TRENTON – Gov. Phil Murphy holds a 16-point lead over Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli with 11 weeks remaining until Election Day, buoyed by support for his handling of the pandemic, according to results from a new Monmouth University Poll.

Murphy is supported by 52% of registered voters, compared with 36% who back Ciattarelli. A variety of scenarios testing which people are likely to vote yields leads for the Democrat ranging from 11 points to 19 points.

Murphy leads narrowly, 44% to 38%, among voters who don’t affiliate with either major party and has a sizable lead, 52% to 38%, in Central Jersey – a region that poll director Patrick Murray said was key to past GOP success.

Murray said that in 2009, Chris Christie won Central Jersey by 15 points when he edged then-Gov. Jon Corzine.

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“The key with Central Jersey is that it used to be a place where you had a combination of old-school Republicans living in Somerset County, kind of the Tom Kean/Christie Whitman type of Republicans, plus you had these working-class swing voters in Middlesex County that a candidate like Chris Christie could swing over,” Murray said.

“Jack Ciattarelli seems to be cut from that same mold. He’s one of them. He should have a natural appeal to these voters. But in the Trump era, these voters have become really firm Democrats,” he said. “So, this is an area where Phil Murphy is doing really well where we would expect a moderate Republican to at least be making some inroads.”

Forty-one percent of voters cited the COVID-19 pandemic as one of two most important issues facing the state, topping the perennial concern of property taxes atop that list. That appears to favor Murphy, as 46% of voters said they trust Murphy more to handle the pandemic compared to 21% for Ciattarelli.

“It’s very difficult for Jack Ciattarelli to change the issue picture, which is really what you have to do when you’re running against an incumbent. You’ve got to run on the issues where the incumbent is weak,” Murray said. “And right now, you’re not going to change people’s minds that COVID is the No. 1 issue out there. And if they think that Phil Murphy has been doing a decent job, they think that New Jersey has been handling it at least decently well, that’s enough for people to say, ‘Well, I’m going to stick with the guy that I already know.’”

The candidates were viewed more evenly on two other issues sampled in the poll. Murphy was trusted more to handle jobs and the economy, 35% to 27%, while Ciattarelli was trusted barely more on taxes, 30% to 29%.

Taxes remain among the issues most important to voters, with 32% citing property taxes specifically, along with income (9%), sales (7%), and other (4%) taxes. The economy and cost of living were chosen by 15%, with jobs adding another 7%.

“Property taxes which has always been a perennial issue, is still an important issue although not as important as it’s been in the past,” Murray said. “But even on the issue of taxes, Murphy draws even with Ciattarelli there as being trusted to better handle that. So, Ciattarelli doesn’t have a clear issue on which if he could turn the conversation around, it would give him kind of a natural in to move some swing voters.

“I think one of the key issues that we see in this electorate right now is that there are very few voters to actually swing,” he said. “A lot of people are just really locked into their partisan identities right now, and that is giving Murphy an advantage in a state where Democrats have a natural 16- to 17-point advantage right now in voter registration.”

Few voters have formed an opinion about Ciattarelli, who served three terms in the Assembly in a district based in Somerset County. Twenty-six percent of voters view him favorably, 12% view him unfavorably and 61% have no opinion.

Ciattarelli leads among white voters, 49% to 40%, due to a 21-point edge among those who don’t have a four-year college degree offsetting Murphy’s 7-point edge among white college graduates. Murphy is up by 80 percentage points among Black voters and 50 points among Latinos, Asians and multiracial voters.

Ciattarelli is ahead in South Jersey, 45% to 40%. He is up by 7 points among voters who describe themselves as being more enthusiastic about this year’s race than past elections for governor, but that’s the case for only 27% of voters.

“There is not a lot here to suggest that a focus on turning out different types of voters will lead to a significant shift in the current state of the race,” Murray said. “It will require something more fundamental in the issues driving the race to do that.”

The Monmouth University Poll was conducted by telephone from Aug. 11 to 16 with 810 New Jersey registered voters. The question results have a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percentage points.

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