Home>Campaigns>Huge turnout disparities helped cause Pascrell’s smaller-than-expected win

Rep. Bill Pascrell at the groundbreaking for the Portal North Bridge. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Huge turnout disparities helped cause Pascrell’s smaller-than-expected win

Cities of Paterson, Passaic voted at much lower rate than surrounding suburbs

By Joey Fox, November 29 2022 4:59 pm

As results came in on election night three weeks ago, New Jersey Democrats breathed one sigh of relief after another, easily holding most competitive congressional districts and staving off Republican advances in county and local offices. But there was one result they scratched their heads at: Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson)’s unexpectedly modest win in the 9th district.

With the election now certified, Pascrell’s margin against Republican Billy Prempeh, an Air Force veteran who previously ran in 2020, stands at 55%-44%, or just over 11 percentage points. That’s no one’s idea of a close race, but given that Joe Biden won the plurality-Hispanic district by 19 points two years ago – and given that Pascrell is a longtime, popular incumbent – the result still raised eyebrows.

It was the first time Pascrell fell below 60% of the vote since his first victory in 1996, when he unseated incumbent Rep. Bill Martini (R-Clifton). Pascrell beat Prempeh 66%-32% in 2020, though the 9th district was bluer then; Democrats on the Congressional Redistricting Commission added Republican towns to the district on the state’s new congressional map in order to shore up neighboring Democratic incumbents.

Pascrell’s victory was also closer than that of Democratic incumbents in the 3rd or 11th districts, both historically competitive districts that saw millions in spending.

So, what made Pascrell’s margin fall so dramatically, even as Democrats statewide and nationwide mostly did alright? Looking at town-by-town results, the biggest culprit seems to be abysmal Democratic turnout, which allowed the 9th district’s Republican-leaning towns to have an outsized influence on the final result.

Heading into this year, it was an open question how many voters would come to the polls without a statewide race on the ballot, something that happens once every 12 years in New Jersey.

The answer was approximately 2.6 million, around the same number who turned out in last year’s gubernatorial election. But those voters weren’t evenly distributed, and many Democratic areas – majority-Hispanic areas in particular – saw huge drops in turnout.

In the 9th district, which is primarily comprised of majority-white suburbs and heavily Hispanic cities, that disparity was particularly noticeable.

Pascrell’s hometown of Paterson, which has more than 80,000 registered voters, saw 16,663 people vote in the congressional election; that’s just 35% of the turnout seen in the 2020 presidential election. It was the same story in the city of Passaic, where 6,524 voters turned out – again only 35% of 2020 turnout.

The whiter suburbs of Passaic and Bergen Counties didn’t see nearly as steep of a decline, however. In North Haledon and Franklin Lakes, the two most Republican-leaning towns in the district, turnout was greater than 60% of 2020’s total.

That imbalance allowed Prempeh to make a major dent in Pascrell’s margin despite the Democratic lean of the district. For example, highly competitive Hawthorne cast 6,121 votes, nearly as many as deep-blue Passaic’s 6,524 – even though Passaic has close to four times as many residents.

To be sure, many towns also voted more Republican than they had in years past, which also played an important role in Prempeh’s gains.

The most dramatic case was Franklin Lakes, where Prempeh’s 32-point victory was 15 points better than Donald Trump did two years ago. That’s an extreme case, but most of the district’s towns, especially whiter and more suburban ones, shifted at least a few points towards Republicans versus 2020.

The three biggest towns in the district – Paterson, Clifton, and Passaic – all defied this trend somewhat, with Clifton and Passaic shifting slightly rightwards and Paterson actually giving Pascrell (a former Paterson mayor) a larger margin than Biden. Even there, however, Pascrell couldn’t match his performances from previous years; Paterson voted for the congressman by 63 points, down from 75 points two years ago.

Still, while he was able to improve on previous Republican performances across the district, Prempeh wouldn’t have been able to come nearly as close as he did without the intense disparity in turnout.

The parts of Passaic County in the 9th district shifted 7.5 points more Republican, while Bergen shifted 6.9 points and Hudson shifted 0.8 points – and yet the district as a whole shifted 7.6 points to the right, a mathematical oddity created by the turnout differential. (The effect is even more pronounced on a town-by-town level; of the 35 towns in the district, only 11 swung more than 7.6 points towards Republicans.)

As New Jersey Republicans move forward from 2022 and seek to make gains on the state’s Democratic-drawn congressional map, the 9th district may look like an appealing target. If they invested resources into the district – and had a nominee who was more interested in appealing to swing voters than Prempeh was – perhaps it could host a competitive race.

Helpfully for Republicans, the 9th district isn’t really trending towards Democrats, unlike many of New Jersey’s other congressional districts. Hispanic voters in Paterson and Passaic lurched rightwards in 2020, while most of the district’s suburbs aren’t moving leftwards the way their counterparts in neighboring districts are.

There’s also the fact that Pascrell is 85 years old and won’t remain in Congress forever. If he chooses to retire at some point, there’s no shortage of local Democrats to run in his stead, but they may not be able to replicate his level of support in Passaic County.

The problem, though, is that there’s unlikely to be another election this decade that has the same kind of turnout disparity seen this year. In a presidential year, and even in a midterm year with a U.S. Senate election at the top of the ticket, Republicans can’t count on so many Democratic voters sitting on the sidelines.

In fact, if Republicans had invested in the 9th district this year, it’s possible Pascrell would have actually done better, since a more competitive race may have meant more outreach from Pascrell’s campaign and higher Democratic turnout as a result.

The reality of New Jersey’s congressional map is that it was drawn to last, with nine Democrats holding seats that are unlikely to flip barring a massive Republican wave. This year’s 9th district election showed that unexpected results can still happen – but with more Democratic voters likely to turn out in future years, Republicans still have a long way to go.

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