In June, the unfortunate death of Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) would set off a four and a half month race leading up to Wednesday's special election to select the next U.S. Senator from New Jersey. Six candidates between both sides would declare for the primary, four Democrats and two Republicans. By mid August, it was a race between Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan. The race has taken different complexions over its course and a once assumed victory by Booker has turned into an interesting race down the stretch.
If Booker can finish the job but only win by less than 10 points, some especially on the Republican side might see that as a morale win going into essentially another race before you know it for the winner's seat next November.
As Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) would state,
I’m surprised. Cory Booker was not as strong as people predicted.
Final polls are showing a wide gap of between 10 to 22 points after a month plus of 20-30 point polling edges for Booker that would shrink to about a 12 point edge the last couple weeks of the race. After failed attempts by Republican going back since 1972 when they last won a U.S. Senate race, the GOP might feel energized either this year or next to finally end their long drought. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the winner's soon-to-be U.S. Senate colleague from New Jersey, has not enjoyed the greatest poll numbers but has barely had a worry in either 2006 or 2012 when he was challenged by two members of the state Senate.
Patrick Murray, a political science professor at Monmouth University and director of the university's polling, would express;
Any double-digit performance is acceptable by Booker. He can justify not fighting aggressively against Lonegan for two months if he wins by double digits. He can say, ‘I won, and didn’t have to get dirty doing it.' If he can’t do that, he will undoubtedly embolden the opposition.
A couple of polls in the waning days and hours have painted a less than finite picture. One, a Monmouth University poll, shows 52% support for Booker and 42% for Lonegan.
Murray would continue,
Concerns about Cory Booker’s intentions to serve New Jersey continue to persist and his favorability ratings continue to drop. At the same time, voters clearly prefer Booker’s political views over Lonegan’s. The message seems to be that Garden State voters don’t like to feel that their support is being taken for granted.
This poll also shows a plurality of respondents (48%) view Booker's campaign for the U.S. Senate as simply an avenue to further expand his national image as opposed to serving the Garden State that only 37% believe he is doing by running. That divide and outlook by voters might be a major reason for the closer polls. It seems that the race is tightening potentially more so because voters are unsure of Booker as opposed to viewing Lonegan positively because Booker still has a wide lead over Lonegan when it comes to favorable and unfavorable numbers. Another aspect of pretty much every poll helping Booker is the fact that 55% of respondents feel he is best reflects where they stand on the issue while only 37% feel the same way about Lonegan. Those numbers are reflective in the Monmouth University poll.
While the Monmouth University poll shows a tight race, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll shows a race that is more reflective of polls during most of the special election race. This poll has Booker sitting at 58% compared to Lonegan with 36%. That adds up to a 22 point lead. A major reason for the bounce back for Booker in this poll may have had to do with the two debate forums. Those who followed the two debates and saw the contrasting styles and opinions left with a more favorable image of Booker compared to Lonegan. A major group in that study is Independents who are more likely to view Booker positively if they followed the debates as opposed to those who did not have and lean more towards supporting Lonegan.
As David Redlawsk, Director of the Rutgers-Eagleton poll, would outline;
Other recent polls showed a narrower lead for Booker, but voters we talked to seem to have moved back in his direction. The debates presented a stark picture of the differences between the candidates, which appears to have led independents to prefer Booker. While both candidates came out swinging, Lonegan's attacks bordered on the taboo, with his 'floating dead bodies' and 'big black hole' comments about Newark – reminiscent of the rhetoric that got him into hot water early in the campaign. Independents in particular dislike these kinds of attacks.
Redlawsk would add,
Here’s the key: if the Booker campaign can turn out urban voters and Democrats who say they will vote, he will be in the range we estimate. If Lonegan’s turnout operation is stronger and Booker’s base stays home thinking it is all wrapped up, then all bets are off.
A final poll on the eve of the election by Quinnipiac University shows a 14 point for Booker. Booker generates 54% support compared to 40% for Lonegan. That is hardly any different than the 12 point edge Booker had last week.
As Maurice Carroll, Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, would voice;
It’s a New Jersey habit electing Democrats to the Senate. The liberal mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, holds onto the double-digit lead over the conservative former mayor of Bogota, Steve Lonegan, that we measured when we first looked at likely voters.
Thus, as the final hours tick down in this special election race; all the talk and polls will likely come down to one thing: turnout. If the day sees a large polarized electorate of liberals and conservatives, the race will likely be tilt in Booker's favor based on the fact that Democratic voters outweigh Republican voters in the state. While Lonegan has an edge over Booker among Independents, Booker has done a much better job of appealing to moderates in his party than Lonegan and that middle group overall could play a major role on election day.
With that said, don't expect even half of New Jersey's registered voters to come out regardless of the breakdown. It might even be a stretch to say 25% will turn out. Hence, the last minute trips across the state by both men are a sign of the need to increase turnout because it will be crucial for each man to get as many people out to the ballot box who will vote for them.
When voters go to cast their ballot sometime between 6am and 8pm on Wednesday, they will have two candidates who have clearly laid out two far opposing points of view.
Booker supports social programs for those without much including raising the minimum wage and tightening regulations for those on Wall Street while Lonegan opposes any minimum wage increase as well as any more regulations. Booker sees global warming as something worth addressing while Lonegan believes there is still more that needs to be discussed before any rash decisions on the topic if any. Booker wants more gun regulations like background checks; Lonegan doesn't. Booker is hoping to see more done with immigration reform, the continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and the legalization of gay marriage. Lonegan opposes each one. The same contrast can be said on abortion as well.
The two have some overlap when it comes to vouchers for education, revising and reviewing the National Security Agency and the Patriot Act, and seeking a path to decriminalizing marijuana.
Finally, it would not come as a shock to some based on their campaign speeches the last couple weeks: Booker has attacked Republicans in Congress for shutting down the government while Lonegan has cheered them on and encouraged more if necessary.
One current mayor and one former mayor now sit at the end of their sprint to the special election. By late Wednesday, New Jersey will have a new U.S. Senator. The victor will need to quickly regroup and prepare for intense conversations in the nation's capital.