In a post a few days ago, I wrote about New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District, the district in which I grew up. I briefly discussed the current representative, Mr. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican, and introduced the promising Democratic Party challenger, Ms. Mikie Sherrill. This year, the 11th’s seat in the House of Representatives could be competitive. I may have gotten a bit ahead of things in the previous post by diving straight into demographic features of the district, so let’s back up a bit and take a look at how the 11th voted in the 2016 general election.
First, some maps for geographic context:
Residents of the 11th have been reliable Republicans for some time. They have sent Mr. Frelinghuysen to Congress every election since 1994, and in recent presidential elections they went for Senator John McCain in 2008 and Mr. Mitt Romney in 2012. In 2016, voters in the 11th got a little wonky: they voted even more heavily in favor of Frelinghuysen than they had in the two previous elections, but were less decisive than usual on the presidential ticket.
Here’s a chart that breaks the aggregate percentages down:
Here’s how the presidential vote looks by municipality as measured by Mr. Donald Trump’s vote share:
And here’s how the vote for congressional representative looks by municipality as measured by Frelinghuysen’s vote share:
In these two maps, I used the Republican candidates’ vote shares and kept the percent ranges consistent around the 50% majority threshold so that the contrast would be clear. Several things stand out:
- As mentioned above, if we take out the three municipalities that do not lie entirely within the 11th District, Trump won the remainder of the municipalities, and he won them by a wide margin.
- Again, if we take out those three municipalities, we are left with 51 municipalities. Of those, only four preferred both Ms. Hillary Clinton for president and Mr. Joseph Wenzel, the Democratic candidate for the House seat.
- Thirteen municipalities preferred Clinton but voted for Frelinghuysen, the Republican House candidate.
- Sixteen municipalities gave Trump between 50 and 56 percent of their votes and voted overwhelmingly (56% or more) for Frelinghuysen.
- Eighteen municipalities voted overwhelmingly for both Trump and Frelinghuysen.
What can we make of these facts? An indisputable conclusion is that voters in the 11th are staunch Republicans. They have a history of giving clear majorities to their long-serving Republican House member and Republican candidates for president. Even when some of them were repulsed enough by Trump to vote for Clinton or another party’s candidate, many still went with Frelinghuysen. Less indisputable but likely, it appears as if some people who usually vote party-line for Democrats voted for Frelinghuysen.
Any Democrat will have an uphill battle trying to win the 11th’s House seat. Winning in the 11th would require that the Democratic Party’s candidate be a good one, that she has a good strategy, and that she gets lucky. Sherrill has already met two of the three requirements: she’s an excellent candidate, both by biography and her policy positions, and she’s lucky in the sense that conditions are ripe because out-party candidates tend to do better when the incumbent party’s president is as unpopular as Trump seems to be. Add to that the fact that the Republican Party just passed a tax bill widely understood to benefit corporations and certain real estate moguls at the expense of affluent homeowners – precisely the kind of people who live in the 11th – and Frelinghuysen may be running into a bit of a buzzsaw this year.
That leaves strategy, which is where spatial analysis can come in handy. Above we found 13 municipalities that, judging by their votes, wanted a Democratic Party president (above Map B) but a Republican House member (above Map C). Generally speaking, it is irrational to split one’s votes among candidates from the different political parties because the major parties promote entirely different policy agendas. Perhaps many of these voters were happy with Frelinghuysen’s constituent services, or perhaps they thought Frelinghuysen would shield them from tax increases under Clinton should she have won. But again, generally speaking, voters in our political era should understand that the Democratic and Republican parties stand for completely different policy agendas.
Why did voters in these 13 municipalities choose a presidential candidate who would ensure affordable healthcare, a woman’s right to choose her own form of healthcare, a safe environment, efforts to mitigate climate change, and infrastructure investments, while they voted for a House candidate who would deny all of those things? Whatever the answer, these 13 municipalities are places where Sherrill’s policy arguments might persuade voters.
Further spatial analysis suggests that Sherrill should spend time campaigning in the four municipalities that backed both Clinton and Wenzel last year. Motivating one’s proven base of support is always a good way to go.
Another strategy involves boosting voter turnout in general. In the 11th, 334,190 people physically residing in the 11th cast votes for House representative in 2016. Currently, there are approximately 578,429 people of voting age in the 11th, which means there are approximately 244,239 people of age who did not vote in 2016 (unfortunately, dismal turnout rates like the 11th’s approximate 57.8% in 2016 are hallmarks of American democracy). Last year, Frelinghuysen beat his Democratic challenger by 64,610 votes. Demographic analysis will really tell us what kind of potential there is in the 11th for a Democrat, but for now, we can conclude there is a massive number of potential voters in the 11th who could be registered and/or mobilized to go out and vote.
To game out the turnout strategy a little further, if Sherrill could get half of the eligible people who didn’t vote in 2016 to go out and vote in 2018 – 122,120 people – and 75% or more voted for her, she could win the election without changing a single 2016 voter’s mind, assuming they all went out and voted for the same party’s candidate as they did in 2016. This is a bit ambitious, but speaks to the potential of the 11th’s electorate. More detailed demographic analysis would indicate just how viable a strategy of increased voter turnout may be. Since people of color and younger people are the ones who tend not to vote, and if they are indeed the populations that haven’t been voting in the 11th, then efforts to boost their turnout would be a great strategy. I’ll be working on that analysis for my next post about the 11th.