The Closest Gubernatorial Elections in New Jersey History
The 2021 contest will likely end up just outside the Top 3 most competitive in state history
The extremely tight race for governor in New Jersey raised eyebrows this week, with the razor-thin race eventually ending up with a narrow victory for Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy against GOP challenger Jack Ciattarelli.
When all votes are counted, Murphy’s advantage will likely end up just north of a percentage point, but the 2021 contest will go down as one of the most competitive races for New Jersey’s top elected office in state history.
Prior to this cycle, just three of New Jersey’s 53 gubernatorial elections had been decided by less than one percentage point.
In 1880, Democratic state Senate President George Ludlow edged Republican railroad executive and former state Senator Frederic Potts by 0.26 points.
In 1934, former GOP U.S. Representative and South Amboy Mayor Harold Hoffman survived the continuing Democratic wave with a 0.90-point win against 1928 Democratic nominee and former Court of Errors and Appeals Judge William Dill.
The closest election for the office in state history took place in 1981. Former Republican state Assemblyman Thomas Kean beat four-term Democratic U.S. Representative (and future Governor) Jim Florio by 0.08 points (separated by just 1,797 votes).
Six other elections recorded victory margins of less than two percentage points:
- 1844: In the state’s first direct election for governor, former Whig U.S. Representative Charles Stratton defeated Democratic railroad executive John Thomson by 1.9 points
- 1859: Republican and former state Senator John Olden beat Democratic attorney and Hudson Mayor Edwin Wright
- 1898: Republican state Senate President and Acting Governor Foster Voorhees edged Essex County prosecutor Elvin Crane by 1.6 points
- 1961: Democrats won their third consecutive gubernatorial contest for the first time since the 1890s as attorney and former Superior Court Judge Richard Hughes bested U.S. Labor Secretary James Mitchell by 1.6 points
- 1993: Former state Board of Public Utilities President Christine Todd Whitman unseated Democratic Governor Jim Florio by 1.0 points
- 1997: Governor Whitman won a second term with a 1.1-point win over state Senator Jim McGreevey
Including the 2021 cycle, 35 of the 54 New Jersey gubernatorial elections in state history have been decided by single digits.
The average victory margin has been 8.8 points.
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Fun historical fact: This is the first time since 1985 that NJ elected a candidate from the incumbent presidents party and the first time NJ reelected a democratic governor since 1977.
By my count, KS and NM now have the longest active ‘naysayer streak’ (1990 ~), followed closely by MI (1994 ~) in the gubernatorial elections (VA briefly ended its streak in 2013 but has since resumed it; WY, TN, and OK ended theirs in 2018, and with a D heading the executive branch seem poised to resume them). As for ME, while both the D and R nominees lost in 1994 (with a D president), the Democrat (ex-two-term governor) garnered 33.8%, versus the Republican (the current senior US senator) garnered 23.1%. Following that contest, the party holding the presidency has consistently trailed in popular votes to the main opposition party (e.g. 18.9% R and 12.0% D in 1998, though both lost).
WI also since 1994.
One thing that I just realized is that Tom Kean won the closest gov. race in state history in 1981 and won the largest landslide gov. race in state history in 1985.
Governor Kean, like most governors (at least in recent times) failed to garner back-to-back gubernatorial general election majorities in the Garden State. With a 50.9% vote share, Governor Murphy not only became the first D re-elected since Brendan Thomas Byrne but also attained THAT distinction as well (about 56% or 57% in 2017).