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New Jersey’s New Partisan Landscape

The presidential primary has created a sea change in party registration in New Jersey. The Monmouth University Polling Institute has been closely tracking turnout in the February 5th contest and now has preliminary data from 13 counties which questions prior assumptions about party identification in the state.

Many political observers use party registration as a guide to the partisan divisions in an electorate. In New Jersey, this can lead to a mischaracterization of the electorate – and some bad polling (more on that below).
New Jersey does not require party declarations when a person registers to vote. Nor does the state require unaffiliated voters who wish to vote in a primary to make an early declaration of which party’s primary they want to take part in. These voters can just show up on primary day and choose a party before stepping into the voting booth.

Registered Democrats and Republicans are stuck with their primary choice (unless they contact their county clerk a few months ahead of time to change their party affiliation). Anecdotal evidence from this year’s presidential primary indicate that a number of New Jersey voters showed up intending to vote in one party’s primary, but did not recall voting in the other party’s primary some years ago and were now stuck with that choice. Our own polling suggests that between 2% and 5% of voters cast ballots in the primary of the party opposite their original intent. This makes being an unaffiliated voter an attractive option in New Jersey.

New Jersey’s party registration has been fairly consistent for the past decade or so. On average, about 24% of the state’s voters are registered as Democrats, 18% as Republicans, and 58% as independents or unaffiliated voters – a 6 point advantage for the Dems. (Just a handful – about 1,600 out of 4.8 million – are registered with a third party).

At the same time, recent polling on New Jersey voters’ partisan identity has also remained fairly consistent, after trending more Democratic through the 1990s. Our most recent Monmouth Poll from March 2008 shows the party ID split (“In politics today, do you consider yourself…”) at 40% Democrat, 26% Republican, and 33% independent – a 14 point Democratic advantage. Obviously, a lot of voters who are registered unaffiliated claim a partisan identity. So which is part indicator is right?

Well, bottom line, party registration and partisan identity are not the same thing. As Charlie Cook puts it: “[T]he real jaw dropper is when independents are asked which party they lean toward. This is important because historically, independents who lean toward a party tend to vote almost as consistently for that party as those who identify themselves with the party. There are just some people who like to call themselves independents but, functionally speaking, are really partisans.”

In New Jersey, a significant number of unaffiliated voters have a partisan leaning. However, the state’s dearth of high-interest, competitive primaries means that those voters find little need to publicly declare their affiliation.

A number of pollsters use party registration numbers as a way to re-weight their data to “improve” the partisan representation of their results. In New Jersey, that means weighting up independent voters to 58% of the survey sample. That’s not a smart move. There just aren’t that many truly “independent” voters in the state.

The results of the February 5 vote bear this out. This year’s presidential contest generated extraordinarily high turnout for a primary in New Jersey – 35% of all registered voters participated. This is double the percentage who voted in the 2000 primaries and is even higher than the 32% who voted in the November 2007 general election for state legislature. A total of 1,141,199 votes were cast in the Democratic primary and 566,201 on the Republican side. This represents 97% of all registered Democrats and 65% of registered GOP voters. Those kinds of turnout percentages are dubious. Clearly, quite a few unaffiliated voters showed up to vote as well.

The Monmouth University Polling Institute staff have been in contact with election boards and county clerks in all 21 counties to determine how many unaffiliated voters showed up on February 5. To date, we have received responses from 13. (Interestingly, most of the large Democratic counties have not yet completed their counts.)

We are able to draw some tantalizing, if tentative, inferences from the data we have received so far. First, it appears that just under half of the Democratic electorate on February 5 was unaffiliated. In the Republican primary, the number of unaffiliateds was about 1-in-3. And because participating in a primary automatically registers the voter with that party, there are now a lot more partisan voters on the election rolls. With the caveat that most of the big Democratic counties have yet to report their unaffiliated turnout, we estimate that the official voter registration figures released in the next month will show New Jersey party registration standing approximately at 34% Democrat, 21% Republican, and 45% unaffiliated – a 13 point Democratic registration advantage.

This new party configuration also affects political characterizations in a number of counties. For example, Burlington County has gone from an even party split to an 8 point Democratic registration edge. In Somerset County, the Republican’s 8 point registration advantage has been reduced to a single point. Both of these counties will be embroiled in hotly contested Congressional races this fall. The biggest gain among the 13 counties who reported thus far is in Mercer, where the Dems increased their advantage from 12 to 23 points.
So what does this portend for the June primaries this year – with contested U.S. Senate nominations in both parties and a couple of open House seats up for grabs? Well, probably not much. There is nothing to indicate that the interest generated by this year’s presidential contest will carry over to state races. And if we calculate primary turnout as a percentage of registered partisans, we may potentially be going from record highs in February to record lows just four months later.