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New Jersey Primary Primer

There will be little suspense for most of the races in New Jersey’s primary election tomorrow. Of course, the Republican battle to take on Jon Corzine in November is the marquee event. But there are a few other races worth keeping an eye on – too many to mention in this admittedly lengthy post (e.g. some interesting Democratic mayoral primaries that pit “reformers” against the “party establishment” in places like Plainfield, Edison, Atlantic City, and Morristown).

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so sit back and soak up a bevy of interesting facts, including some fascinating history in the 23rd district Senate race and a nifty shortcut you can use to be the first on your block to know who won the night’s big prize.

GOP Turnout Factor
Turnout is the name of the game. Accepted wisdom says that higher turnout benefits Chris Christie and lower turnout helps Steve Lonegan. We actually have some numbers to confirm that.

The Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll released two weeks ago showed Christie with an 18 point lead – 50% to 32% for Lonegan. For the record, that poll was conducted using a listed sample of registered Republican voters in the state who were known to have voted in recent primaries. It was further screened to determine the propensity of voting in this particular election (based on a combination of known past voting frequency and self-professed likelihood to vote this year). In the end, our model assumed a turnout of about 300,000 GOP voters on June 2 (give or take 10,000).

[By the way, not one media outlet who reported on the poll asked about the turnout model before, or since, publishing the results!]

The 300,000 turnout estimate is in line with recent gubernatorial primaries based on valid ballots cast for governor (302,500 in 2005 and 337,000 in 2001). Turnout in recent GOP gubernatorial primaries has gone as low as 200,000 in 1997, when incumbent Christie Whitman went unchallenged. The last time it surpassed 400,000 was in 1981. Turnout in contested U.S. Senate primaries is generally lower, at 200,000 or so.

It’s important to note that turnout approached the 400,0000 mark in 1993, exceeding most expectations that year. It also just happened to be another time when three Republicans were vying to take on an unpopular Democratic incumbent! So, will we see a typical gubernatorial turnout on June 2 or will Corzine’s weak position in the polls give GOP voters extra incentive to turn out, as apparently happened in 1993? Or, on the other hand, have Republicans become so demoralized by their poor standing nationally and 12-year electoral drought in New Jersey that we will actually see a lower than average turnout?

Variations in turnout tend to have more impact on primary results than they do on general elections. In general elections, the preferences of non-voters tend to line up fairly well with those who actually go out to the polls on election day. However, for primary elections, particularly with an ideologically-fractured GOP electorate, a factor of just a few thousand voters simply deciding whether or not to show up can swing a close race.

It doesn’t look like we have a particularly tight race in this case, although that 18 point poll gap may have narrowed since our last sounding on May 20. I did re-examine our data using alternative turnout estimates. If the GOP primary turnout model is set to well above 430,000 – i.e. a 40-year record turnout for a non-presidential race – the Christie margin in our poll grows to 23 points. Alternatively, if the turnout model is pushed down to about 200,000 – i.e. a typical U.S. Senate race – the gap shrinks to 13 points. That’s a swing of 10 points based on turnout alone!

A related finding of this analysis is that the “hard-line” conservatives who always show up are generally with Lonegan. They comprise about half of that 200,000 “core” GOP turnout. The other half are comprised equally of other conservatives and moderates who are mostly for Christie. This gives him an overall lead among the core GOP primary electorate – perhaps it’s not the 13 points of two weeks ago, but probably still a lead. Basically, every 25,000 voters who turn out above that core electorate contributes a one point gain to Christie’s margin.

Five County Predictor
Here’s a fascinating artifact of recent elections. The results from just FIVE counties are all you need to know to determine the winner in New Jersey’s GOP primaries (including a pretty good approximation of the statewide margin of victory)!

Two counties together – Morris and Bergen – consistently comprise about one-quarter of the GOP electorate. Look for that percentage to be even higher this year, since both counties have home town boys in the race.

Lonegan, a former 3-term mayor of Bogota, is fighting the powers-that-be in his home county of Bergen, who gave the party line to Christie. The Morris County Republican organization does not grant an official ballot line, but Christie has the backing of most power-brokers in his home county. The last Monmouth/Gannett poll suggested that both candidates would do well in their home counties. It will also be interesting to see how the third man in the race, Assemblyman Rick Merkt – Christie’s Mendham neighbor – does in Morris – and whether he pulls support more from either candidate.

If you add the “belt” counties of Ocean, Monmouth and Burlington into the mix, you account for half of the GOP primary vote on June 2 (with the other half coming from the remaining 16 counties).

Now here’s the interesting bit. These five counties – Morris, Bergen, Ocean, Monmouth, and Burlington – have done startlingly well at mirroring the final statewide vote share in GOP primaries, as the table below illustrates (note: only the top two finishers’ results are shown, but the pattern also holds for all results in multi-candidate races).

Year NJ Cand#1 NJ Cand#2 NJ Margin 5-Cnty Cand#1 5-Cnty Cand#2 5-Cnty Margin
2008 46% 40% 6% 45% 40% 5%
2006 76% 24% 52% 77% 23% 54%
2005 36% 31% 5% 35% 28% 7%
2002 45% 37% 8% 46% 39% 7%
2001 57% 43% 14% 58% 42% 16%
2000 36% 34% 2% 38% 35% 3%

So, if history is any indicator, whoever wins the cumulative vote in these five counties will nab the nomination. Of course, some of these counties, particularly Burlington, can be slow in tallying votes on election night, so this shortcut might not be all that helpful if the race is close.

Dem Governor
With all eyes focused on the GOP race, it’s easy to forget that Governor Corzine faces opposition, albeit token, from a trio of challengers. There is some speculation that the size of Corzine’s majority among his fellow partisans on June 2 will portend his strength in the general election.

