Democratic candidates have a huge voter registration advantage heading into next week’s Assembly elections, though it is unclear whether the party can parlay that to expand its control in Trenton.
In what is considered a reliably blue state, 977,000 more voters have registered as Democrats than Republicans, according to the most recent figures from the state Division of Elections. That means about 38% of voters statewide are Democrats, 22% Republicans, 1% have chosen a third party — Libertarian, Constitution and Conservative are the most common — and 39% are not affiliated with any party.
Assembly seats top the balloting next Tuesday, and the Democrats already hold 54 of the 80 seats in the lower house. There are potentially seven close races throughout the state. With virtually no polling done for these contests, it’s hard to say what might happen, though political observers say the Democrats might be able to pick up two or four seats in districts that have traditionally been red.
Dems hold advantage in closest races
In both of the races considered very close – the 8th District that covers parts of Burlington, Camden and Atlantic counties and the 21st that encompasses parts of Union, Somerset and Morris – registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans.
In the 8th, that has been the case all decade, but Republicans used to win there easily — sometimes without opposition — until 2017, when the incumbents got just 50.1% of the vote and the second highest vote-getter bested the third-place finisher by just 350 votes. In the 21st, however, a slim GOP voter registration advantage in 2015 changed to a slim deficit in 2017 and that has widened this year, with 31.3% registered as Democrats and 28.1% as Republicans. At least some of the voters in both those districts played a part in flipping two U.S. House seats to blue last year.
Losses in the 21st would be especially embarrassing for the Republican party, given it is the home of Assembly GOP Leader Jon Bramnick. But pundits see Bramnick and fellow Assembly member Nancy Munoz as being in real trouble, as they are facing well-financed Democrats in Lisa Mandelblatt and Stacey Gunderman and two independents running as conservatives, Martin Marks and Harris Pappas. Still, the Republicans can win if they can capture enough of the vote from unaffiliated voters.
It does not take much to sway an election in an off year like this one, which is expected to have a low turnout. Four years ago, the last time the Assembly topped the ticket, just 22% of those registered cast ballots, or less than 1.2 million. That averages about 30,000 voters per district.
Fewer unaffiliated voters
The increases in voter registration for the major parties represent a significant change from the 2011 state legislative elections, when 46% were unaffiliated, a third were Democrats and 20% Republicans. The number of voters not identifying with any party has dropped by almost 2% over that time, while the Democratic rolls rose by about 34% and GOP numbers by about 25%. At the same time, the total number registered rose by 17%.
Voters do not have to declare party affiliation when they register, and as recently as 2007, more than half of those registered were unaffiliated.
Several pundits attribute at least part of the Democrats’ success at increasing their members to the party’s ability to get out the vote and organizational efforts, linked in recent years to the expansion of voting by mail in the state.
“When people start voting by mail they are generally locked into a party identification,” said Matthew Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University. “Democrats are light years ahead of Republicans in New Jersey in getting voters to vote by mail and keeping them registered that way. Changes in state registration law helped that, but really it is the Democrats’ ground game that has made it stick.”
It used to be that New Jerseyans were able to vote in advance using an absentee ballot if they were going to be out of state or otherwise unable to get to the polls. That changed more than a decade ago and the use of vote-by-mail ballots has increased exponentially. Last year, more than 400,000 people mailed in their ballots, representing 12.3% of all those who voted and surpassing the 356,000 who voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election, which had a higher turnout — 68% in 2016 versus 55% in 2018.
Christie and Trump: imperfect together
The greatest increase in Democratic registration has occurred since 2015, and Hale attributes that to two other factors: former Republican Gov. Chris Christie and President Donald Trump.
“It is easy to forget how unpopular Christie was in 2015,” Hale said.
After superstorm Sandy in 2012, Christie’s approval ratings in New Jersey surged, peaking at 74% in one February 2013 poll. They stayed high until shortly after the Bridgegate scandal broke and by mid-2015 had plummeted to 30% a month after two allies were indicted over the George Washington Bridge lane closures. They continued to drop during Christie’s failed presidential attempt and his backing of Trump and bottomed out at 15% around the time of the 2017 gubernatorial election.
“Trump just added to the dumpster fire that is the Republican brand in New Jersey, he didn’t start it,” added Hale.
The increases in Democrats’ voter rolls has led to the party making up a majority or least a plurality of those registered in 18 districts, or almost half the state’s 40 total. Republicans, on the other hand, have a plurality in only the 24th District in the northwest. However, except for the 21st, these are all districts that had more Democrats than Republicans in the recent past anyway. Excluding unaffiliated voters, 28 districts are more blue than red this year, the same number as in 2015.
In a low-turnout election, what will matter most in close races is which party can get more of its registrants to vote. Some of that is already happening, due to vote-by-mail balloting, but the final chance to cast a ballot is Nov. 5.