New Jersey Likes Incumbents, Learning to Love Democrats

New Jersey has long been one of our most affluent states. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that it’s been relatively comfortable with whichever political party is in occupancy at the White House, often lagging behind the rest of the country in lashing out against incumbents.

This tendency made New Jersey a centrist state for most of its history, but recent trends—including the growing importance of the Hispanic and foreign-born vote here, and the mismatch between a highly urban state with few evangelical Protestants and the contemporary Republican Party—make the Democrats favorites in 2016.


(Un)Conventional Wisdom is presenting a short history of each state’s role in modern presidential politics. New Jersey is the third in the series.

In contrast to the Farm Belt, the Deep South, and other states far from the power centers of Washington and New York, prototypically suburban New Jersey doesn’t seem prone to fits of anger toward the ruling party. In this respect, the state may be better personified not by combative Republican Gov. Chris Christie, but by genial former Republican governor and tourism commercial star Tom Kean, or by current U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, the polite Twitter enthusiast.

The last time that the swing for or against the incumbent party was less favorable in New Jersey than the country as a whole was in 1980, when Democrat Jimmy Carter fell by 9.4 points here versus 9.1 nationally. (And Northern suburbs were never crazy about Carter to begin with.)

While Democrat Barack Obama won the U.S. more narrowly in his second run, he improved on his percentage in New Jersey in 2012 (up to 58.3 percent, or a 17-point margin), no doubt helped by the growing Hispanic population here and by Obama’s visit and promise of federal disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy. (Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s “handshake” with the president probably didn’t hurt, to Christie’s eternal regret.) But Republican George W. Bush also had a good second run here, losing by 16 points in 2000 but cutting his deficit to a more respectable seven points in his re-election bid.

Okay, Bush’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks may have contributed to that gain. But that doesn’t explain why New Jersey gave Democrat Bill Clinton a bigger boost than in any other state between 1992 and 1996. (The booming economy was especially loud here? Or New Jersey’s many Office Dads and Soccer Moms liked Clinton’s school-uniforms-and-welfare-reform brand of centrist politics?) And then why did Republican George H.W. Bush come within three points of holding onto New Jersey in 1992 while losing by seven nationwide? For that matter, why was New Jersey one of Republican Herbert Hoover’s best states when he vainly run for re-election during the Great Depression and why was it then willing to give Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt unprecedented third and fourth terms?

New Jersey’s fondness for stability may explain why it is one of four states to have been part of both recent “locks” on the Electoral College, voting Republican six consecutive times from 1968 to 1988 and then Democratic six consecutive times from 1988 to 2012. (California, Illinois, and Vermont are the others.) The shift toward the Democrats in recent presidential races is largely due to the party’s improved showing in more densely populated Northern areas, and New Jersey is part of that pattern.

Take Bergen County, the state’s largest, which lies on the other side of the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan and takes in about 70 modestly populated suburbs. Long one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., for most of its history Bergen was hostile toward Democrats even when they came from the Northeast Corridor, voting 63 percent against FDR in 1940, 59 percent against JFK in 1960, and 58 percent against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Then Bill Clinton took 53 percent here in 1996, and Bergen hasn’t gone Republican since. The GOP’s association with Southern evangelism surely doesn’t help here, but the county has also been changing in ways favorable toward the Democrats. The county actually lost population in the 1980s and 1990s, as many high-income households sought to move farther away from New York City (or out of the state altogether). Bergen has since rebounded, but with a more cosmopolitan feel; only 60 percent of residents are non-Hispanic whites, down from 83 percent in 1990.

As in Pennsylvania, Democrats have benefited in New Jersey from becoming competitive in once-Republican suburbs and becoming more powerful than ever in central cities. In Essex County, which includes Newark, Obama got 78 percent of the vote in 2012; that percentage has gone up in every election since Carter got 51 percent in 1980. (Obama got 95 percent in Newark itself.) So even though voter turnout in Essex County has dropped by nearly 100,000 votes since Kennedy won here by a dozen points in 1960, the Democratic margin has more than tripled to 172,000.

Chris Christie got a relatively respectable 37 percent in Essex County when the Republican was re-elected governor in 2013 (and he got 18 percent in Newark, more than tripling Mitt Romney’s score). As in Maryland, Massachusetts, and other Northeastern states, voters often elect Republican governors even as they reject GOP candidates for federal office, perhaps because they like fiscal watchdogs in states where relatively high taxes and levels of government services are baked into the political culture. (In New Jersey, the GOP has also been helped by the scandals and unpopularity of the few Democrats who do make it to the governor’s office.) If a Republican presidential nominee runs as a watchdog of government, as opposed to an enemy of government, New Jersey might be attainable.

New Jersey is not likely to be a key state in deciding next year’s GOP nominee. But it’s worth noting that in 2008, New Jersey gave John McCain his highest percentage (55.4 percent) in a GOP primary held before Romney dropped out of the race — which makes this a must-win state for any GOP candidate considered a “moderate” in 2016.

New Jersey demographics (Census Bureau)

Where New Jersey residents come from (New York Times)

Religious composition of New Jersey (Pew Research Center)

New Jersey Division of Elections

Note: The best source for state- and county-level presidential election results is Dave Leip’s Atlas of Presidential Elections.

New Jersey has been more Democratic than the U.S. as a whole since 1996.

More: DelawarePennsylvania, GeorgiaConnecticut

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