Glen Ridge. Mountain Lakes. Tenafly. Millburn.
Once upon a time, the wealthy, well-educated towns of New Jersey were the state’s Republican bedrock, providing huge margins that launched moderate Republicans into statewide office. With Democratic support concentrated in lower-income and nonwhite households, the largely white residents of the state’s wealthy suburbia seemed impenetrably Republican.
But many of those towns started becoming bluer in recent decades, a shift that was only accentuated by the rise of former President Donald Trump, who was anathema to many suburbanites both in New Jersey and around the country. And an analysis of New Jersey’s 2021 gubernatorial election shows that, even with Trump’s presidency (or at least his first term) in the rearview mirror, those changes may be here to stay.
The state’s 15 wealthiest and best-educated municipalities – defined here as having a median household income and bachelor’s degree attainment rate within the top 25 statewide – voted for Murphy by a 16-point margin, and the governor won 10 of 15 in total.
That’s already notable, given that Murphy won statewide by only three points, but Murphy’s performance is even more impressive when compared to previous close gubernatorial races.
In 2009, Republican Gov. Chris Christie won 12 of the 15 municipalities by a combined margin of 11 percent, on his way to a four-point win statewide. And suburban moderate Gov. Tom Kean’s 1,797-vote victory in 1981 was powered by his dominance in those same 15 municipalities, which gave him a 42-point margin and netted him 27,399 votes.
Looking at individual towns, the swings grow more pronounced.
Millburn, an Essex County suburb that’s the state’s second-wealthiest and third-best-educated municipality according to the 2019 American Community Survey, went for Kean by 43 points, Christie by three points, and Murphy by 33 points – a 76-point swing. Mountain Lakes, which has the distinction of being both the state’s wealthiest and best-educated municipality, voted for Murphy by around seven points after going for Kean by 63.
In other words, New Jersey’s wealthy and well-educated suburbia has trended left to such a degree that even an avowed moderate like 2021 Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli had a tough time breaking through.
There are a couple of caveats to these data worth noting. For one, as well as Murphy did in the 15 municipalities analyzed here, President Joe Biden did even better, winning them by a collective 32 points in 2020. Murphy’s performance, then, represents something of a regression from that high-water mark – not unexpected, given that national races usually experience political trends before state-level races.
And for another, Murphy only netted a total of 11,298 votes from the 15 towns, far less than the 25,680 net votes he got from Newark alone. Liberal suburbia was a critical part of Murphy’s coalition, but it was far from the only part, and Murphy also couldn’t have won without resounding support from the state’s urban cores and voters of color.
But it’s still worth asking why, exactly, so many suburban voters who once saw a home for themselves in the state Republican Party have fled to progressive Democrats like Phil Murphy.
“Right now, at this moment in time, the Republican Party does not represent a credible choice to these voters,” explained Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “The Republican brand is anathema to them, in the same way that you can go into red parts of the country where Democrats are a dirty word.”
Also important to how modern suburbia votes is its increasing diversity. Many suburbs that were once lily-white have gained significant Black, Latino and Asian populations; this can have the dual effect of both adding new likely Democratic voters and making the remaining white voters more liberal on racial issues.
“If your neighbors are more diverse, then your mind is open to more diversity,” Rasmussen said. “I think that goes hand-in-hand.”
Montclair – which has a well-above-average education rate and median income, though it doesn’t break into the top 25 in either – provides an interesting case study. The suburban township is majority white, but its southern areas are historically Black and lower-income, essentially giving it two distinct identities.
The township’s ward maps have long reflected this divide; the 4th ward, which covers the township’s southeastern corner, has long been known as Montclair’s Black ward, and is still represented by a Black councilman to this day. On congressional maps, southern Montclair is typically put into the majority-Black 10th congressional district, while the north end is placed in the whiter, suburban 11th district.
The divide between north and south was crystal clear in 1981, when Democratic Gov. James Florio narrowly won Montclair almost entirely on the back of the 4th ward. He won the ward by 1,632 votes while losing the rest of the township by a combined 1,171 votes, essentially meaning that the 4th ward’s Black voters won him the township.
But last November, as Phil Murphy was winning Montclair by a whopping 74 points, the geographic divides were less obvious. He carried the 4th ward by 2,798 votes and won the rest of the township by a combined 8,153 votes, both of which added to his huge overall margin.
Though the fourth ward did give him a slightly higher percentage of the vote – around 80 percent, versus closer to 70 percent in the other three wards – it’s clear that the wealthier, whiter parts of Montclair are no longer a clearly distinct entity the way they once were. They, like their more diverse counterparts in the 4th ward, have become overwhelmingly Democratic voters.
Facing daunting losses in places like Montclair, Millburn, and Mountain Lakes, the question for Republicans becomes: how can the party win those voters back?
According to Rasmussen, it’s a difficult task. Decades of an increasingly conservative national Republican Party, culminating in Trump’s 2016 victory, have led many moderate Republicans to defect from the party, possibly for good.
This then creates a causal loop, in which the absence of suburban moderates leads to the party becoming unmoored from their communities and interests, further stranding wealthy and well-educated suburbia from the Republican Party.
“As the brand, and the party, and the candidates, and the platform and the agenda diverge, it becomes less and less of a viable option for people in these communities,” Rasmussen said. “That leaves us with candidates who no longer resonate with them, and leaves us with platforms that are no longer resonant to them.”
Murphy himself should be intimately familiar with the mindset of these voters; after all, he married one. Tammy Murphy was a Republican for most of her early adulthood, calling herself a “Reagan Republican” and making donations to President George W. Bush and the New Jersey Republican Party.
But in the mid-2000s, the now-First Lady began to realize that her own liberal views on gun control and abortion access were out of step with an increasingly nationalized and conservative Republican Party. So she made a switch, joining her husband in the Democratic Party and eventually becoming a prominent surrogate for his progressive policies.
Though Tammy Murphy isn’t a New Jersey native, the state is full of people just like her: wealthier, college-educated voters who once felt their moderate stances had a home in the Republican Party, but now identify strongly with Democrats.
It was these voters who turned out for Phil Murphy in droves last November, giving him tens of thousands of votes critical to his narrow victory. And despite their Republican past, it will likely be these voters who continue to form one of the key pillars of the New Jersey Democratic Party for years to come.