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New Jersey: Who Voted, Where and How?

Well, the pundits said that turnout would be the name of the game in New Jersey this year. The problem is we were looking at the wrong type of turnout. While we were busy focusing on core Democratic areas, the republicans upped the ante on their own turf.

Overall, Garden State turnout was down about 3 points from the last gubernatorial race. Based on my analysis of votes counts as of Wednesday, it currently stands at 45% of registered voters. When undervotes and provisional ballots are taken into account, total turnout should be about 46% – well below the 48.5% prior low mark set in 2005. If anyone still doesn’t think that New Jersey voters are fed up with their state government, just take another look at that number.

Jon Corzine’s margin went from a positive 240,000 four years ago to a negative 100,000 this year. In terms of vote percentage, he went from a +10.8% plurality to a -4.6% deficit, a swing of 15.4 points to the Republican.

The interesting thing is that both of these phenomena – lower turnout and plurality shift – did not occur across all parts of the state in quite the same way.

To make it easier to discuss, I’ve grouped New Jersey’s 21 counties into seven regions. Let’s take them one by one, in the order of what I personally saw as most interesting.

Route 1 Corridor [Mercer, Middlesex, Union]:
I previously said this is the region I would be paying the most attention to, and it certainly did not disappoint. These three counties are made up of a mix of working class ethnic groups, with some professionals scattered throughout, who are really concerned with taxes and cost of living issues. They tend to be independent-minded in their thinking, but Democratic in their voting.

Republican Christie Whitman actually won this region by 5,000 votes in 1993 but lost it by 39,000 votes to native son Jim McGreevey in 1997. That Democratic margin increased to 105,000 votes in McGreevey’s successful 2001 run, and produced a very healthy 78,000 vote plurality for Corzine in 2005. Corzine also won this region’s vote this year, but by a paltry 19,000 votes.

So did these voters switch their allegiances and go with Christie? Actually it looks like Democratic voters in this region simply did not show up. Turnout was 44.2% 41.8% in this region, down from 49.9% in 2005. Specifically, it was down 5 points in Middlesex County, 6 points in Union County and 5 an unbelievable 16 points in Mercer County.

Mercer County, the home of many state government workers (!), had an abysmal 38% turnout rate, one of the second lowest county turnout levels in the state. This is noteworthy because Mercer usually outperforms the state average. On the other hand, the 17.2 point margin Corzine got here is actually in line with his 2005 performance. So who knows what went on in Mercer? [That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know.] [Update 11/07: Mercer posted corrected vote numbers, bringing total county turnout up to 45.9%. Thanks to Mercer Dem Chair Rich McClellan for alerting me.].

In Middlesex County, though, there was a clear shift from Corzine to the Republican. The governor won this – the new bellwether county (?) – by 17.6 points in 2005. He lost it this year by 2.7 points – a 20 point swing away from Corzine. That vote share swing is the third largest county level shift, after Monmouth and Ocean.

Northern Shore [Monmouth, Ocean]:
What the heck happened in Monmouth and Ocean? Let’s take it year by year. Christie Whitman won these two counties by 34,000 in 1993 and 58,000 in 1997. The region went Democrat in 2001, giving Jim McGreevey a slight 8,000 vote edge, before returning to form in 2005 with a 37,000 vote advantage for Doug Forrester.

So, how well did the Republican candidate do here this year? Try a 134,000 vote margin! Yes, you read that correctly. That represents a 36 point margin, when 25 would have been considered extraordinary.

How did it happen? A lot of Northern Shore residents came out to vote, that’s how. Turnout was at least 50.2%, about 5 points above the state average. In 2005, it was 50.1%, just 1.6 points above the state average. While turnout dropped 3 points across the state, it actually went up in Monmouth and Ocean! I’ve heard conflicting reports about whether there was any extra GOTV effort here. While there wasn’t the standard street-level operation that Dems typically use, I’m told that Ocean GOP Executive Director Rob Cresson used sophisticated micro-targeted outreach (e.g. letters, calls) to keep these voters on the boil throughout the campaign.

And I do know one thing. Voters need to have a reason to get enthused enough to come out in large numbers, and nothing riles up a voter like anger against an incumbent. The source of that ire may be found in a New York Times interview Jon Corzine gave a week before the election. In that interview, he raised the possibility of revisiting his ill-fated toll plan from January 2008. That’s the plan that single-handedly caused his job approval rating to drop from a net +3 to a -15 in just two months. The plan that I kept wondering why Christie wasn’t hammering away at. Well, Corzine did his opponent a favor by reminding these Parkway-dependent commuters why they didn’t like him in the first place.

A look back at Monmouth/Gannett polling during the time of the toll plan debate points to a real possibility that the toll plan played more heavily in this region than any other. In March 2008, 53% of the state said they were paying a lot of attention to the toll plan, but interest was highest in the Northern Shore region at 73%. Statewide, 56% of New Jerseyans opposed the plan, while 15% who supported it and 28% who had no opinion. In Monmouth and Ocean counties, a whopping 73% opposed it compared to just 13% who favored it and only 14% who had no opinion. The region with the next highest level of opposition was the Route 1 Corridor at 62%.

