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Record(?) Turnout in Blue(?) Jersey

Most observers (myself included) expected this year to mark the highest voter turnout in perhaps a century. A record number of people registered to vote in the past few months, voter enthusiasm and interest was at an all-time high, and early morning lines at many polling places all pointed to an unprecedented turnout. It was not to be.

New Jersey Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells issued a press release last week saying she was “proud that the people of New Jersey came out in record numbers” to vote this year. Wells’ press release referred to the 3.65 million voters who cast ballots in the presidential race as “extraordinary.” This year’s raw vote total was certainly a record, surpassing the ballots cast for president in 2004 by about 40,000 votes. The problem is that about 350,000 more New Jerseyans were registered to vote than four years ago.

If you look at turnout as a percentage of the voting pool, 68% of registered voters turned out this year, lower than the 73% in 2004, and decidedly lower than the 83% of registered voters who turned out as recently as 1992. Since the Motor Voter Act was passed in the mid-90s, we’ve seen turnout as a percentage of registered voters decline simply because more eligible voters are registered. So perhaps a better way to look at historical turnout is to focus on the eligible voter base (FYI: Professor Michael McDonald of George Mason University has a great site on state turnout estimates based on eligible voters.)

The voting eligible population (VEP) turnout in New Jersey this year was 63%. It was 64% in 2004, when John Kerry beat George W. Bush by 7 points in the state. On the other hand, this year’s VEP turnout was slightly higher than 1992 (62%) when the state chose a Democrat (Bill Clinton by 2 points) for the first time since 1964.

The size of the winning margin – Barack Obama bested John McCain by 15 points in the Garden State last Tuesday – could have been a factor. In other years, where the margin of victory was large (2000 Gore+16, 1996 Clinton+18, 1988 G.H.W.Bush+13, 1980 Reagan+13), VEP turnout was between 57% and 59%. However, VEP turnout was 61% in both 1984 when Reagan won the state by 21 points and 1976 when Ford took the state by just 2 points. In 1972, Nixon won New Jersey by 25 points on a 62% VEP turnout. So there is no clear turnout trend based on winning margin.

Among the 11 northeastern states, New Jersey placed 8th in terms of VEP turnout. The highest state turnout was registered in Maine at 73% and the lowest in New York at 58%. We did surpass battleground state Pennsylvania (62%) though.

How Blue is New Jersey?

There is perhaps a very thin silver lining for Garden State Republicans that Barack Obama’s 15 point win wasn’t larger on Tuesday. New Jersey’s preference for Democratic candidates has caused us to be viewed as one of the bluest states in the country. But based on the results of this year’s presidential race, New Jersey can’t hold a candle to other states in the region.

Obama’s winning margin in New Jersey ranked 9th out of 11 states in the Northeast. Only battleground states Pennsylvania (11 points) and New Hampshire (9 points) gave the Democratic nominee a smaller winning percentage. New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maryland, and Delaware all gave Obama margins in excess of 20 points (Maine was 17 points).

Nationally, New Jersey provided the 16th largest margin for Obama out of the 29 states (plus DC) that the Democrat won. Furthermore, PolitickerNJ.com’s Wally Edge pointed out that Frank Lautenberg’s winning margin ranked 11th out of the 12 Democratic U.S. Senate incumbents who ran for re-election this year. Lautenberg’s margin was even bested by four Democratic senators from states won by McCain, as well as two newcomers who convincingly won Republican-held seats in New Mexico and Virginia.

Compared to 2000, the last race without an incumbent, Barack Obama obtained a greater share of the vote than Al Gore in 39 of the 50 states plus DC. Of the 12 states where John McCain either held steady or improved over George W. Bush’s 2000 performance, one was his home state of Arizona, 7 were southern red states and 4 were in the northeast, including – you guessed it – New Jersey. Granted, the difference in these blue northeastern states between 2000 and 2008 was a single point or less. But the other states gave Obama much bigger margins to begin with (Massachusetts +26, Rhode Island +28, New York +25).

Considering New Jersey Democrats’ underperformance relative to other states in the region, I’m not sure which party should be crying the blues. OK. Democrats still held a 16 point identification advantage among last Tuesday’s voters according to the exit polls. But if you’re a Republican looking ahead to the 2009 gubernatorial race, you take your comfort where you can find it.