Home>Campaigns>What might a first-in-the-nation New Jersey presidential primary look like?

U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey campaigns in Iowa over Memorial Day Weekend 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Booker campaign).

What might a first-in-the-nation New Jersey presidential primary look like?

National Democrats are considering moving towards more diverse early primary states

By Joey Fox, March 16 2022 5:15 pm

The year is 2024.

Ron DeSantis orders a “breakfast sandwich with pork roll” in Mahwah, and his poll numbers in North Jersey immediately drop by 10 points.

The driver of Nikki Haley’s campaign bus gets in a screaming match with a Cherry Hill gas station attendant for trying to pump their own gas.

Pete Buttigieg tells a joke that makes Brian Stack laugh, and finds himself winning Union City by a seemingly impossible 104-point margin.

For now, these scenarios are a fantasy. But they may not be for long; with the national Democratic Party rethinking its Iowa-first approach to its presidential nominating process, New Jersey is likely to make a concerted effort to push its presidential primary forward from its current late position in June and increase its stature on the national stage.

After all, the state is among the most racially diverse in the country – a major asset for a party that has expressed increasing skepticism at the very white electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire – and covers a huge variety of different constituencies. If national Democrats are looking for a microcosm of the country, they could do worse than Jersey.

There are a number of reasons why party leaders may be skeptical, including the high cost of campaigning in New Jersey and their desire to focus on competitive general election states in the nominating process, and New Jersey faces stiff competition from a number of other diverse states around the country.

Yet state Democrats have quietly begun lobbying the national party to consider New Jersey in their primary deliberations, and State Sen. and former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Roseland) said that he is planning to introduce legislation to move the primary forward. New Jersey Democrats are taking the possibility of a first-in-the-nation Jersey primary very seriously – so what might it look like?

The case for Jersey

The most obvious argument in favor of New Jersey is its striking racial and ethnic diversity. Though other states have smaller white populations – New Jersey is still just barely majority-white at 52% – few have quite the same breadth of different minority groups as the Garden State.

In fact, New Jersey is just one of two states (the other being New York) that have an equal or higher proportion of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans than the nation overall. The state is 21.6% Hispanic or Latino, 12.4% Black, and 10.2% Asian, each of which reaches or exceeds the national averages of 18.7%, 12.4%, and 5.9%, respectively.

Steve Kornacki, a national correspondent for NBC News who began his career covering New Jersey politics, said that the state has an attractive combination of diversity and density that would make in-person campaigning easier than it is in some more sparsely populated states.

“It’s a large state population-wise, and it’s a diverse state, but it’s also manageable in terms of its geographic size,” Kornacki said. “You can drive north to south in three or four hours, depending on where you’re trying to get. So it’s much more manageable than some of these other states.”

The drive from Camden to Jersey City, for example, is around an hour and a half; in Nevada, an already early-voting state that has voted to move its presidential primary even earlier, driving from Reno to Las Vegas takes an astounding seven hours.

And across New Jersey’s relatively short distances lies a remarkable range of different environments and communities. In few other states are bustling cities, staid suburbs, rural farmlands, and coastal vacation towns so close to one another.

As national Democrats look for states that best capture the diversity of the Democratic Party and of the nation as a whole, New Jersey stands out.

The cost of campaigning

But – there’s always a but – there are some potential Jersey pitfalls that the national party will surely consider, and that state politicians advocating for an earlier primary will have to address.

Chief among those pitfalls is just how expensive it is to campaign in New Jersey. Because the state is split between two of the country’s most expensive media markets, New York City and Philadelphia, running statewide television ads is tremendously cost-inefficient, especially compared to cheap states like Iowa.

“I think there might be some reluctance given that to compete in New Jersey, you’ve got to be on the air in New York and Philadelphia, and the cost involved there might not make it an ideal proving ground,” Kornacki said. “You do need to have some kind of paid media presence, and that might be an obstacle.”

The expense of TV advertising, though, could end up pushing candidates and voters to connect in other ways and make in-person campaigning a more prominent part of the primary contest.

“There’s no way around having to spend a lot more money than they spend in Iowa,” Matt Rooney, the founder of the conservative news site Save Jersey, said. “But I think it could give rise to some new political institutions in New Jersey; campaigns and local parties are going to have to find new ways for these candidates to interact without having to spend a fortune.”

Rooney added that intense primary campaigning could reinvigorate New Jersey’s political culture, which can often be somewhat lackluster in presidential years because of the assumption that the state is solidly blue.

“I think it could be a really healthy thing,” he said. “It would finally at least create the perception that New Jersey politics is competitive again, and then hopefully eventually that perception becomes a reality. There’s so many people on both sides that don’t participate, or maybe don’t take their choices seriously.”

Sue Altman, the New Jersey state director of the progressive Working Families Party, said that even though the presidential race would likely be held on a separate date from state-level primaries, hosting a competitive contest could still boost political participation overall.

“If it engages voters and gets them to the polls, I think it would be a good thing,” Altman said. “Whether or not they would then turn around and vote again in the [state] primary months later is an open question.”

