New Jersey 2014 Primary Day Recap
By Patrick Murray | June 4th, 2014 - 3:06pm
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Here’s a look at yesterday’s vote by the numbers.  It’s long, but worth the read for those interested in GOTV targeting and ballot position logistics.

House District 3 – Republicans

Let’s start with the least surprising outcome.  Tom MacArthur won by a lot, as expected, because the county chairs – George Gilmore in Ocean and Bill Layton in Burlington – didn’t want their local candidates hobbled in November by sharing a ticket with Steve Lonegan. 

MacArthur’s 20 point margin was also fed by the low turnout.  The normal base electorate in CD03 is moderate senior citizens.  Lonegan needed to expand the base by turning out younger libertarian types who do not normally vote in primaries.  His vitriolic personal attacks on MacArthur did the opposite and only 25,000 Republicans showed up to vote – a normal turnout in a less competitive race.

House District 12 – Democrats

I was fairly certain all along that the underlying fundamentals of this district would result in a Bonnie Watson Coleman victory.  But I never foresaw by how much.  This “neck-and-neck” race turned into a 15 point rout! And on very high turnout – over 35,000 voters – to boot.

Here’s how it happened by the numbers.  Each candidate had a certain threshold they needed to achieve.  In order to squeak out a win, Linda Greenstein needed a minimum of 6,000 to 7,000 votes out of her home county of Middlesex, about 2,700 out of Mercer, 700 out of Union, and 400 out of Somerset.  She just reached those minimum levels.

The problem was that Watson Coleman exceeded her needed vote counts – by a mile! Her minimum target in Mercer was 7,000 votes based on expected turnout.  She got nearly 11,000! She was pegged to get 2,000 votes out of Union.  She took away 3,000.  And she met her needs in Middlesex (800) and Somerset (500).

The urban vote from Trenton and Plainfield were her anchors.  Despite Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp’s professed concern that the local contest there would hurt Watson Coleman, she came away more than 8-in-10 votes there.  The ballot set-up made it easy for voters to find their way to her despite who they chose in the local council race.

In Trenton, the concern was turnout.  Yesterday’s primary was sandwiched between the Trenton mayor’s race and its subsequent run-off.  Certainly turnout was slightly lower than the Watson Coleman camp would have liked, but still respectable.  And she won nearly 9-in-10 of the 5,000 Trenton voters who showed up.

The real story here wasn’t in the cities, though, but in the suburbs.  The suburban Mercer portion of this district turned out an astounding 12,000 voters yesterday.  Watson Coleman won a solid majority of these suburban voters despite the fact that Greenstein also represents some of those towns in the legislature.

To put it another way, my voter model assumed that about 11,000 voters would show up in Mercer and 8,000 in Middlesex.   It was actually 17,000 in Mercer - 55% over expectations – and 10,700 in Middlesex – 33% over expectations.

The over performance in Middlesex was not too surprising.  Many figured that a solid effort by Grenstein and county chair Kevin McCabe could get out a certain number of atypical primary voters.  However, very few observers believed that the Watson Coleman team could match, let alone exceed, any elevated GOTV numbers Greenstein might produce.

In the other parts of the district, Union’s turnout of 4,000 votes was within expectations, but Somerset’s 4,300 vote turnout exceeded expectations there.  That’s another part of the story that bears mentioning.

Upendra Chivukula ran a solid campaign for someone who had the deck stacked against him.  He took nearly 3,000 votes out of his home county of Somerset.  His 68% majority there was actually better than Watson Coleman in Mercer (64%) and Greenstein in Middlesex (60%).  He also garnered nearly 2,800 votes in Middlesex and 1,700 in Mercer. 

In fact, he won South Brunswick 43% to 38% – a town that was part of Greenstein’s core base before redistricting in 2011.  He also won quite a few precincts throughout Middlesex and in the Windsors that have sizable Asian populations.

These numbers should give pause to anyone in Middlesex looking to throw Chivukula off the line in next year’s legislative elections.  [Chivukula’s hometown of Franklin Twp is the only Somerset municipality in the 17th district.]

Chivukula was not the spoiler.  Throwing his vote total in Middlesex County to Greenstein still would not have changed the outcome.  One wildcard is whether Greenstein would have been able to nab the Somerset line if Chivukula had not run.  But even then, she would have gotten only maybe another 1,000 to 1,500 votes because turnout there would have been lower. 

Chivukula performed as well as he did not just by taking votes away from Greenstein.  He certainly did that to some degree, but he also expanded his own base by getting out the vote in the Asian community.  That’s the kind of candidate you want on your ticket in a place like Middlesex County.

In the end, Bonnie Watson Coleman won this race in suburban Mercer.  I don’t think the video of Greenstein calling Mercer Dems her enemies had much impact on voters.  But I bet it put a spur in the saddle of local party leaders, giving them even more impetus to put their GOTV efforts into hyperdrive.

