Like in most American states, the geographic voting patterns of the reliably-Democratic Garden State have changed significantly in just the last ten years. Ancestral leanings are still visible in downballot elections for Governor and the legislature, but the overarching trends have even begun to manifest themselves at the local level.
While it would be unwise to assume that all trends unfold in straight lines over continuous time frames, New Jersey’s have presented enough consistency to suggest that they will grow more salient with each passing election cycle. This article will attempt to broadly classify the Garden State’s realignment on geographic terms before predicting how the state’s changing coalitions could impact its electoral future.
What Is Realignment?
Realignment is a political term that describes consistent long-term shifts in the voting patterns of individuals on geographic or demographic terms. The first part of the definition, consistency, is the key to its validity. To realign in the geographic sense, voters in specific regions must definitively change their voting party preference over the course of multiple consecutive federal cycles. Oftentimes favorable trends for one party or the other predict realignments before they are solidified.
Let’s look at counties that have realigned for both the Republicans and the Democrats somewhat recently. Elections before and after the so-called critical point, or time at which realignment actually happens, will be included to show how trends developed and continued following the important shifts.
There are a few important conclusions that should be made from this chart of eight example counties:
- Trends usually have consistent long-term directionality, but they are not continuous. Imagine taking two steps forward followed by one backward. In that sense, a realignment may be delayed in reaching its destination if the path there is highly variable. Gallatin, IL is an excellent example of a county where pro-Republican trend continuity was temporarily disrupted due to an outside factor: Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s home state advantage in the 2008 Presidential race.
- Downballot lag can be observed across the country, especially in New Jersey. The term describes situations in which federal level trends take longer to affect state and local contests like gubernatorial and legislative elections. Foard, TX and Fairfax, VA fit this category well because they both supported their ancestral parties in the 2009/2010 gubernatorial elections, despite their contradictory 2008 presidential partisanships.
- Realignments often occur suddenly, but nevertheless tend to be predictable by underlying trends. Take Elliott, KY as an embodiment of the rapid shift. Despite voting Democratic in every Presidential election before the Trump-era, the county had undergone a 37 point (D+40 to D+3) rightward shift between 2004 and 2012. Some observers were shocked when Republicans won it by 44 in 2016, an 84 point shift from 2004, but long-standing trends coupled with increasing polarization make Elliott’s accelerated realignment less surprising in hindsight.
Swings Versus Trends – Which Is More Indicative?
One of the classic political debates regarding realignment analysis revolves around terminology usage. The terms in question are swing and trend. Because they are often confused or misused in political discourse, it is worth distinguishing the two concepts before determining which is more indicative of pathbreaking political change.
The individual term swing refers solely to the shift in margin of victory between one election and another. For example, from 2012 to 2016, there was a 21 point rightward swing (D+14 to R+7) in Grays Harbor, WA. Swings provide useful data for short-term analysis of specific elections, but they do not yield enough evidence on their own to characterize realignments. That said, they tend to at least be predictive of them.
The term trend, as defined by David Leip’s Election Atlas, describes an electoral swing in a given state or county relative to the shift in the national popular vote. Because trends are balanced against the country as a whole, they provide better cohesive evidence of long-term directionality and realignments than do individual swings. Gwinnet, GA is an informative example of a county that is considered Democratic trending because it swung to the left more than the nation as a whole in 2020. Since Bush Jr.’s reelection in 2004, Gwinnet has moved 50 points leftward by margin alone.
Margin Versus Vote Share?
While raw vote share is traditionally Split Ticket’s go-to analysis metric for political shifts because it accounts for third parties, this piece will instead focus on changes in margin. Data from David Leip’s Election Atlas provides all of the marginal calculations in advance. Additionally, most readers find it easier to quantify changes in margins of victory (i.e., D+7 to D+5) than they do shifts in vote share (i.e., 42.5% to 41.3%).
The New Jersey Comparison Fields
To analyze New Jersey’s changing political coalitions, one must focus on geography. Why? It is easier to find political data divided geographically than demographically, though both strata are often interwoven. Other benefits of analyzing coalition changes geographically include greater clarity and objectivity of conclusion. This piece will focus on the overarching geographic divisions between the Garden State’s northern and southern regions.
History – State & Federal Statewide Races
The GOP has not won a Senate race in New Jersey since Clifford Case defeated ex-Congressman Paul Krebs in 1972. Case, a liberal Republican, lost renomination to youthful conservative Jeff Bell in 1978. Bell proceeded to lose to Democrat Bill Bradley, a popular Princeton and NBA basketball player. Although Republicans have earnestly contested almost every Senate race since then, they have never succeeded in flipping a seat. However, the GOP has come close to victory on multiple occasions.
Republican Jeff Chiesa served briefly in 2013 as an appointed interim Senator, but never stood for election in his own right.
1988, the year of George H.W. Bush, was the last time that Republicans won New Jersey at the federal level. Between 1948 and 1988, the GOP carried the state in 8 out of the 10 presidential elections. Since then, Republicans have fared better in contested Senate races. The GOP has come within single-digits of carrying the state presidentially only twice.
