Glen Ridge. Mountain lakes. Tenafly. Millburn.
Once the republican bedrock of the state, the affluent, well-educated cities of New Jersey offered enormous margins to bring moderate Republicans to national office. With Democratic support centered on low-income and non-white households, the mostly white residents of the state’s affluent suburbs appeared impenetrably Republican.
But many of these cities have turned bluer in the past few decades, a shift only accentuated by the rise of former President Donald Trump, an abomination to many suburbs both in New Jersey and across the country. And analysis of New Jersey’s 2021 gubernatorial election shows that even with Trump’s presidency (or at least his first term in office) those changes can persist in the rearview mirror.
The state’s 15 richest, best-educated communities – defined here as having a median household income and a bachelor’s degree rate in the state’s top 25 – voted Murphy 16 points ahead, and the governor won 10 out of 15 overall.
This is remarkable given that Murphy has only won by three points nationwide, but Murphy’s performance is even more impressive compared to previous close gubernatorial races.
In 2009, Republican Governor Chris Christie won 12 of the 15 wards with a combined margin of 11 percent on his way to a statewide four-point victory. And temperate suburban governor Tom Kean’s 1981 victory was fueled by his dominance in the same 15 parishes, which earned him a 42-point lead and 27,399 votes.
If you look at individual cities, the fluctuations become clearer.
Millburn, a suburb of Essex County, which is the second richest and third best educated community in the state according to the 2019 American Community Survey, got Kean with 43 points, Christie with three points and Murphy with 33 points – a swing of 76 points. Mountain Lakes, which is both the richest and most educated community in the state, voted Murphy with around seven points after choosing Kean at 63.
In other words, the affluent and well-educated suburb of New Jersey has moved so far to the left that even an avowed moderate like 2021 Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli had a hard time.
There are a few caveats to be noted with regard to this data. For one thing, President Joe Biden, like Murphy, did even better in the 15 churches analyzed here, winning them with a total of 32 points in 2020. Murphy’s performance is a step backwards from this high – not unexpected, as national races in usually learn political trends before races at the federal level.
Second, Murphy received a total of 11,298 votes from the 15 cities, far fewer than the 25,680 net votes he received from Newark alone. The liberal suburb was an important part of Murphy’s coalition, but it was far from the only part, and Murphy could not have won either, without the great support of the state’s urban cores and colored voters.
But it is still worth asking why so many suburban voters, once home to the state’s Republican Party, fled to progressive Democrats like Phil Murphy.
“Right now the Republican Party is not a credible choice for these voters,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “The Republican brand is anathema to them, just as you can penetrate into red parts of the country where Democrats are a dirty word.”
Another important factor in harmonizing modern suburbs is their increasing diversity. Many suburbs that were once lily white have gained significant black, Latin American, and Asian populations; This can have the double effect of adding new likely Democratic voters as well as making remaining white voters more liberal on racial issues.
“When your neighbors are more diverse, your mind is open to more diversity,” said Rasmussen. “I think that goes hand in hand.”
Montclair – which has an above-average education rate and an above-average average income, but also does not make it into the top 25 – offers an interesting case study. The suburban parish is mostly white, but its southern areas are historically black and low-income, essentially giving it two distinct identities.
The ward maps of the ward have long reflected this divide; the 4th district, which covers the southeast corner of the parish, has long been known as Montclair’s black district and is still represented by a black city council to this day. On congressional maps, the southern Montclair is usually classified in the mostly black 10th congressional district, while the northern end is classified in the white suburban district of the 11th.
The north-south divide was crystal clear in 1981 when Democratic Governor James Florio Montclair narrowly won almost entirely on the back of the 4th District. He won the parish by 1,632 votes while losing the rest of the parish with a total of 1,171 votes, essentially meaning that the 4th parish black voters won him the parish.
But last November, when Phil Murphy won Montclair by a whopping 74 points, the geographic differences were less obvious. He carried the 4th district with 2,798 votes and won the rest of the community with a total of 8,153 votes, both of which contributed to his enormous overall lead.
Although the fourth district gave it a slightly higher percentage of the vote – about 80 percent, versus nearly 70 percent in the other three districts – it is clear that the more affluent, white parts of Montclair are no longer a distinct entity as they once were was. Like their more diverse colleagues in the 4th District, they have become overwhelming Democratic voters.
With massive losses in places like Montclair, Millburn, and Mountain Lakes, Republicans wonder how the party can win those voters back?
According to Rasmussen, this is a difficult task. Decades of an increasingly conservative national republican party culminating in Trump’s 2016 victory have led many moderate Republicans to potentially step out of the party.
This then creates a causal loop in which the absence of temperate suburbs causes the party to break away from its communities and interests, thereby further stranding wealthy and well-educated suburbs from the Republican Party.
“As the brand and the party and the candidates, the platform and the agenda diverge, it becomes less and less of a viable option for the people in these communities,” said Rasmussen. “That leaves us with candidates who no longer get through to them, and leaves us with platforms that don’t resonate with them.”
Murphy himself should be well acquainted with the mindset of these voters; after all, he married one. Tammy Murphy was a republican for much of her early adulthood, she called herself a “Reagan Republican” and donated to President George W. Bush and the New Jersey Republican Party.
But by the mid-2000s, the current first lady began to realize that her own liberal views on gun control and access to abortion were not keeping pace with an increasingly nationalized and conservative Republican party. So she switched, joined her husband in the Democratic Party, and eventually became a prominent replacement for his progressive politics.
Though not a native of New Jersey, Tammy Murphy is full of people like her: wealthier, higher educated voters who once believed their moderate views were at home in the Republican Party but now identify strongly with the Democrats.
It was these voters who flocked for Phil Murphy last November, earning him tens of thousands of votes that were crucial to his narrow victory. And despite their Republican past, it is likely that these voters will remain one of the pillars of the New Jersey Democratic Party for years to come.