Was the 2022 election a Republican wave in New Jersey? Nope. Did Republicans get anywhere near the dominant result they wanted? Not looking like it. Was the 3rd congressional district really a toss-up? Well, anyone who thought so looks pretty foolish now.
After a campaign cycle in which it seemed like Republicans were steadily gaining ground and preparing to wallop Democrats, 2022 turned out to be something of a wash.
In New Jersey, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) lost to former State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) – a widely expected result – while Reps. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown), Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff), and Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) easily held on in districts drawn to be more Democratic. Republicans also gained one county government, in Cumberland, but failed to make much headway elsewhere.
Many prognosticators, the New Jersey Globe very much among them, didn’t see that coming. To put it bluntly, we were pretty far off.
So now, with most votes counted, it’s worth looking at why the expectations in New Jersey were out of whack with the actual results. It’s not a comprehensive list, but here are six things that shaped how we looked at the 2022 elections, and how we got them wrong.
Overcorrection from 2021
Probably the biggest reason Republicans were overestimated this year, both in New Jersey and nationally, is that they’ve been underestimated so many times before.
Just last year, New Jersey politicos from both sides of the aisle watched in shock as Gov. Phil Murphy won by just three points and a truck driver named Ed Durr came out of nowhere to unseat Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford). Most pollsters had predicted a solid Murphy win, so the 2021 elections were a huge wakeup call for Democrats and journalists alike.
This year, then, expectations were probably over-adjusted to that 2021 baseline. Because Republicans overperformed in 2021 (and beat their national polls in other cycles like 2020 and 2016), it was easy enough to settle into an assumption that Democrats will always do worse than it seems like they should.
Clearly, that assumption was wrong.
Signals from politicians (of both parties)
But it wasn’t just members of the media who saw shades of 2021 in 2022.
In the weeks leading up to yesterday’s election, both Republicans and Democrats privately believed New Jersey’s congressional races were tightening. Republicans were confident they could make a dent in the state’s Democratic-favoring congressional map; Democrats, correspondingly, began panicking that they were headed for a repeat of last year’s poor performance.
Even through Election Day itself, Democrats fretted that they weren’t getting the turnout they needed and might fall short in unexpected races.
Republicans’ hopes and Democrats’ fears helped set the expectations for what election night would bring, and since politicians and staffers are entwined with the political media, that narrative bled over to journalists as well.
Overemphasis on candidate quality
3rd district Republican candidate Bob Healey, a moderate businessman who (with the help of a family-funded super PAC) spent around $7 million, was an objectively strong candidate for his district in most respects. 5th district Republican candidate Frank Pallotta, a pro-life conservative who struggled to fundraise, was an objectively weak candidate for his district.
Yet it looks like Pallotta did slightly better than Healey, losing by nine points while Healey is losing by 11. Their performances match up with the partisanships of their respective districts, since the 5th district is around two points redder than the 3rd.
In covering campaigns, it’s easy enough to focus too much on the strengths and personal stories of the candidates running. Sometimes candidate quality does matter, as was the case in many key elections this year around the country; indeed, Kim, Gottheimer, and Sherrill all owe some of their success to their own talents as politicians.
But in New Jersey’s House races this year, partisanship seemed to be more of a guiding factor, drowning out individual differences between candidates (and allowing Democrats to easily carry blue-leaning districts). Fundraising abilities and policy views ended up being less predictive of final results than simple partisan math.
Competing relevance of key issues
After a summer focused on abortion and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, conventional wisdom this fall indicated that other issues, most notably inflation and crime, were top-of-mind for more voters. That seemed like it would benefit New Jersey Republicans, who were on the defense on abortion but incessantly bashed Democrats on “kitchen-table issues” and tied them to President Joe Biden (usually a surefire strategy in a midterm election).
And maybe it did benefit them; it’s tough to know exactly what motivated voters to vote the way they did. But given the final results, it’s clear that the shift didn’t help Republicans enough to make much headway in blue territory.
That’s probably in part because abortion was indeed a motivating factor for many voters. It certainly seems to have been in other states like Michigan and Kentucky, where abortion referenda were actually on the ballot, and abortion-focused messaging in New Jersey likely helped get many Democrats to the polls.
But also important is the fact that voters concerned about inflation and crime were not necessarily all going to vote Republican. Though Republican candidates pummeled Democrats on the two issues, Democrats had their own inflation-fighting and pro-law enforcement credentials they could burnish, so the effects may have been more of a wash than was expected.
Lack of reliable polling
In the fall of 2018, before Democrats flipped four New Jersey House seats, there was an embarrassment of polling to show where the playing field stood. High-quality independent pollsters released 14 polls of the four key House districts, not to mention the various internal polls and U.S. Senate polls that were also publicly available.
This cycle, only one independent pollster released any New Jersey district polls: RMG Research, which conducted a number of polls around the country on behalf of a pro-term limits organization. RMG polled the 3rd and 7th districts, and Malinowski also released a few 7th district internals – and that’s pretty much it.
Such a total dearth of independent polling data made it harder to deduce where each district stood, especially the 5th and 11th districts, where no polls were released whatsoever.
Parties and candidates conducted their own polls, but most of those weren’t made public, and those that were weren’t very accurate. Even though polling is often a flawed indicator (as the 2021 cycle made clear), it at least provides a baseline, something that was missing in New Jersey this year.
This final reason for this year’s unexpected result falls somewhere between obvious and total cop-out: elections are unpredictable, and they’re often unpredictable in unpredictable ways.
For example, even with Democrats doing pretty well across the state, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) is on track to win by his smallest margin in decades in a race virtually no one was following closely. Republican Billy Prempeh, who ran an energetic but underfunded campaign, is currently down just 54%-44%, a better result than Republicans got in the 3rd or 11th districts.
If you had a time machine and told Democrats two days ago Pascrell would win by such a small margin, they’d have thrown in the towel and prepared for heavy losses. Instead, that result coexists with basically good Democratic performances elsewhere.
The point is, voters are weird. Elections are volatile. Emphasizing uncertainty is always a must in political forecasting, because uncertainty is politics’ constant companion. We can try our best to tell you what we think will happen, and oftentimes we’ll be right.
But ultimately, the voters decide.