The math of Ciattarelli’s narrow defeat

By Joey FoxNovember 16 2021

New Jersey Globe

Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli after a town hall in Jackson on October 6.


Two weeks ago, voters across the state headed to polling places to cast their ballots, and Jack Ciattarelli was on his way to nearly scoring one of the most impressive upsets in New Jersey history. 

He didn’t win, of course; Gov. Phil Murphy will be sworn in for a second term in January, becoming the first Democratic governor to win re-election since 1977. But Ciattarelli’s unexpectedly close three-point loss still shocked the New Jersey political world, and could provide a road map for future Republicans looking to win statewide. So how did he do it?

Monmouth and Ocean: The red behemoths

The key building block of Gov. Chris Christie’s coalition in 2009 was the combination of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, which collectively gave him a margin of 134,844 votes – enough to give him a huge buffer in the rest of the state.

In order for Ciattarelli to be competitive against Murphy, he had to match or exceed Christie’s margin in those two counties. He did so in Ocean County; his 68-32% margin gave him a net 77,141 votes, larger than Christie’s 70,477-vote margin in 2009.

But because Monmouth County swung a fair bit to the left, Ciattarelli only netted 121,577 votes from the two counties combined, a smaller margin than Christie’s even though more votes were cast overall. In other words, Ciattarelli did extremely well on the Jersey Shore – just not quite well enough.

Essex and Hudson: The blue wall

Also critical to Christie’s victory was the fact that his 134,844-vote margin in Monmouth and Ocean Counties exceeded the 123,655-vote margin Gov. Jon Corzine got from Essex and Hudson Counties, the two core Democratic counties of urban North Jersey. This was in large part attributable to anemic turnout in diverse urban areas; Essex County, for example, cast slightly fewer votes than Ocean County despite having 200,000 more residents. 

This year, Essex and Hudson Counties did lag somewhat behind in turnout, collectively casting only 298,084 votes to Monmouth and Ocean’s 455,598. But thanks to extremely lopsided Democratic margins – Essex went for Murphy 74-25% – the pair still gave Murphy 144,129 net votes in total, enough to cancel out Ciattarelli’s margin in the red behemoths with room to spare.

Once again, then, Ciattarelli wasn’t too far off from his goals, but he still needed to do better to flip a close loss into a victory.

Morris and Somerset: Ciattarelli’s home turf

Ironically, the part of the state where Ciattarelli did worst relative to Christie was his home turf: Somerset County, where he lives, and neighboring Morris County.

In 2009, Christie won both counties by double digits, collectively giving him a margin of 69,891 votes. But matching broader suburban trends in New Jersey and the nation, Murphy won Somerset County and kept his losses way down in Morris County, allowing Ciattarelli only a paltry 16,533 net votes between the two. The suburban swing was so pronounced, in fact, that Somerset County actually moved left from 2017, when Murphy was winning statewide by 14 points.

The story was similar in a number of other largely suburban counties: Burlington, where Christie won by two points but Ciattarelli lost by seven; Bergen, where Christie’s impressive three-point victory turned into a nearly six point defeat for Ciattarelli; and Union, which backed Murphy by 24 points after only backing Corzine by nine.

South Jersey: The land of opportunity

The one area where Ciattarelli did much better than Christie was South Jersey, which has more broadly shifted towards Republican candidates in recent years.

Christie narrowly won Gloucester County by three points, while Ciattarelli boosted that margin to 10 points; even more impressively, Cumberland County, which backed Corzine by nine points, gave Ciattarelli a 12-point margin.

This overperformance helped Republicans score shocking victories in legislative and local races, including the defeat of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford). Unfortunately for Ciattarelli, however, South Jersey is simply not populous enough to sway the rest of the state. Looking at the six core counties of the region – Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem – Ciattarelli only got a net 2,729 votes, barely enough to make a dent statewide.

Overall, Ciattarelli’s close loss showed that Republicans can be competitive in New Jersey, and confounded journalists and pundits who said he didn’t stand a chance. But it also demonstrated just how difficult it is for any Republican to cobble together a winning coalition.

Ciattarelli put in the best showing of any Republican in nearly a decade, racking up huge margins in friendly territory and winning support in areas thought to be inhospitable for Republicans – and it still wasn’t enough.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-11-17 03:25:52 -0800