In two recent Democratic primaries with only nominal opposition, the victors took 84% (Menendez 2006) and 88% (Corzine 2005) of the vote. So an 85% win by Corzine would be in line with recent primaries. If his majority tomorrow dips seriously below that level – say to 70% – it will be a sign of voter discontent within his own party.

23rd Senate District
There’s a primary challenge in the special election for the Senate seat vacated by Leonard Lance, who went to Congress in January. Assemblywoman Marcia Karrow beat fellow legislator Mike Doherty in a convention to fill the seat until this election, and so she gets to run as the incumbent. Doherty vowed to take his fight to the voters, and hence the challenge. Barring a shift in the space-time continuum, whichever Republican wins this primary has this safe seat for as long as he or she wishes.

Karrow has the support of party leaders – although there is no official party “line” in the Warren part of this Warren-Hunterdon district. She also has the decided money edge, raising $131,000 to Doherty’s $51,600. So it looks like Advantage-Karrow, right? Well, you’d be unwise to count Doherty out of this race.

For one thing, Doherty has firmly aligned himself with Steve Lonegan in a conservative part of the state where Lonegan should do very well. Furthermore, Doherty consistently outperformed Karrow each of the three times they appeared on the same primary ballot.

Their first joint appearance was in the 2001 Assembly race, when both Doherty and Karrow were vying for an open slot on the Republican ticket created when Leonard Lance – yup, him again – moved up to the state senate seat vacated by Bill Schluter (who himself left the legislature to launch an independent bid for governor that year!). In that race, Doherty got 9,700 votes to join incumbent Connie Myers (10,200 votes) on the GOP ticket. Karrow came in third among four candidates, with 7,000 votes.

When Myers stepped down from her seat in 2005, Karrow’s name again appeared on the 23rd Assembly primary ballot with Doherty, along with four others. The incumbent Doherty got more than 10,600 votes, while Karrow gained the number two spot with 6,600 votes (beating out Mark Peck by just 300 votes).

Doherty and Karrow ran together as incumbents in 2007. While they faced absolutely no challengers on that primary ballot, Doherty still managed to garner 448 more votes than Karrow!

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Karrow campaign launched an aggressive robocall and direct mail effort claiming that Doherty supports “surrender in Iraq” (based on his endorsement by Ron Paul). Doherty has three sons serving in the military and is himself a veteran (as the photos in his campaign mailers clearly show). When attacks like these are seen as false by the voters, they usually backfire on the accuser. This race is worth watching.

Assembly Primaries
Oh, yeah. There are also challenges in a handful of the 80 Assembly primaries – 9 on the Democratic side and 12 for the Republicans. Of the contested Republican primary races, 8 include candidates running under the Lonegan slogan, “Conservative Republicans Putting Taxpayers First.”

Incumbents face the prospect of losing in probably only two (perhaps three) of these contests. In the 25th District, where Morris County doesn’t grant party lines on the ballot, Michael Patrick Carroll is running for re-election alone (Rick Merkt having foregone his Assembly seat to run for governor). He faces challenges from freeholder Doug Cabana and attorney Anthony Bucco (son and namesake of the 25th’s sitting senator). Although Bucco is married to Cabana’s sister, this race has not been a family-friendly affair, with the two launching strong attacks against each other. Carroll seems to have taken a “que sera, sera” attitude toward re-election, raising just $25,300, to $60,600 for Cabana and $71,600 for Bucco. Expect Bucco to do well, as some Republicans will vote for him because they like his father and others will vote for him because they think they actually are voting for his father (and you better believe some will be doing just that!).

The big money primary race this year is in the 40th district. Incumbents David Russo and Scott Rumana have raised a whopping $454,000 for this primary compared to $158,000 raised by their challengers Joseph Caruso and Anthony Rottino. However, Caruso and Rottino are running on the Lonegan slate in a district that dips into Lonegan’s home county of Bergen. The race has been acrimonious, highlighted by a defamation lawsuit, not an unheard of occurrence in this part of the state. It almost seems like northeastern New Jersey actually tries to produce one of these wacky races each election cycle.

The 23rd district is also interesting, mainly because of what is happening in the Senate race. John DiMaio, who was appointed to fill Karrow’s seat (and who, coincidentally, came in fifth place in the crowded 2005 primary that launched Karrow’s legislative career) and running mate Erik Peterson face off against a single challenger, Edward Smith, who is running on the Lonegan-Doherty ticket (at least in Hunterdon). The DiMaio/Peterson team have raised $46,700 to Smith’s $18,300.

There are some other interesting side stories in the Republican field. One to watch is in the 1st district, where a single Lonegan ally (Robert Schaefer) is challenging the party favorites, albeit with no money. This is likely to be the only legislative district with any potential for a party switch in November. Republican organization picks Frank Conrad and Michael Donohue have raised $37,000 for their primary contest. This is less than half the $82,000 raised so far by incumbent Democrats Nelson Albano and Matt Milam, who are unchallenged in their primary race. Expect a lot more money to pour into this district after June 2.

All nine of the Democratic primary challenges are against Democratic incumbents. However, none poses any threat, especially since the challengers in 8 of these districts have raised exactly $0. The only one of passing interest is former legislator Craig Stanley’s comeback attempt in the 28th district. However, after Newark adversaries Mayor Cory Booker and Senator Ron Rice united behind incumbents Ralph Caputo and Cleopatra Tucker, the race was effectively over. Stanley and running mate Shelly Bell have raised only $8,000 to the Caputo/Tucker team’s $100,000.