In last week’s Republican primary for New Jersey’s 5th congressional district, Frank Pallotta may not have won Bergen County, but he sure as hell came close.
Pallotta, an investment banker and the 2020 nominee for the same seat, managed to hold Bergen Republican Party-endorsed Marine veteran Nick De Gregorio to just a 51%-46% win in the county. Put up against Pallotta’s huge margins coming from Passaic and Sussex Counties, where he had organizational support, Bergen County got drowned out and Pallotta won overall 50-46%.
At first glance, there’s no obvious explanation for why De Gregorio did so poorly in Bergen County, where both he and Pallotta live. Not only did De Gregorio have the county line, he also had endorsements from most prominent Bergen Republicans and a huge fundraising advantage, two things that were not true when Pallotta beat Bergen endorsee John McCann in the 2020 primary (though Pallotta did get some outside help this time from none other than Rep. Josh Gottheimer, his Democratic opponent).
So how was Pallotta able to keep the Bergen margin so close? One answer, albeit not the only one, lies in ballot design.
Despite not having the county line, Pallotta had two big advantages over De Gregorio in Bergen County. First, he was in Column A, the best spot on the ballot, thanks to his slate of candidates for county executive and commissioner.
None of Pallotta’s four countywide running mates actually won, but their existence gave him the opportunity to snatch away prime position from De Gregorio. They seem to have benefited from the arrangement, too; county executive candidate Linda Barba, for example, lost to party endorsee Todd Caliguire 59%-41% countywide, but only 56-44% in the parts of the county in NJ-5.
Moreover, Bergen County Republicans have a quirky ballot slogan for their endorsed candidates: “Republicans for Responsible Government.” That leaves the more obvious “Bergen County Republicans” slogan available, and Pallotta’s team happily took it.
Voters who went into polling places not knowing much about either congressional candidate, then, would see the “Bergen County Republicans” running in the top ballot position, with their ticket headed by a candidate who had just been the Republican nominee only two years ago. Dedicated Bergen Republicans surely know their county party’s odd ballot slogan by now, but casual voters likely don’t, and some may have thought Pallotta was the party-endorsed candidate.
Unlike in most election years, voters had no true “top of the ticket” like a Senate or presidential race to guide them. Once every twelve years, House races constitute the highest office on New Jersey ballots, and this happened to be one of those years.
Those factors don’t explain why Pallotta did so much better in some towns than others, however. A map of the results shows no obvious geographic patterns, other than that perhaps Pallotta did better overall in towns that lean Democratic.
Once again, ballot design seems to be the key. On a countywide level, Pallotta and De Gregorio had equivalent slates: a congressional candidate, a county executive candidate, and three county commissioner candidates. But in some towns, Bergen Republicans had a full slate for every local office, while in other towns – usually Democratic-leaning ones – their slate ended at countywide candidates.
In other words, the full visual power of “the line” was much stronger in some municipalities than in others. And for the most part, Pallotta did best where the Bergen line was weakest.
Pallotta won 10 of the 13 towns where Bergen Republicans either fielded no local candidates or only a small number; De Gregorio, on the other hand, won 23 of the 34 towns where the Bergen slate was full or mostly full. (Two of the De Gregorio losses came in towns where Pallotta also fielded a slate, so 23 of 32 may be a more apt number.)
The borough of River Edge is especially instructive. Bergen Republicans didn’t field a slate of local candidates there, while Pallotta’s team did – and Pallotta won by 22 points, one of his largest margins anywhere in the county.
Notably, in places where neither candidate ran with a slate of local candidates, County Clerk James Hogan chose to write “No Petition Filed,” but only in De Gregorio’s column; the spaces under Pallotta’s name, and under minor candidates Fred Schneiderman and Sab Skenderi, were simply left blank.
When Pallotta lost the Bergen Republican endorsement to De Gregorio in March, it shut him out from establishment support in the county and may have stunted his fundraising. But thanks to the luck of the ballot draw and a host of other perfect-storm factors, the ballots themselves didn’t always reflect the true state of the race, and it seems that some voters voted accordingly.