On November 7, 2017, New Jersey held a general election to elect its Governor and state legislature. The gubernatorial election was an open seat, as Republican incumbent Chris Christie was term-limited. The state legislature was controlled by Democrats before the election, with Democrats holding a 24-16 majority in the State Senate and a 52-28 majority in the state Assembly. In the gubernatorial election, Democrat and former Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy defeated Republican and incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno by a 56-42 margin. In the state legislature, Democrats expanded their majorities, gaining a net one seat (picking up two and losing one) in the state Senate and a net two seats (gaining two and losing none) in the state Assembly.
What do these election results say about the New Jersey electorate right now? Are they engaged? Are they ready to nationalize the elections and vote for the same party that they did in the 2016 presidential election? Who did the Obama/Trump and Romney/Hillary voters vote for? Can politicians with strong personal brands still win in unfriendly territory? For answers to those and more questions, plus maps to illustrate the election results and demonstrate the patterns and trends that were at work, continue reading.
Like most Democrats, Murphy performed well in the heavily urbanized areas of North Jersey, the highly diverse and mostly suburban I-95 corridor, and the Philadelphia suburbs in South Jersey. Guadagno, on the other hand, performed well in northwestern New Jersey as well as in Ocean County and her home county of Monmouth. But where were the results unusual? Were there any places in the state where the results were not as expected, based on previous levels of partisan support?
Compared to Mitt Romney in 2012, Guadagno underperformed in most of suburban North Jersey. This is particularly notable considering that Romney himself did not do very well there either. Indeed, Murphy’s numbers were extremely strong in North Jersey – he got 79 percent in Essex, 80 percent in Hudson, 56 percent in Bergen, the most populous county in the state (no Democratic presidential candidate has done that well in Bergen since 1964), and a 2-1 victory in Union. In contrast, Guadagno substantially outperformed Romney in a wide swath of towns in the central part of the state, in the counties of Ocean, Monmouth, and Burlington. This isn’t too surprising considering the fact that Trump outperformed Romney substantially in that whole area, and the newly Republican voters there decided to stick with their new party. However, Trump also outperformed Romney heavily in most of South Jersey, an area of the state where Guadagno did not outperform Romney (she ran pretty much even with him there). Thus, the Obama/Trump voters in South Jersey were much more willing to return to the Democratic Party for the 2017 elections than the Obama/Trump voters in Central Jersey were.
One other town to note is the town colored in dark blue right in the middle of the dark red area, in northern Ocean County. This is Lakewood, and, unlike its neighbors, Guadagno massively underperformed Romney there. The reason for this is that the majority of Lakewood’s population consists of Orthodox Jews, and a council of Orthodox Jewish leaders endorsed Murphy a few weeks before the election. Thus, many normally-Republican Orthodox Jews voted for Murphy, allowing him to barely win the town (which voted 72 percent for Trump). However, that Democratic support did not translate downticket, and the Republican state legislative slate easily won Lakewood.
The trends on this map are very clear. Guadagno heavily outperformed Trump in a swath of North Jersey counties stretching from Hunterdon to Essex. What does that region have in common? The towns there are very high-income and well-educated, and almost all of them swung heavily toward Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, meaning that Trump did very poorly there for a Republican. Thus, those towns are (somewhat) bouncing back to their normal partisanship, however they still did not vote as Republican as they did in 2012 with Mitt Romney. The map also shows just how much Trump outperformed Guadagno (and, at this point, almost every other Republican) in the more working-class South Jersey. Similarly, those areas also bounced back to their normal partisanship, but again they still did not vote as Democratic as they did in 2012 (with the exception of Gloucester, which did). Those two shifts largely canceled each other out, which is why Murphy’s margin of victory (14 percent) is almost identical to Hillary’s (15 percent).
As I have previously established, the single best predictor of whether a town swung toward Clinton or Trump in 2016 was its level of educational achievement. And since, as stated above, most towns that swung toward Hillary in 2016 saw Guadagno outperform Trump and vice versa, one could reasonably assume that most highly-educated towns in New Jersey saw Guadagno outperform Trump, while most less-educated towns saw Trump outperform Guadagno. This is in fact the case, and the following map demonstrates this neatly.
