New Jersey 2014 Primary Day Outlook

New Jersey has a few interesting primary contests in federal races tomorrow, some with greater consequences than others.  Here’s my take on the few competitive ones.

House District 12 – Democrats

Monmouth University’s poll two weeks ago showed a very tight race between State Senator Linda Greenstein and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman.  This race will come down to geography.  Each leading candidate has the full-throated support of the party organization in her home county – Greenstein in Middlesex and Watson Coleman in Mercer. The presence of Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula effectively took Somerset County off the table for either, although Watson Coleman was able to nab the Union County line amidst a very convoluted local election in Plainfield.

This race really boils down to voter turnout, particular county-by-county.  Keep in mind that turnout for this primary is likely to be in the 20,000 to 25,000 range. 

Greenstein should win the Middlesex portion with about 70% of the vote, with Chivukula, who represents two towns there, coming in second with about 15%.  Watson Coleman will split the remainder of the vote with a fourth candidate, South Brunswick resident Andrew Zwicker. 

Watson Coleman will win the Mercer vote, but the question is whether her majority will be closer to 55% or closer to 65%.  Greenstein, who represents a number of towns in the county, will come in second with at least 20% of the vote.

Somerset will go handily to Chivukula – he’ll take at least two-thirds of the vote – with Watson Coleman and Greenstein vying for second.  Thus, this county should have limited impact on determining the victor unless the overall margin is less than 100 votes.

Union County is the wildcard in this race.  Watson Coleman has the line and her name will appear on the ballot just below Cory Booker and above county chair Jerry Green’s endorsed slate.  Most of this is in Plainfield which is facing a pitched battle for city council, with Green’s slate under Watson Coleman in column A and Mayor Adrian Mapp’s slate all by itself in column E.  Although Watson Coleman is supported by both sides in Plainfield, the local battle has cost her resources in the form of shared literature drops and get out the vote efforts.  In addition, Chivukula appears at the top of an off-the-line county freeholder slate.  Although those candidates are not campaigning – the slate is a byproduct of the local race in Elizabeth – the presence of an alternative ticket may attract some hardcore supporters of the Mapp team in a town where none of the Congressional candidates have any real name recognition.

Despite the potential confusion, Watson Coleman will win the Union County vote.  The question is by how much.  This is just one of the multiple moving parts in this race which, if adjusted ever so slightly in certain combinations, will determine the eventual outcome.

Looking at Democratic primary voting trends over the past couple of election cycles, Mercer has a history of contributing the largest share of the vote in the towns that currently constitute the 12th Congressional District – specifically, more than 4-in-10 of the total votes.  Middlesex usually contributes less than one-third, Union about 15% and Somerset just over 10%.  The local race in Plainfield may spur turnout in that city while the fact that tomorrow’s primary is sandwiched between a Trenton mayoral election and its subsequent runoff may reduce turnout there.

What Greenstein needs to do to win: turn out enough voters in her base so that Middlesex voters comprise more than one-third of the total district vote and take at least 25% of the vote in both Mercer and Union.

What Watson Coleman needs to do to win: turn out at least 6,000 voters in Trenton and earn 60% majorities in both Mercer and Union.

The difference between Middlesex making up 32% versus 33% of the total turnout and Greenstein winning 24% versus 25% in Mercer County – or some similar combination of moving parts – could be the deciding factor in this race.

Having said that, I’m going out on a limb and predicting that Watson Coleman will win by 2 points.  But I won’t be the least bit surprised if this forecast turns out to be wrong.

House District 3 – Republicans

This race has gone from nasty to unseemly.  Steve Lonegan violated a cardinal rule – it is one thing to say that your opponent ran a horrible company that hurt people.  That can be used to show a lack of judgment, competence, etc.  It is quite another, though, to accuse your opponent of being a horrible person – unless you have a secretly recorded video to back you up.  Voters don’t react kindly to unsupported assaults on a person’s character.  They view this strategy as a sign of desperation.

Moreover, these type of ad hominem attacks only serve to depress turnout.  That’s good for Steve Lonegan, you say?  The conventional wisdom is that the most conservative candidate will win a low turnout primary, you say?

That may be true in Mississippi, but not in the middle of New Jersey.  Monmouth University’s poll from last month showed that while Lonegan was winning the strongest conservatives among likely voters in CD03, Tom MacArthur was winning most other conservatives as well as moderates – who make up a larger share of the electorate. 

Lonegan’s support actually relies on younger libertarian-oriented voters who are generally turned off by politics and infrequently vote in primaries.  The typical CD03 GOP primary voter is a middle-of-the-road senior citizen.  Lonegan would have done even worse in our poll if we had tightened the likely voter model.  And low turnout is the direction this race is likely to go.

Prediction: MacArthur by 16 points.

U.S. Senate – Republicans

In case you were wondering, four candidates are vying for the GOP nomination to face incumbent Cory Booker in November.  Three of them have run statewide races before.  One has never run for elected office.  Can you guess which one has, at least nominally, the most support from the Republican establishment?

Even though three of the candidates have faced the voters before, New Jerseyans have short memories and none have any name recognition to speak of, as we found out in a February Monmouth/Asbury Park Press Poll.

We have little hard evidence on how this race is shaping up.  There has been almost no campaign activity and there has been no polling – either internally or independently.  For my own part, I can’t justify spending more money to field a poll than most of the candidates have raised for their own campaigns.

We will know soon enough who gets the honor of losing to Booker in November. But that shouldn’t stop us from making predictions, right?  In lieu of actual polling I arbitrarily assigned weights to party endorsements and ballot positions to forecast potential vote share in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties.  Putting all that data through the Vote-O-Matic processor turned up this entirely feasible – or totally bogus – outcome: 

Brian Goldberg 35%, Jeff Bell 23%, Rich Pezzullo 22%, and Murray Sabrin 20%.

As a side note, I have a bet with Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine on the outcome of this race.  Not on who will win, but on whether the winning candidate will be able to break 30%.  Historical context: Gov. Brendan Byrne barely broke 30% in a crowded primary when he ran for a second term in 1977.  Who knows how this will turn out – but with a six-pack of Flying Fish riding on the outcome, I certainly hope I’m right.

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"I don't think what he's doing tonight, the method by which he's doing it helps to build a trustful relationship."
—Gov. Chris Christie reacting to President Barack Obama's speech on immigration reform.