By Dalton Karwacki
Both sides of November’s special election in New Jersey’s 14th legislative district viewed the race as an uphill battle, an unusual occurrence, according to campaign insiders at Thursday’s campaign manager’s conference.
Through the course of the discussion, hosted by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics and co-sponsored by Campaigns and Elections magazine, it became clear that both of the campaigns viewed the other as having an advantage in the election.
“One of the interesting things that I think has been illuminated here is that both campaigns thought it was going to be an uphill battle,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute. “That was unusual because usually one will admit, ‘OK, we have some advantages, we just have to maintain that.’”
The election, which pitted Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein against Republican State Sen. Tom Goodwin, determined who would represent the 14th district, encompassing parts of Mercer and Middlesex Counties, in the state Senate.
Goodwin was serving as acting senator after the retirement of Sen. Bill Baroni to take up a post in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. Greenstein was an incumbent assemblywoman in the 14th district. She ultimately won the election with 53.8 percent of the vote.
The event consisted of three individuals familiar with the inner workings of the two campaigns.
Michael Muller, the campaign’s lead strategist, and Scott Snyder, the campaign manager, represented the Greenstein campaign. Campaign manager Matt Mowers provided perspective from the Goodwin campaign.
One issue that both sides saw as a challenge to their respective campaigns was the expectation of low voter turnout. The Greenstein campaign feared that, following the losses sustained by Democrats after the midterm elections, a low turnout would be harmful to a Democratic candidate.
“This was the first time that we had a federal year since 1998 without a statewide race on top of the ticket,” said Muller. “No one running for president, no one was running for United States Senate. It wound up being an environment that we knew would be brutally low turnout. So this really set the stage for what we thought was going to be a very trying year.”
Mowers expressed the thought that low voter turnout among Republicans would leave only the most right-wing members of the party showing up to vote, an idea that would in turn motivate Democrats to turn out in greater numbers.
“There definitely was a motivation gap amongst the Republican base,” said Mowers. “What you saw actually happen was, as more of these candidates came out across the country, some who were a little bit more right wing than your average New Jersey Republican, you actually saw Democratic enthusiasm grow. Especially in the Philadelphia suburbs I know, you saw a lot of that.”
Mowers also pointed to name recognition as a reason why the Goodwin campaign viewed Greenstein as a de facto incumbent.
“Even though Senator Goodwin was technically the incumbent, for all intents and purposes, it was Linda Greenstein,” he said.
“She had been there for 10 years, she had been in office and had a long record, she had been vetted, and she was the one with the higher name ID.”
The event also covered the ways in which campaigns focus their polling and develop voting models to help figure out what issues and topics should be focused on in order to win over voters. Snyder emphasized the importance of shaping polling questions in a way that will yield useful information.
“You need to be as objective as possible,” he said. “You can get a poll to say whatever you want it to say by how you phrase the question, but it’s trying to be as objective as possible, putting it out there without a lead.
Mowers discussed an incident that seemed to confirm the importance of carefully designed polling. Going into Election Day, the Goodwin campaign’s polling showed a 10-point advantage for the Republican. Goodwin lost by seven points.
“When we ran the original poll, we expected to be down by a lot, but we were only down by a little bit,” Mowers said. “As time progressed, the next poll we ran was in the summer. We were shocked at the results. When all of a sudden, The Trenton Times reported a three-point lead, that was legitimately what our polls showed. That wasn’t constructed just for media fabrication.”
He said that this bad polling ultimately proved detrimental to the campaign, as it dictated the campaign strategy for the tail end of the race, defending a lead that did not exist.
Muller also noted the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the candidate in order to run a good campaign.
“It’s so important for staff to build that trust [with the candidate],” he said. “One of the most important things you can do is build a very strong relationship with your candidate, because you need to be able to tel them no [in a logical way].”