This map is the same as the previous map, except only towns with 50 percent or more of adults having a Bachelor’s Degree are shown. 151 of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities fall into that category. Of those 151, 125, or 83 percent, saw Guadagno outperform Trump, while only 26 of those 151 municipalities saw Trump outperform Guadagno (and of those 26, 11 were in a single county – Bergen). Thus, it is clear that highly educated voters, after swinging heavily toward Hillary Clinton in 2016, swung somewhat back to the Republicans in the 2017 gubernatorial election.
And is the reverse true?
It sure is. This map is also the same as the previous map, except this time, only towns with fewer than 30 percent of adults having a Bachelor’s Degree are shown. 209 of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities fall into this category, and of those 209, 152 of them, or 73 percent, saw Trump outperform Guadagno. Only 57 of those less-educated municipalities saw Guadagno outperform Trump, and a majority (35) of them saw Guadagno only outperform Trump by a very small margin. Thus, these maps very clearly demonstrate that less-educated voters, after swinging toward Trump in 2016, generally swung a bit back to the Democrats in the 2017 gubernatorial election (and, as we’ll see, the legislative elections as well).
One aspect of the election that my analysis has not considered yet is the impact of turnout. This map compares each municipality’s turnout in 2017 to its turnout in the 2013 gubernatorial election.
Are there any patterns here? In general, South Jersey seems to have seen lower turnout than in 2013, while North Jersey seems to have seen higher turnout than in 2013, but in both cases there are many exceptions. Some towns with large African-American and/or Hispanic populations saw lower turnout than in 2013 (such as Trenton, Camden, Bridgeton, and Paterson), while others, including Jersey City and the trio in Essex (East Orange, Orange, and Irvington) saw substantial increases in turnout. Several other deep-blue, but whiter, Essex towns such as South Orange, Maplewood, and Montclair also saw large turnout increases, which could be attributable to progressives eager to vote against the party of Trump, but plenty of heavily Republican towns across the state, such as Clinton Township, Wyckoff, Millstone (Monmouth County) and Harrison (Gloucester County), also saw large turnout increases.
The moral of the story with regard to turnout is that the changes in turnout between 2013 and 2017 did not give either party an advantage. This is in stark contrast to the recent elections in Virginia and Alabama, which saw disproportionately high Democratic turnout. Why wasn’t Democratic turnout disproportionately high in New Jersey? One possible reason is that, unlike the elections in Virginia and Alabama, the outcome of the New Jersey elections was never really in doubt – Murphy led by wide margins in every poll of the race, and it was clear that Democrats would retain control of the state legislature – so perhaps many New Jersey Democrats saw less urgency in voting than their counterparts in Virginia and Alabama.
One final note about the gubernatorial election: the third-party candidates combined for about two percent of the vote, and none of them received even one percent. The only third-party candidate who did notably well anywhere was Green candidate Seth Kaper-Dale, who received 12 percent of the vote in his hometown of Highland Park (just north of New Brunswick). Kaper-Dale is a church pastor and social justice activist in Highland Park who is fairly well-known in the community, and thus it is likely that a substantial number of progressives in Highland Park decided that since Murphy was going to win anyway, they might as well show their support for a local guy whom they knew and liked. None of the other third-party candidates received even 5 percent of the vote in any town.
Before going into the actual State Legislature election results, I should note that New Jersey has 40 legislative districts, and each district elects a state Senator and two state Assemblymembers. Of those 40 legislative districts, Phil Murphy won 29 of them. This is one more than Hillary Clinton won in 2012 (Clinton barely won the 25th, which went to Guadagno, and Trump won the 1st and 3rd, both of which voted for Murphy). It is also one more than Obama won in 2012 – Murphy won every district that Obama won, and also won the 21st, which voted for Romney.
Democrats started the cycle with 24 state senate seats, and in the 2017 elections they picked up a net one seat, gaining the 7th and 11th districts and losing the 2nd. Every Democratic state senator represents a district that Murphy won. The map of the results is below – as it shows, two Democratic state senators, Madden in the 4th and Vitale in the 19th, were completely unopposed. Every Republican incumbent faced a Democratic challenger. In the state Assembly, Democrats started the cycle with 52 out of 80 seats, and gained two (one each in the 2nd and 16th districts) to give the Democrats a total of 54 seats in the next term.
This map looks somewhat similar to the map of the gubernatorial election, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise since in most districts there wasn’t a huge amount of ticket-splitting. You may notice that there seems to be more blue in South Jersey on this map than on the gubernatorial map. That is indeed the case, and the reason for that is shown on the next map, which compares the performance of the Democratic candidate in each state senate race to that of Phil Murphy in each of the towns (the analogous state Assembly maps are further down).
