By Patrick Murray
This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on December 20, 2021.
Last month’s gubernatorial election sent shockwaves through New Jersey’s political world. An incumbent governor, who got positive reviews for handling the biggest health crisis in a century, won re-election by a relatively small margin in a state where his party has a million voter registration advantage.
With the election results now certified, we see patterns that point to a shifting dynamic in the partisan coalitions that have characterized New Jersey politics for a generation. Overall turnout, as measured by the number of votes cast for governor, increased by 22% from 2017 to 2021. The greatest jumps came in heavily Republican areas, such as the northern shore and the northwest corner of the state. This surge in traditionally Republican areas was significant but does not really tell the whole story.
Turnout also increased by a larger than average percentage in the southern part of the state. More importantly, support for the Republican candidate increased by an especially large margin there. The total number of ballots cast for Jack Ciattarelli in 2021 jumped by at least half over Kim Guadagno’s 2017 result in Gloucester (up 69%!), Atlantic, Camden, Cape May and Cumberland counties.
Ciattarelli also did relatively well in northern Democratic strongholds — or, more specifically, incumbent governor Phil Murphy did worse. For example, in Hudson County, Ciattarelli got 11,000 more votes than Guadagno did four years ago, while Murphy’s ballot count was basically the same in both elections. In fact, outside of South Jersey, the biggest growth in the gap between Republican and Democratic vote totals from the prior election occurred in traditionally blue Essex, Hudson and Passaic counties.
Murphy’s ballot total in each of these three supposed Democratic bastions was relatively flat from 2017. However, this countywide stability actually masks a significant drop in urban support for Murphy. We can divide Essex County into two regions; one comprised of the four cities where Murphy got at least 90% of the vote in both elections (i.e. Newark, East Orange, Orange, and Irvington) and one with the remaining, more suburban, part of the county. Murphy actually increased his ballot total by just over 10,000 votes in suburban Essex. In urban Essex, though, the number of Murphy ballots actually dropped by more than 7,000 from four years ago. The story is similar in Passaic County. The Democratic vote total dropped by almost 2,400 in the city of Paterson at the same time it increased by nearly 2,800 in the rest of the county.
Another region with interesting results is Central Jersey, specifically Hunterdon, Mercer, and Somerset counties. Even though these counties have a mix of party control, they showed the greatest stability in terms of the partisan gap. In other words, the winning candidate’s margin in 2021 was very close to the same party’s lead in 2017. It is true that the competitive 16th district legislative race – the only GOP seat that Democrats flipped this year – spans parts of these three counties and accounts for some of the Democratic engagement there. But this pattern of stability extends to towns outside of the 16th district as well.
So what does this all mean? We have to acknowledge that these aggregate results may not apply to every voter group within these geographic areas. However, the overarching implications are compelling:
(1) The South Jersey results suggest the last vestiges of the white working class faction of the Democratic Party may have vanished, at least in any sizable number. Republicans can probably count on these voters to stay in their column.
(2) The urban North Jersey results indicate that a hitherto reliable cornerstone of the Democratic base feels it is not being heard. These results should be the canary in a coalmine for Democrats.
(3) The Central Jersey results suggest that the reasons why higher socioeconomic status former Republican voters left the party during the Trump era remain a problem for the GOP image in New Jersey. That is something that could change if the party rebrands (although that does not appear to be likely any time soon).
And what of the ultra-progressive wing that has become the face of the Democratic Party? Polling shows that progressive economic policies have widespread support, but in-your-face messaging around those policies is turns off many voters. The 2021 election results suggest that woke-based campaigns do not bring out more woke voters.
Take a look at the results from Montclair, perhaps the epitome of woke-ness in New Jersey. Murphy’s vote total there went up by 11% from four years ago. That is no more than his average increase statewide and pales in comparison to the 39% municipal increase in Republican ballots. If the Democratic Party is going to capitalize on its built-in registration advantage in the future, it probably needs to go back to basics, at least in the way it communicates with voters.