It’s also worth noting that when Governor Corzine went on his town hall tour to promote the plan, he probably received his worst receptions in Marlboro and Toms River. Coincidentally, Congressman Frank Pallone probably had the angriest crowd of any in the state during the health care reform town halls last summer. That was in Monmouth County. The state’s angriest voters seem to live along the Northern Shore. And I always thought ocean breezes were supposed to be soothing. At any rate, it would be fair to say that the toll hike plan was a real sore spot with Northern Shore voters.

Delaware Valley [Burlington, Camden, Gloucester]:
This was supposed to produce solid turnout for Democrats, led by the Camden County organization and organized labor. In 2005, this region produced a sizable 46,000 vote advantage for Corzine. This year, it could only muster 11,000. This area of the state was supposed to be strong, based on the Democratic Party’s tight hold on local offices here. It now seems hat hold was not all that strong. This region’s 42.3% turnout was down by 4.8 points from 2005, a slightly larger than average drop. Moreover, Corzine lost Burlington and Gloucester counties this time, after winning them both in 2005.

Burlington is not a surprise, as it has exceeded a 5% plurality for any candidate only once in the past five gubernatorial elections. Gloucester, on the other hand, has been a solid Democratic performer, with pluralities between 10.6% and 18.6% since 1993. This year, Gloucester went Republican by 3.7%, which may have had as much to do with local political issues as with the governor’s race.

The biggest disappointment, though, has to be Camden County, home of the vaunted Norcross political organization. Democrats running for governor over the previous four elections averaged a 27 point win here. Corzine could only manage a 15 point edge. This is supposed to be a well-oiled machine. Apparently, someone forgot to take it out for a lube job before the election.

Urban Core [Essex, Hudson]:
This is THE Democratic base region. In 2005, Corzine earned a 147,000 vote plurality. It was reduced to 116,00 this year. The Corzine camp was probably hoping for about 130,000 votes from here (which, by the way, would still not have been enough given what happened in other regions). Turnout was an abysmal 39.5% in these two counties. This was to be expected, though, since Urban Core turnout is usually about 6 points below the state average. But this also means that there was no “Obama 2.0” surge at work. This was not a repudiation of the president. It’s just that even a president who is wildly popular among these voters was not enough of a proxy to get them to vote for Jon Corzine.

Northeast [Bergen, Passaic]:
This has traditionally been the bellwether for New Jersey, especially Bergen County. Whoever wins the northeast, wins the election. Except this year. Jon Corzine still won both counties here even though Chris Christie won the election. But the Democrat won the Northeast by 40,830 votes less than he did in 2005. Turnout was about average – at 46.8% it was 1.4 points higher than the state average, similar to 2005 when it was 0.9 points higher. Based on the closeness of the polls and Corzine’s unpopularity, these numbers are pretty in line with expectations, especially since the Republicans were surprise victors in both county’s freeholder races.

Western Hills [Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, Warren]:
This is die-hard Republican country. Turnout was 51.5% – about 6 points higher than the state average. In 2005, it was 5 points higher. So the turnout here is not all that surprising. A small jump would be expected given how competitive this race had been. The 118,000 vote plurality racked up by Christie may look like a big gain compared to Doug Forrester’s 60,000 vote win here in 2005. However, the last time Republicans were in a competitive race for governor – 1993 and 1997 – Christie Whitman picked up an average 100,000 vote margin each time. So, this year’s result was never outside the realm of reasonable expectations.

Southern Shore [Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem]:
This region usually provides mixed results, but has been trending more Democrat as of late. Not this year. Corzine only won one county here, and ended up 6,800 votes behind Christie in this sparsely populated region.

New Jersey Turnout as percentage of Registered Voters

Region 2009 2005 Change
STATE TOTAL 45.1% 48.5% -3.4%
Northeast 46.8% 49.4% -2.6%
Urban Core 39.5% 42.1% -2.6%
Rt 1 Corridor 41.8% 49.5% -8.1%
Western Hills 51.5% 53.4% -1.9%
Northern Shore 50.2% 50.1% +0.1%
Delaware Valley 42.3% 47.1% -4.8%
Southern Shore 42.9% 46.5% -3.6%

Corzine Vote Margin

Region 2009 2005 Plurality shift Shift in % vote share
STATE TOTAL -99,285 239,280 -338,565 -15.4%
Northeast 13,743 54,573 -40,830 -11.5%
Urban Core 115,783 147,163 -31,380 -7.7%
Rt 1 Corridor 18,893 77,822 -58,929 -14.2%
Western Hills -118,154 -60,000 -58,154 -16.0%
Northern Shore -134,267 -37,638 -96,629 -25.6%
Delaware Valley 11,494 46,292 -34,798 -10.8%
Southern Shore -6,777 11,068 -17,845 -12.4%

Note: 2009 numbers are based on unofficial returns. Final vote totals should increase overall turnout by about 1 point, which is still well below the 2005 turnout