There was never any doubt that New Jersey would go to Hillary Clinton — to the point that at least one TV network called the state for the Democratic candidate moments after polls closed at 8 p.m.
But as key Democrats joined the party’s state Chairman John Currie at the Brownstone Manor in Passaic, early high spirits soon mixed with tension about trends elsewhere in the country, as Republican Donald Trump overcame early Clinton leads in battleground states.
“New Jersey came out big for Hillary,” said Phil Murphy, the former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany who is the Democrats’ prospective gubernatorial nominee for 2017. “It would be great if we could get Florida and North Carolina and Ohio to come out for Hillary.”
A few hours later it was clear that wasn’t to be. But after midnight, with 99.4 districts reporting in 18 counties, Clinton won 54.5 percent of the New Jersey vote with about 1.96 million votes. Trump earned 41.6 percent of the votes.
Murphy kept his eyes on his own prize, adding that “tomorrow … we begin the long process of giving Chris Christie his walking papers.” The incumbent governor cannot run for a third term. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset) are the frontrunners for the Republican nomination.
Two hours after Murphy passed through, the crowd was still boisterous, but needed reassurance from Rep. Bill Pascrell. Breezing to reelection in the 9th District, Pascrell acknowledged the national outlook remained uncertain.
“This is going to be a long night as you know, but we’re hanging in there,” Pascrell said. Local and New Jersey voters did their part for Clinton, he said, “the numbers speak for themselves.”
“I hope the rest of the nation follows New Jersey’s lead, and I have to thank our union brothers and sisters,” Currie said, as an audience member yelled “I want to stay in America!”
Only Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik, also easily reelected, was confidently describing the outcome as “a historic night… for our entire country.”
The problem for Clinton was not that she failed to get out the vote in areas where she was strong, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. Instead, Trump energized voters in rural areas across the country who have not voted in large numbers in most recent years, he said.
“What’s clear is that these smaller Republican counties scattered through every state are surging in terms of their turnout, and that’s something the pollsters missed,” Dworkin said.
In an attempt to be accurate, pollsters pay particular attention to “likely voters,” a determination based in part on whether people have voted before, he said. But that can become a defect when new voters come to the polls, he added.
The key factors behind the Trump surge are still to be teased out, he said, because “we’re all getting this news at the same time.”
—Lee Keough contributed to this story