When polls opened at 6 a.m. today for the New Jersey primaries, it marked the start of this year’s first major midterm election. But despite clear distinctions between the 11 candidates in the running to take over Gov. Chris Christie’s (R-N.J.) position, voter engagement remains low.
The most recent numbers from NJ Advance Media predict fewer than 12 percent of the state’s eligible population will turn out by the time voting ends at 8 p.m. tonight.
At Rutgers, a number of political organizations have risen up to combat this disengagement — most notably the Eagleton Institute of Politics, which organized the “RU Voting” initiative to help students make informed decisions about the candidates in the race.
“Tuition rates, the quality of your facilities, how much financial aid you get, so much of that is influenced by who is serving in (the governor’s) office. These are areas that students can really make a difference,” said Elizabeth Matto, assistant research professor and director of Eagleton’s Youth Political Participation Program.
But Matto, along with the other members of the Institute, have noted the distance that exists between the student body and local politics.
“Democratic citizenship is certainly not reserved for one discipline, it should be multidisciplinary, and even more than that, it should be integrated into the culture of the campus,” Matto told The Daily Targum last month.
According to The New York Times, fewer than 15 percent of New Jersey’s residents tuned in to watch the televised Democratic or Republican gubernatorial debates in May. Now, on the day of the primaries, Stockton University reported that 41 percent of voters still identify as “undecided” between the candidates.
Furthermore, nearly half of those asked reported feeling “uninformed” about the leading gubernatorial hopefuls.
In the last few weeks, the leading players on both sides of the race have boiled down to the following. On the right, Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, leads with 37 percent in the post-debate poll. State Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli follows in the Republican race with 18 percent and Steve Rogers comes in third with 4 percent.
On the left, Democratic front-runner Phil Murphy has maintained a 24-point lead over his opponents with 34 percent in NJ Advance Media’s poll. Former U.S. Treasury Official Jim Johnson follows with 10 percent and State Assemblyman John Wisniewski collected an estimated 9 percent.
Mark Zinna and Bill Brennan both trail in the Democratic poll with 1 and 3 percent respectively.
Both Wisniewski and Murphy spoke at Rutgers University on their respective campaign trails and pledged to add a voting student seat to the University’s Board of Governors while working to keep down tuition.
The board, whose role ranges from deciding the details of the annual budget to approving the construction of new buildings, currently does not include a voting student member.
Where the three leading candidates diverge most clearly is in their political and personal backgrounds.
Murphy worked as a U.S. ambassador to Germany during former President Barack Obama’s tenure. Prior to that, he worked for Goldman Sachs for 23 years, a position that has attracted a great deal of criticism from the other candidates. He raised upwards of $18 million toward his campaign, most of which was self-financed, according to The New York Times. Last week, a major faculty union at Rutgers announced their endorsement of Murphy.
Wisniewski’s campaign hinged on a different narrative, focusing largely on tuition-free college and his long-term public opposition to Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge scandal. He said he aims to bring national progressive politics to New Jersey.
“I’m running against an opponent who has got the support of every political insider in the state of New Jersey. That seems to define who the insider is in this race,” Wisniewski told The Daily Targum earlier this year. “I’ve stood up against special interests because I’ve seen what those special interests will do to the working men and women of New Jersey, and they need someone standing up for them.”
Johnson, the former under secretary of the Treasury, followed a similar “outside of the system” theme throughout his campaign. Like Wisniewski, he has fought against what he says is a “corrupt” political system in New Jersey. He is also a proponent of infrastructure growth, firearm regulation and public school funding, according to The New York Times.
As lieutenant governor of New Jersey, Guadagno works closely with Christie and substitutes in for him when he is out of the state. The Times notes that while this would normally represent an advantage, Christie’s low approval numbers and ongoing “Bridgegate” scandal have complicated Guadagno’s own gubernatorial campaign.
Her closest competitor, Ciattarelli, has campaigned on a platform that diverges from the current Republican administration in New Jersey. As a state assemblyman, he serves as the assistant minority whip and has focused on tax reform and decreasing aid to “overfunded” school districts, according to his website.
Additional voting information for the primaries is available on the New Jersey State Department’s website, and more detailed information on the candidates and their positions can be accessed here, here and here.
Kira Herzog is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. She is the news editor for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @kiraherzog1 for more.