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Will New Jersey Voters Turn Out?

Based on turnout in the primaries held so far, the answer is Yes! At least relative to our past performance. Primary turnout in New Jersey has not been particularly robust in recent years. Moving the primary up to February should change that, at least for the presidential contest.

The high water mark for primary turnout in the last few election cycles occurred in 2000, when 17% of registered voters came out to choose nominees for the two parties. However, this was driven less by the presidential race – George W. Bush and Al Gore faced only token opposition on the New Jersey ballot – and more by the U.S. Senate primaries. The race to succeed Frank Lautenberg (you may recall, he retired once) included the high-profile showdown between once and future governors Jim Florio and Jon Corzine on the Democratic side and the nail-biter between Bob Franks and Bill Gormley (with Jim Treffinger and Murray Sabrin in the mix) on the Republican side.

Year Democratic turnout as percent of Registered Democrats Republican turnout as percent of Registered Republicans Total turnout as percent of all Registered Voters
2007 21% 18% 8%
2006 19% 21% 8%
2005 24% 37% 12%
2004 22% 20% 9%
2003 21% 20% 9%
2002 22% 28% 11%
2001 23%* 40%* 13%*
2000 42% 37% 17%

* 2001 includes just ballots cast for governor, not total turnout.

If you look at turnout as just a percentage of registered partisans, the Democrats turned out at a rate of 42% and Republicans at 37% in 2000. That’s not too bad, but in most years only about 1-in-5 partisans have voted in New Jersey primaries. And because fewer than half of the state’s voters have declared a party, that means about 1-in-10 registered voters regularly participate in our primary elections.

While unaffiliated voters can technically vote in either primary, the truth is that very few of them actually do. New Jersey doesn’t officially track the number of unaffiliated voters who show up on primary day. Preliminary research by the Monmouth University Polling Institute indicates that, in many counties, unaffiliateds who vote in primaries number in the tens rather than thousands. (We’re working on getting a more robust count of that phenomenon this year.)

That’s the real reason 58% of New Jersey’s voters are “independent”. Voters don’t need to make their party commitment official until they decide to vote in a primary. In truth, a good portion of those voters – as much as one-third by our estimates – are partisans at heart. Specifically, they tend to vote a straight party-line in general elections, while retaining their non-partisan registration.

So, how many voters will turn out on February 5th? Well, New Jersey’s voter rolls for this primary stand at 1,170,644 Democrats and 874,752 Republicans, with 2,798,817 unaffiliated voters who can show up and vote in either primary.

In other states this year, the Democrats racked up record turnouts in Iowa (nearly double the 2004 turnout), New Hampshire (up 30%), and South Carolina (up 80%). Even Florida, which was supposed to be a delegate-free “beauty contest”, saw 1.7 million Democratic votes cast; 30% better than their previous high in 1976. And the exit polls showed that most new voters were coming out for Barack Obama.

Republican turnout has also been strong in spots, if not quite as universally enthusiastic as the Democrats. New Hampshire turnout basically matched the 2000 high (when McCain beat Bush), but was about 22% lower in South Carolina and 32% lower in Michigan. However, last week’s Florida turnout of 1.9 million Republican voters doubled that state’s prior high from 1988. Turning to New Jersey, we would expect Republican turnout to be somewhat less robust than the Democratic side, especially with New York neighbor Rudy Giuliani out of the race.

Will turnout reach prior state highs? In 1984, 676,561 New Jerseyans cast ballots in the Democratic contest between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart – the last time New Jersey found itself voting in a contested nominating campaign. To find similar turnout for Garden State Republicans you have to go back to 1952, when the G.O.P. race turned out 643,066 voters to help Dwight Eisenhower to his eventual nomination. (Read more on turnout at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball).

There’s one point about moving up New Jersey’s primary that has largely escaped notice. High voter turnout on February 5 will provide a bonus for local candidates and party organizations come November. Since voting in a primary automatically registers voters with a party, political operatives will be able to identify a greater proportion of their base from voter rolls.

After the presidential hoopla of Super Tuesday passes we will still have our June primaries for Senate, Congress and local offices (although the G.O.P. has drawn out the presidential process by putting their delegates on that ballot as well). And, for those important, but lower-profile primary races, we can probably expect New Jersey’s lackluster voter turnout to return to form.