

I blew it. The final Monmouth University Poll margin did not provide an accurate picture of the state of the governor’s race. So, if you are a Republican who believes the polls cost Ciattarelli an upset victory or a Democrat who feels we lulled your base into complacency, feel free to vent. I hear you.

I owe an apology to Jack Ciattarelli’s campaign — and to Phil Murphy’s campaign for that matter — because inaccurate public polling can have an impact on fundraising and voter mobilization efforts. But most of all I owe an apology to the voters of New Jersey for information that was at the very least misleading.

I take my responsibility as a public pollster seriously. Some partisan critics think we have some agenda about who wins or loses. I can only assume they have never met a public pollster. The thing that keeps us up at night — our “religion” as it were — is simply getting the numbers right.

Unlike a campaign consultant, my job is not to figure out a candidate’s best path to victory, but to provide an explanation of the public mood as it exists now. Polling continues to do that quite well when we are taking a snapshot of the full population. For example, polls on the impact of COVID and attitudes toward vaccines over the past year and a half provided an accurate picture of shifting behaviors that directly impacted public health.

Election polling is a different animal, prone to its fair share of misses if you focus only on the margins. For example, Monmouth’s polls four years ago nailed the New Jersey gubernatorial race but significantly underestimated Democratic performance in the Virginia contest. This year, our final polls provided a reasonable assessment of where the Virginia race was headed but missed the spike in Republican turnout in New Jersey.

The difference between public interest polls and election polls is that the latter violates the basic principles of survey sampling. For an election poll, we do not know exactly who will vote until after Election Day, so we have to create models of what we think the electorate could look like. Those models are not perfect. They classify a sizable number of people who do not cast ballots as “likely voters” and others who actually do turn out as being “unlikely.” These models have tended to work, though, because the errors balance out into a reasonable projection of what the overall electorate eventually looks like.

Monmouth’s track record with these models, particularly here in our home state over the past 10 years, has been generally accurate within the range of error inherent in election polling. However, the growing perception that polling is broken cannot be easily dismissed.

Monmouth’s conservative estimate in this year’s New Jersey race was an 8-point win for Murphy, which is still far from the final margin. More than one astute observer of polls has pointed out that the incumbent was consistently polling at either 50% or 51% against a largely unknown challenger. That metric in itself should have been an indication of Murphy’s underlying weakness as an incumbent. Still, in the age of polling aggregators, needles, and election betting markets, we tend to obsess more on the margin than on the candidate’s vote share. And we end up assuming that the “horse race” number is more precise than it actually is. This can lead to misleading narratives about the state of the race, as happened in New Jersey this year.

While pundits and the media are hardwired to obsess on margins, we pollsters bear some responsibility too. Some organizations have decided to opt-out of election polling altogether, including the venerable Gallup Poll and the highly regarded Pew Research Center, because it distracts from the contributions of their public interest polling. Other pollsters went AWOL this year. For instance, Quinnipiac has been a fixture during New Jersey and Virginia campaigns for decades but issued no polls in either state this year.

Perhaps that is a wise move. If we cannot be certain that these polling misses are anomalies then we have a responsibility to consider whether releasing horse race numbers in close proximity to an election is making a positive or negative contribution to the political discourse.

This is especially important now because the American republic is at an inflection point. Public trust in political institutions and our fundamental democratic processes is abysmal. Honest missteps get conflated with “fake news” — a charge that has hit election polls in recent years.

Most public pollsters are committed to making sure our profession counters rather than deepening the pervasive cynicism in our society. We try to hold up a mirror that accurately shows us who we are. If election polling only serves to feed that cynicism, then it may be time to rethink the value of issuing horse race poll numbers as the electorate prepares to vote.

Redistricting is set to begin. Do we need a hard-nosed judge to help draw the lines?

by Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on August 22, 2021.

The U.S. Census Bureau has finally released the data states need to carry out redistricting. That sets a number of processes in motion for the commissions responsible for redrawing New Jersey’s congressional and legislative districts.

Despite the six-month delay, our process is pretty much on track. The Redistricting Commission, which draws the congressional map, is not required to deliver a final map until mid-January.

The Apportionment Commission – the body responsible for redrawing the state legislative map – could have been in trouble since the election for those offices is less than three months away. However, a constitutional amendment approved by voters last year allows the state to delay implementation of a new map until 2023.

The first order of business for the Apportionment Commission is the appointment of an independent member, commonly called the “tiebreaker.” In past decades, these independent members have pushed for consensus and compromise – and have even proposed their own plans – but in the end, they ultimately had to choose between two partisan maps.

When the commission format was initially proposed it was hoped that there would be enough common ground for the two parties to reach consensus on a new map. That actually worked for the first couple of legislative rounds in the 1960s and 1970s. By the time the congressional commission was created in 1991, though, it was clear that some type of tiebreaking vote would be the norm.

There are a number of flaws with this type of system. The most glaring problem historically is that tiebreaking members have idiosyncratic preferences on redistricting criteria. The New Jersey Constitution is largely silent on which principles should guide redistricting deliberations. The choice of an independent member therefore results in an unaccountable prioritization of some principles over others.

In the state’s past experience, one tiebreaker focused on “partisan fairness” while another was mainly concerned with “continuity of representation.” It comes as no surprise that the independent member has chosen the partisan map that came closer to meeting these personal priorities, or at least were convinced by one party that their map was closer to these priorities.

Two years ago, I joined with a group of redistricting experts who proposed improvements to New Jersey’s apportionment process. Our recommendations included increasing transparency and public input; instituting standard, yet flexible, guidelines for redrawing the legislative map; and creating a panel of not one, but three, independent members.

An independent panel means no single personal priority could drive the process. Moreover, a multi-member panel can bring greater diversity and representation. It is worth noting that the tiebreakers on every past commission have been white men from either Rutgers or Princeton.

This year will be different though, at least for the congressional commission. And this could provide a blueprint for the legislative commission tiebreaker.

The congressional commission chooses its own independent member. If the partisan members cannot reach an agreement – which happened for the very first time this year – the state Supreme Court takes a vote between the preferred choices of the Democrats and Republicans.

In a change with past practice, the names that arose this year were not academics. They were retired judges. The court decided on one of their own to be the tiebreaker for the congressional commission. Not only will former justice John Wallace, Jr. be the first jurist in this role, but he will be the first person of color.

The tiebreaker selection process for the legislative commission works a bit differently. In this case, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner makes a unilateral appointment. Although he is not required to do so, he has asked both parties to submit names in the hope there will be a common choice. As with the congressional commission, a bipartisan pick is unlikely to emerge, which means Rabner must name someone of his own choosing.

Given the lack of clear constitutional reapportionment principles and prior concerns with the personal priorities of academics – it could make sense to have a jurist serve in the role of mediator.

Since the court went with the Democrats’ preference on the congressional commission, Rabner could simply opt for the GOP’s runner-up, former Superior Court Judge Marina Corodemus. Other possibilities include former Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, who was floated as a compromise candidate for the congressional commission, and retired Judge Paulette Sapp-Peterson, the first African-American woman to serve at the appellate level in New Jersey.

Another name that should be given serious consideration is Judge Mary Jacobson, who is about to retire from the bench. As Mercer County Assignment Judge, she has presided over some of the state’s highest profile political process cases. Jacobson has shown she can handle the partisan maneuvering that is part-and-parcel of every redistricting process.

My ultimate preference, of course, would be to institute the reforms we proposed in 2019. Until that happens, though, perhaps a hard-nosed judge is the best choice for now.