Before I start discussing individual races, I’d like to point out two things. First, you may notice that in each of the districts, almost every town is colored either a shade of blue or a shade of red – there aren’t very many districts with lots of towns colored both blue and red on this map. That means that regardless of whether the Democratic candidate outperformed or underperformed Murphy, they generally did so across the entire district, rather than having some towns in the district where they outperformed Murphy and other towns where they underperformed him. And secondly, there is clearly more blue than red on the map. Democratic state senate candidates only underperformed Murphy in eight districts across the state (the 2nd, 8th, 9th, 16th, 21st, 26th, 39th, and 40th) – in the other 32 districts, the Democratic state senate candidate actually outperformed Murphy. It is not particularly unusual for Democratic state legislative candidates (particularly incumbents) to outperform the top of the ticket in New Jersey – after all, pretty much all of them did in 2013 as Chris Christie was winning re-election in a landslide – but it is nonetheless notable, particularly in a region of the country where Democratic state legislative candidates tend to underperform the top of the ticket.
Below I will discuss some of the notable state legislative races.
District 1: Democratic incumbent Jeff Van Drew ran for re-election in this Obama/Trump/Murphy district in Cape May and Cumberland. Van Drew had previously shown remarkable popularity in what was once a swing district, but the size of his margin of victory was surprising nonetheless. He won by a margin of 65-34, which included winning his home county of Cape May by a 66-33 margin (for comparison purposes, Cape May voted for Trump by 20 percent and for Guadagno by 9). Thus, he massively outperformed the top of the ticket in every town in his district, and in fact, he outperformed the top of the ticket by a greater margin than any other state senator, of either party, except for the ones who were unopposed. This is largely why he has been recruited by Democrats to run for Congress to replace the retiring Republican Frank LoBiondo in the 2nd district – Van Drew’s already-established popularity there gives him a large boost, and makes him favored to win the seat even though it was won by Trump.
In the state Assembly races, Democrats Bob Andrzejczak and Bruce Land (both of whom were originally recruited to run by Van Drew) won re-election solidly, though by a slightly smaller margin than Van Drew did.
District 2: This Atlantic County-based district was the only district in New Jersey to flip from Democratic to Republican in 2017. The previous Democratic incumbent, Jim Whelan, died in office over the summer, and Democrat Colin Bell was chosen to replace him. However, popular moderate Republican state representative Chris Brown ran against Bell and defeated him by seven percentage points. In stark contrast to the 1st district, Chris Brown outperformed Kim Guadagno by the largest margin of any Republican state senate candidate, and he wasn’t even an incumbent! That goes to show how strong of a candidate Brown is, and highlights the fact that, despite the 2nd district’s consistently voting for Democrats in statewide elections, Brown will be difficult to dislodge.
The upside for Democrats in District 2, however, is that Brown had to vacate his Assembly seat in order to run for the state senate, and Democrat John Armato picked it up fairly easily. The other District 2 Assemblyman, Democrat Vince Mazzeo, won re-election handily.
District 7: This heavily Democratic district in Burlington County had, for the past twenty years, been represented by a Republican, Diane Allen. However, in 2017 Allen chose to retire, and Democrat Troy Singleton, one of the state representatives who represented this district, easily picked up her seat for the Democrats. This turned out to be a pretty low-key race, as Republicans basically gave up on trying to hold this district in favor of defending districts that weren’t so blue.
District 8: This district, also based in Burlington County, used to be solidly Republican. Republican candidates won it by wide margins in 2013, and the Republican incumbents were left unopposed in 2015. However, it voted for Obama twice, Hillary, and Murphy, and thus Democrats were eager to target it for the first time in a long time. And while the Democrats did not pick up any seats here in 2017, they came very close – closer than a lot of people expected. The Republican incumbent state Senator, Dawn Marie Addiego, won re-election only 52-48 after having not dropped below 60 percent of the vote since 2007. Even more ominously for the Republicans, their state Assembly candidates only won their elections by fewer than a thousand votes. District 8 will definitely be at or near the top of the Democrats’ target list in 2019.
