TRENTON – Views on police reforms, as an extension of voters’ beliefs about systemic racism, were an important driver of the unexpectedly close race for New Jersey governor last week, according to the FDU Poll.

Changes to policing are advocated by progressive groups as a way of addressing systemic racism, reflected in part by the disproportionately high rates of incarcerated minorities. Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli criticized Gov. Phil Murphy over the reforms, and it seems to have benefited him, though not by enough to deliver a victory.

FDU Poll executive director Dan Cassino said his last pre-election poll contained a bit of an experiment, and it found voters favored Murphy by 2 points if they were first asked about police reform versus 9 points if they were asked first about the election. Murphy won by around 3 percentage points.

“When we dig into it, we find that that opposition seems to have really driven votes in this election,” Cassino said.

A voter’s views on police reform – and by extension, Murphy – correlated with whether someone believes there is systemic racism. Even among Democrats, those who are skeptical it exists were less likely to vote for Murphy, who won 95% among Democrats who say that there is significant systemic racism but only 74% of Democrats who don’t think it's an issue.

“If you have to know one thing about a voter trying to figure out how they were going to vote in this last election, you’re better off knowing how they feel about systemic racism than you are knowing what their party ID is,” Cassino said.

Some police reforms are popular, such as publicly identifying officers suspended or fired for bad behavior and requiring officers to report excessive use of force. But other changes are not, with just 42% supportive of rules that prevent officers from arresting minors for possession of alcohol or marijuana.

“The whole package of police reforms and even putting the election in terms of police reforms really cratered support for Murphy,” Cassino said.

In another example of how there is no consensus around race-related issues, 53% say that not seeing discrimination where it exists is the bigger problem, while 47% say that seeing discrimination where it doesn’t exist is more of an issue.

“Especially people in North Jersey or in Democratic enclaves think, ‘Well, of course systemic racism is real. Everybody knows that,’” Cassino said. Not everyone in New Jersey agrees with that, and this is a huge split and one that we’re just really not talking about.”

Priorities of civil-rights activists such as reparations are an uphill climb when not all Democrats think systemic racism is real, Cassino said.

“If you’re going to try and get reparations or any other policy really designed to address race, the first thing Democrats and progressives have to do is convince people systemic racism is real, that this is actually an issue we have to deal with. And they haven’t done that yet,” he said.

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Education doesn’t matter at all, as college graduates are just as likely to believe or not believe that systemic racism is real, Cassino said.

“It’s really about lived experience, I think much more than it is about just saying that it’s true. Because you can say all day: Yeah, there’s such a thing as systemic racism, the 1619 Project or whatever,” said Cassino. “You have to actually show people what that means. And we’re such a segregated society in terms of class and race that lots of people just don’t ever see it.”

The survey was conducted between Oct. 23 and 28 and included interviews with 823 registered voters.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at

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