House District 7 – Republicans

I really didn’t expect this race to be on my recap list.  Movement conservative David Larsen has run against Leonard Lance twice before.  The first time was for an open seat in 2010.  Lance beat Larsen by 24 points in a field of four candidates.  Two years ago, incumbent Lance fended off Larsen by a healthy 61% to 39% margin.

This year, Lance’s victory was a much slimmer 54% to 46%.  Turnout played a major role.  In 2012, Lance got 23,400 votes in the primary.  This year, he took only 15,700.  Larsen, on the other, hand nearly matched his vote total from two years ago.  He had 15,200 votes in 2012 and 13,100 votes in 2014.  Larsen supporters are stalwarts.  Unlike in CD03, these core primary voters veer to the right ideologically.

While Lance is safe for another two years, this primary actually had up-ballot implications and may have helped determine the winner of the GOP’s US Senate nomination.

U.S. Senate – Republicans

Anybody, including me, who tried to predict this outcome ended up getting burned.  I also lost my bet to Paul Mulshine.  No candidate reached 30% of the vote.  The prior record for a low primary victory plurality was Brendan Byrne’s 30.3% in 1977, in a much more crowded field.

How did we get to this result since none of the candidates spent much, if any, money on their campaigns?  For one, fewer than 143,000 New Jersey Republicans showed up.  I’m not even going to bother to look this one up.  It has to be a modern day low for a contested statewide primary!

This low turnout race came down to county lines and ballot positions.  If you never believed either factor matters much, read on and be amazed!

Fourteen of New Jersey’s 21 county GOP organizations endorsed a candidate in the US Senate race.  That chosen candidate won 11 of those 14 counties.  But that is not the whole story.

There is a good deal of research on the value of nabbing the first ballot position in low-information races.  Yesterday’s primary proved that.  Among counties with no organizational endorsement, the candidate who landed in the first ballot position won 5 of those 7 counties!  In fact, the person who lucked out with the first ballot position came in either first or second place in 18 of New Jersey’s 21 counties.

I anticipated this pattern, which is why I thought Goldberg had the best shot of securing the nomination.  He had the party line and the first position in 4 counties, the party line but not first position in 6 counties, and first position without the line in 2 counties.  By contrast, Murray Sabrin had one line and 7 first positions.  Rich Pezzullo had only three county lines and two first positions.  Jeff Bell had no lines and 5 first positions.

Given this distribution of lines and prime ballot position how did Jeff Bell win? 

Bell won 4 of the 5 counties where he had the first ballot position.  He won Burlington, where Goldberg had the “line” (more on that below), and Morris County where he had the last ballot spot in a county with no endorsed candidate.  He also took second place in 8 other counties.  That translates to 14 “top two” showings. 

Goldberg, on the other hand, won 7 of the 10 counties where held the line.  Unfortunately for him, he tanked in those counties where he didn’t have organizational support.  It is an amazing juxtaposition.  He came in dead last in 10 of the 11 counties where he did not have party support, usually failing to get out of the single digits in those counties! 

Goldberg also came in last in Burlington County, where he had the county endorsement.  However, the ballot wasn’t structured in lines – Goldberg was not visually linked with MacArthur running in CD03 and the local favorites.  The names were actually stacked, with Sabrin atop Goldberg and Pezzullo in the first column and Bell all by himself in the second column.  In practical terms, Sabrin and Bell both had “first position” on the ballot and consequently ended up tying for first in Burlington with 32% of the vote each.

The lack of a visible “line” rendered the party endorsement meaningless for Goldberg.  If nothing proves the importance of “lines” and ballot positions, this one result should.

The places where Goldberg had an actual line but lost were Hunterdon and Somerset.  This is where the Lance-Larsen CD07 race comes into play.  Conservative Rich Pezzullo won Hunterdon.  While he wasn’t bracketed with Larsen, he likely won the support of Larsen voters – who would not support any part of the organizational ticket – by virtue of being listed first on the ballot.  A similar phenomenon occurred in Somerset, although in this case Bell was the beneficiary of drawing the first position and sopping up support from the anti-organization Larsen contingent.

It’s entirely possible that Pezzullo would have won the nomination if he was lucky enough to draw first ballot position in more than just two counties.  That’s how important this factor was in New Jersey’s Senate primary.  However, there may have been another issue at play here.

Bell, the eventual winner, never bothered to go to any of the state’s county parties to ask for their support.  He won on the basis of being lucky enough to draw the first position in counties where no party line was awarded and by being the top choice of GOP voters who rejected their county organizations’ favored candidate.  Why him over the others? 

Barring ideology or other issue positions, people tend to vote for candidates who they feel are like them.  Yesterday’s election featured a low turnout base of core GOP primary stalwarts.  Let’s see, you got MURRAY Sabrin, Rich PEZZULLO, and Brian GOLDBERG on one hand.  And then there is “Jeff Bell.”

You get just 4,000 or so GOP primary voters who make their pick based on a name they feel comfortable with, and voila - there’s your nominee.

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