As one might expect given the premise of this article, Republicans have done better in gubernatorial elections than they have in other statewide contests. Even today, the GOP’s downballot strength is palpably stronger than its counterpart at the top of the ticket. Out of the 12 contests for state executive held since 1977, Republicans have won 6 of them, a success rate of 50%. Compare that record to the 0% figure that the state party has posted for Senate races.
Until Phil Murphy’s closer-than-expected reelection in 2021, a Democratic Governor had not won a second term since Brendan Byrne in 1977. In that timeframe, three Republican Governors had been returned to office by the voters. If Democrats hold onto Drumthwacket in 2025, it mark the first period of three term rule by the same party since Governor Richard J. Hughes was reelected in 1965.
Breaking down the northern region by county is the most instructive way to gauge political trends. Affluent suburban counties like Somerset, Morris, and Hunterdon have all moved toward the Democrats over the last two decades. Most of the change was accelerated during the Trump-era, when numerous well-educated Romney voters began to split their tickets for the Democrats out of disgust at the GOP’s novel standard-bearer.
The suburban shift was more visible than ever in 2020. President Biden was the first Democratic Presidential nominee to win Morris and come within single-digits in Hunterdon since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. His margin in Somerset was also the second largest recorded for the Democrats in the modern-era, falling less than a point behind LBJ’s. Bush Jr. was the last GOP Presidential nominee to win that county, carrying it in both 2000 and 2004.
Amid an otherwise-horrific national environment for Democrats in 2021, Somerset and Hunterdon counties actually swung leftward from Kim Guadagno’s 2017 floor. The fact that Ciattarelli could not exceed her regional numbers despite running an excellent statewide campaign and improving elsewhere is a clear indicator of the Republican decline in the northern suburbs.
Republicans should continue to hold up better in downballot elections in these three counties because the state party is moderate, but the long-term directionality suggests that the bottom could continue to fall out in both state and federal contests with disastrous consequences for Republican statewide ambitions.
The GOP’s historical advantage in the northern half of the state is very apparent in legislative election results. For instance, LD21 (Biden +18) was the seat of the entire Republican legislative leadership before Senator Tom Kean Jr. retired in 2021. Both LD21’s Senate seat and its two Assembly seats are still held by the GOP. Traditional downballot Republican strength also exists in Bergen and Burlington counties, though it has been lessened.
Unlike Somerset, Morris and Hunterdon have not fully realigned in the Democrats’ direction. Even if 2020 were the turning point election for Morris, it would still require multiple Presidential elections worth of evidence to confirm a realignment. Although the county might not be there yet, there is a chance that it will be there within the next few decades.
If the GOP stands to lose more ground in the north, its electoral prospects seem much better down south. In 2016, then-candidate Trump flipped the 2nd Congressional district that had supported President Obama twice. He did this by flipping Salem and Gloucester counties while simultaneously improving the Republican floor in Atlantic and Cumberland.
Salem, a county along the Delaware River that voted Democratic in 4 of 5 Presidential elections between 1992 and 2012, broke for Trump and the GOP by double digits in both of the ex-President’s elections. Republicans also carried nearby Gloucester in 2016. While the GOP lost it in 2020, Biden’s plurality constituted the smallest Democratic victory there in recent times. In Cumberland and Atlantic, Democratic margins also fell precipitously during the transition between the Obama and Trump-eras.
All of these favorable Republican developments were confirmed in the 2021 gubernatorial election after Ciattarelli swept the south, including Atlantic and Cumberland. His double-digit victories in the majority of these counties formed a sharp contrast to the impressive downballot performance that Democrat Phil Murphy had posted in 2017, when he dominated in WWC communities across the state.
Just like their Republican counterparts up north, Democrats have traditionally performed well in South Jersey legislative races. Unlike the GOP, though, Democrats in this region have watched their success evaporate at a much faster rate. Erstwhile state Senator Jeff Van Drew, once a conservative Democrat, is now a Republican Congressman. Even more notably, domineering state Senate President Steve Sweeney, a scion of the Norcross machine, is no more. He lost his 2021 reelection to an upstart challenger, trucker Ed Durr, crushing his gubernatorial ambitions.
The 2021 elections in New Jersey showed us that Republicans can still compete in downballot elections in an otherwise blue state. How so? Ciattarelli came within 3 points of winning, far exceeding polling expectations. Republicans also won the statewide popular vote for the Assembly, posting gains in both chambers of the legislature.
While it is clear that the Garden State will probably continue to vote Democratic in presidential and senate elections, it should be noted that Republicans could, and probably will, win the governorship in the future. This piece is not designed to suggest that New Jersey as a whole has, or will, realign in favor of one party or the other.
Its purpose is merely to point out that well-educated, traditionally-Republican northern suburbs have moved toward the Democrats while WWC, historically-Democratic regions in the south have shifted in the opposite direction.