District 11: This district, based in Monmouth County, used to be Republican until redistricting turned it into a Democratic-leaning district that Obama, Hillary, and Murphy all won. But when it was first drawn, it had Republican incumbents, and they were not going down without a fight. They hung on fairly easily in 2011 and 2013, however in 2015 both of the Republican Assembly incumbents were defeated by Democratic challengers, and in 2017 Democrat Vin Gopal finished the job by defeating Republican incumbent Jennifer Beck by a 7-point margin. Beck was the only incumbent in either the state Senate or state Assembly to lose re-election, and the fact that Gopal not only defeated her but outperformed Murphy while doing so shows that he is a strong campaigner and should not be underestimated if he chooses to run for a higher office (such as Congress) sometime in the future.
District 16: Like District 11, this district, which stretches from Hunterdon County to South Brunswick, was transformed from a safely Republican district into a swing district during the 2011 redistricting. And its legislative representation has followed a similar trajectory to District 11, though somewhat more slowly. In 2015, Democrat (and Princeton plasma physicist) Andrew Zwicker narrowly defeated a Republican incumbent in the state Assembly, and in 2017, another Democrat, Roy Freiman, picked up the other Assembly seat. District 16 saw the closest state Senate race in New Jersey this year, as incumbent Republican Christopher Bateman very narrowly held off Democratic challenger Laurie Poppe despite this district’s trending Democratic. Bateman was helped by his moderate reputation and the strong Republican organization in Somerset County, and even that was barely enough for him to hold on. It is clear that if this district stays roughly similar to its current form in the 2021 redistricting, Bateman will be a top target for Democrats in the state senate elections that year.
District 21: This is the only McCain/Romney/Hillary/Murphy district in New Jersey, a district that is clearly trending Democratic. This district has been represented entirely by Republicans for many years, and that did not change in 2017, however the Republicans’ margins narrowed substantially. The state senator here is Tom Kean Jr., the Senate Minority Leader, son of a former Governor, and former U.S. Senate candidate. He had previously won in landslides, buoyed by big margins in his hometown of Westfield (usually a light-blue town), however in 2017 he won re-election by only a 55-45 margin, by far the smallest margin of his career, and only barely won Westfield. His running mates in the Assembly, Republicans Jon Bramnick (the Assembly Minority Leader – yes, both of the Republican state legislative leaders represent the same district) and Nancy Munoz, won re-election by even narrower margins, and both actually lost Westfield to the Democratic challengers. If this district continues to trend Democratic, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t, then Kean, Bramnick, and Munoz will start appearing near the top of Democratic target lists in future elections.
District 25: This district, based in Morris County, is a McCain/Romney/Hillary/Guadagno district. Similar to the 21st, its Republican Senate and Assembly incumbents all won re-election by narrow 52-48 margins. The results in this district were somewhat of a test to see if recent Democratic gains in places like Morris Township and Randolph could be replicated in downballot elections, and, as it turns out, they were. All of the Democratic challengers won both Morris Township and Randolph, the two towns that, along with the Democratic strongholds of Dover and Morristown, would be crucial to any Democrat who wants to win this district. So far, the Republican strongholds of Roxbury, Washington Township, and Chester are enough to counterbalance the Democratic towns. But the election results clearly show that that might change soon, and expect this district to also appear near the top of Democratic target lists in future election cycles.
And now, here are the state Assembly maps:
Finally, I’ve got one more map to present. This map shows which Democrat received the most votes in each town – either Phil Murphy, the Democratic state senate candidate, or one of the Democratic state legislative candidates.
A few patterns pop out on this map. First, state legislative Democrats were very strong not only in Jeff Van Drew’s district but in most of the other South Jersey districts as well, except for the 2nd and the 8th. In addition, Phil Murphy’s performance in Mercer, Middlesex, and Monmouth was rather underwhelming, which is why Democratic state legislative candidates outperformed him in most of the towns in those counties. Murphy did better in North Jersey, particularly in Bergen, Passaic, Essex, and Union, which is why most of the towns in those counties are colored green.
While the 2017 New Jersey elections were not the Democratic wave that we saw in Virginia, they were nonetheless definitely favorable to the Democratic Party, which is now in complete control of the state government. And considering that every Democratic incumbent state legislator who ran for re-election won by at least 8 percentage points, while over a half-dozen Republican incumbents won re-election by less than 5 percent, Democrats appear to be poised to grow their ranks even more in future election cycles. This should also make most, if not all, of the Republican U.S. House members in New Jersey very nervous.