In the 2014 elections, as Democrats got thrashed in most places across the country, one bright spot for them came out of Bergen County, New Jersey: the incumbent County Executive, Republican Kathleen Donovan, was defeated by a 54-46 margin by Democrat James J. Tedesco III, a Bergen County Freeholder (member of the County Council) and former mayor of Paramus. The result was not entirely unexpected, but it is still notable, as Republican incumbents aren’t usually defeated by 8-point margins in Republican landslide years. I will take a closer look at the municipality-level results, and compare those results to other recent elections in Bergen County, to see if we can get a better idea of how Tedesco was able to win.
This first map shows the Tedesco vs. Donovan election results. Those who have seen other election results maps of Bergen County may note that this map looks relatively similar to those. Indeed it does, but there’s one important difference that the two maps below will make clear.
Like most Democrats, Tedesco did the best in three central Bergen towns: Hackensack, Teaneck, and Englewood. These three towns all have large minority populations (together they contain about 80% of the African-American population of Bergen County). Tedesco also performed well in the southeastern part of the county, in towns such as Cliffside Park, Fort Lee, and Palisades Park. These towns all have large Hispanic and Asian populations. He also did well in some of the working-class towns west of Hackensack, such as Garfield and Lodi.
Donovan, on the other hand, got most of her strength from the northern and western parts of Bergen. She won the rich Saddle River area by wide margins, and held on in a few towns in the central and southern areas of the county such as Oradell, Englewood Cliffs, and Hasbrouck Heights. However, she was unable to win several of the swing areas of the county, such as the white working-class towns in the south (such as Rutherford and North Arlington) or the small, upper-class towns in the northeast, such as Demarest and Closter.
This map compares Tedesco’s performance in each town with that of Senator Cory Booker, who was re-elected at the same time as Tedesco’s victory. Booker’s margin of victory in Bergen was several points greater than Tedesco’s (Booker got 57 percent in Bergen, while Tedesco received 54 percent), so it is no surprise that Booker outperformed Tedesco in most of Bergen County’s towns. This overperformance was particularly strong in the richer areas of the county, including the Saddle River area and the northeastern part of the county. There are two reasons for this. One, Booker has consistently outperformed the Democratic baseline in the northeastern part of Bergen County, as a result of his having been raised in the small town of Harrington Park (the dark red town on the above map). So Booker’s outperforming Tedesco in this area has more to do with Booker than with Tedesco. The northwestern part of Bergen County, where Booker also significantly outperformed Tedesco, is quite rich, it is definitely clear from the map that Booker generally outperformed Tedesco by wider margins in rich areas. Note also how Booker and Tedesco ran quite similarly in much of southern Bergen – these towns are more working-class. The one town that sticks out the most on this map – the large, deep-blue one in the center of the county – is Paramus, Tedesco’s hometown, where he previously served as mayor. Tedesco clearly received a substantial boost in support from hometown voters, who gave him an astounding 60 percent of the vote. Normally, Paramus is a Republican-leaning town in statewide elections, and a Democrat hasn’t done this well in a non-local election in Paramus in quite some time.
This map compares Tedesco’s performance in each town with that of President Obama in his 2012 re-election. As Tedesco received only one percentage point less than Obama (Obama received 55 percent, Tedesco 54), Tedesco and Obama performed similarly in many areas of the county. In many of the upper-class areas of Bergen, Obama and Tedesco performed almost identically. Obama performed better in Hackensack and Englewood due to their large minority populations (which vote Democratic) having lower turnout in 2014 than in 2012. However, Tedesco performed slightly better in Teaneck, which also has a large minority population, mainly because Teaneck has a large Orthodox Jewish community that wasn’t too fond of Obama but gave more support to Tedesco. Obama outran Tedesco in most of the working-class towns in southern Bergen, however this is largely due to Obama’s outperforming the usual Democratic baseline there in 2012. Tedesco did about as well in those towns as most Democrats do. And finally, similar to the previous map, Tedesco massively outperformed Obama in his hometown of Paramus.
So, to answer the question I posed initially, how did Tedesco beat Kathleen Donovan in 2014? Bergen County is a Democratic-leaning county, and the normal Democratic baseline is enough to win. In addition, the Democrats are very well organized there, and the Democratic Party baseline isn’t as affected by lower turnout as it is in many other counties in New Jersey. Donovan won the County Executive election in 2010 by making substantial inroads in communities that usually vote Democratic. For Donovan to win re-election, she would have had to hold on to most of those usually-Democratic voters who voted for her. Quite simply, she failed to do that. Tedesco’s 2014 victory was largely a case of the natural Democratic nature of Bergen County reasserting itself. Despite the fact that 2014 was a low-turnout midterm election year, Tedesco performed mostly on par with the Democratic baseline in Bergen County, which was enough for him to win. He only diverged significantly from the normal Democratic performance in a few towns, most notably Paramus, but that didn’t have much effect on the overall result. In fact, despite the lower turnout in 2014, Tedesco received 4,000 more votes than the Democrat did in 2010, while Donovan received 27,000 fewer votes in 2014 than in 2010. When a Democrat is able to unite their base in Bergen County, and prevent the Republicans from making inroads with it, then they will win, and that’s what Jim Tedesco did in 2014.