Interactive Map: Dems Maintain Big Edge in ‘Blue’ Jersey Despite GOP Gains

But key to statewide victory rests with unaffiliated voters who make up nearly half of electorate

New Jersey’s reputation as a blue state is borne out by voter-registration statistics: Democrats outnumber Republicans and the gap between the two parties has been widening since the start of the millennium, even though the number of GOP voters has grown faster since Gov. Chris Christie’s election four years ago.

But that may all mean little to those running for office this fall, as ticket-splitters and unaffiliated independent voters are likely to determine election outcomes.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker – who won the Democratic nod in the special election held earlier this week to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat of the late Frank Lautenberg — probably would have been heavily favored to win the special October election even without a registration advantage for his party that is approaching 2-to-1 statewide.

New Jerseyans have not elected a Republican to serve in the upper house in Washington in more than four decades, which is one of the obstacles facing GOP nominee Steve Lonegan, former mayor of Bogota.

But the Republican incumbent also is expected to cruise back into the governor’s office in the regular November general election. The state’s top job is one that New Jersey’s otherwise left-leaning voters have been willing to give to a Republican, as Christie proved in 2009 by ousting Gov. Jon Corzine. In fact, the parties have pretty much evenly split their time in the governor’s office over the last 40 years.

Christie’s popularity may be partially responsible for an uptick in GOP voter registration in New Jersey since his election. GOP voter rolls grew 2.7 percent between November 2009 and this month, according to the state Division of Elections.

But Patrick Murray, who heads the polling institute at Monmouth University, said Christie’s initial election victory was not necessarily because he was the better candidate.

“Gov. Christie would not have won if there was an equal race,” Murray said. “He won it because the Democratic incumbent was doing such a bad job.”

A look at registration statistics shows the Democrats have done a better job of increasing their numbers.

Democratic voter rolls have increased by 7.8 percent since 2000, compared with a 1.3 percent increase for Republicans. In fact, the ranks of Democrats have risen faster than those of the GOP in all but four counties – Hunterdon, Ocean, Sussex and Warren. Essex County posted the largest gain, adding more than 68,000 Democrats in the last 13 years, compared with a loss of about 2,500 Republicans. The GOP also lost voters – 430 of them – in Cape May County.

Murray said virtually all of the increase on the Democratic side is attributable to the 2008 primary election. That year, in addition to the regular June primary, New Jersey held a special February presidential primary, while there were still six candidates on the ballot — the state’s Democrats chose Hillary Clinton. That year, the Democratic party added more than 600,000 registrants, according to state elections division data. Murray called it a “sea change.” Since then the party’s registration has risen by about 13,000 voters.

In the counties where Republican ranks grew faster, Ocean’s increase was the most significant, with the GOP adding 36,200 voters to the Democrats’ 25,400.

But the registration changes may not be very significant for two reasons.

First, New Jerseyans are notorious ticket splitters, willing to vote for a Republican for governor and congressman but electing Democratic state and county representatives, or any combination of those. It partly explains why a Republican governor like Christie has had to deal with a Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Equally important are New Jersey’s unaffiliated voters, who comprise the plurality. Currently, a third of the state’s voters are registered Democrats and about 1 in 5 is a Republican, but almost half are not affiliated with either party. So while New Jersey has about 1.8 million Democrats and 1.1 million Republicans, there are nearly 2.6 million people not registered with either party.

Depending on the county, these people tend to vote with the party that has the registration plurality – with the GOP in Morris County, say, and with the Democrats in Middlesex. They are also responsible for the few split legislative districts in the state – the 2nd in Atlantic County, which has a Democratic state senator and Republican assemblymen, and the 7th in Burlington, with a Republican senator and Democratic assemblymen.

It is these unaffiliated voters who are expected to give Christie a large margin of victory in November.

According to the most recent poll, by Quinnipiac University last week, while the governor leads among Republicans 91-4 over his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, and has substantial Democratic support – Buono has only a 1-point margin over Christie among Democrats – his substantial support from two-thirds of unaffiliated voters should help him glide to victory.

Murray said that Christie’s popularity supersedes party registration in the governor’s race.

“He has the Republican vote, a lot of unaffiliated votes, and some of the Democratic vote.”

But in the future, Murray said, New Jersey will continue to lean toward Democrats: “Future Republican candidates have to be moderate fiscally down the middle and socially more to the left than the right or run against a flawed Democrat.”