And Codey, who as governor was behind the successful push for the state to hold its 2008 primary on Super Tuesday, argued that an early primary would mean national attention on New Jersey and the issues facing its voters.

“To have the country focus on a big state like ours would be meaningful,” he said.

‘Letting company into the nice part of the house’

In most New Jersey primary contests, the state’s 42 county parties hold a huge amount of influence through the county line, which allows them to place their favored candidates in a prominent position on voters’ ballots.

Since an early presidential contest would probably happen separately from state-level races, which are typically held in June, the parties would lose that key power. That might actually be to their benefit, though, since they would not have to contend with a popular presidential candidate backing an upstart slate of local candidates.

Presidential primaries add “an element of unpredictability to a situation that [the county parties] like to be very predictable,” Kornacki said. “If it can be just a presidential primary, and then you have a normal primary for everything else in June, that might lessen the resistance.”

Altman said that a presidential primary might bring scrutiny to New Jersey’s political system, of which she has been a longtime critic, but holding the two contests separately would likely make the national media less interested in covering state-level politics; she likened it to “letting company into the nice part of the house, and not into the rest of the house where all the mess is.”

“Lots of media descending upon New Jersey is a good thing,” she said. “I’ve always felt that way. It’s an even better thing if it exposes our system as being a little crazy.”

Even without the county line, New Jersey politicians and political organizations are accustomed to wielding a large amount of influence in primaries, and they might still fight to be heavily involved in the nomination process, as they were in the 2020 Democratic primary. According to Rooney, that’s not necessarily a downside.

“I don’t love the idea of, like, George Norcross and some of the Democrat chieftains up in the northeast of the state getting together in a back room and deciding who the Democrat Party’s nominee from New Jersey’s going to be,” Rooney said. “But if having a presidential cycle here invigorates county parties and local parties and they play a large role in the process, I think that’s probably a pretty good thing.”

Will Republicans follow?

Because it was the Democratic Party that raised the issue of Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s prominence, Democrats will naturally be the focus of any New Jersey speculation. Trump and other national Republicans, for their part, have said they’re happy with the current schedule, which better represents their whiter base.

“In the same way that Democrats look at a state like New Jersey and say, this is potentially much more representative of our party demographics, I wonder if Republicans look at a state like New Jersey and say, this is out of step with our party demographics,” Kornacki said.

But New Jersey Democrats, with firm control of the governorship and the state legislature, have the power to unilaterally move the primary regardless of Republican support – and they may get support anyways from state Republicans, who want their voices to matter in presidential contests just as much as Democrats do.

State Democrats would presumably only choose to move the primary if the national Democratic Party gave them the go-ahead, since if they changed the primary date without national Democrats’ consent, the state’s vote could be partially nullified, as happened in Michigan and Florida in 2008. 

The national Republican Party, however, might not agree to usurp states like Iowa and New Hampshire. That would set up an awkward situation where a New Jersey Democratic primary is held with the blessing of their national party while the Republican primary is held in violation of theirs; it’s not clear how such a scenario would resolve itself.

The favorite sons

With all of this said, it’s entirely possible that 2024 will be among the most boring presidential nominating processes in recent history. If Biden runs again, which he has said he will, he’s near-certain to win the Democratic nod; former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has strongly implied he wants to seek a rematch and would be a prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination.

But in a world where one or both of Biden and Trump chooses to step aside, the presidential primaries could include as many as three native New Jerseyans, two of whom have already run for President once before: Gov. Phil Murphy and Senator Cory Booker for Democrats, former Gov. Chris Christie for Republicans. (All three could also run in 2028, and Christie may try in 2024 even if Trump is running.)

Rooney said that while an early New Jersey primary could benefit its native sons, it also presents particular peril for Christie, who left office as the least popular governor in state history and would be in for a tough fight against Trump or other prominent Republicans.

“[If Christie loses New Jersey], that would be another early end of his presidential campaign,” Rooney said. “If you’re a Democrat overlord and you don’t want to see Chris Christie do well, that may be an added bonus.”

Kornacki noted that having a local candidate might also lessen the value of the early primary overall; if Booker were to win a New Jersey primary, for example, that victory would have to come with the asterisk that he was competing on his home turf.

“Does it diminish the significance of the primary itself?” Kornacki asked. “Famously, in the Iowa caucuses, Tom Harkin ran back in 1992, and Iowa Democrats were really mad at him because they missed their chance to be kingmakers.”

History repeats

Those with longer political memories will know that many of these discussions have been had before, during the chaotic 2008 primary that saw New Jersey vote on Super Duper Tuesday alongside a whooping 22 other states and territories.

Because so many states voted at once, New Jersey’s influence was diluted anyways, and Kornacki said that state Democrats weren’t thrilled with the process.

“They made the attempt [in 2008], and it didn’t go over very well,” Kornacki said. “The way it’s structured in New Jersey, they almost prefer to go last. It almost makes it easier, because they don’t have to pick sides.”

The primary was peacefully switched back to June in 2016 and 2020, and the state voted decisively in each case for the presumptive nominee. But it’s hard to deny the appetite this year for putting New Jersey back at the forefront; both Rooney and Altman said that, despite their various reservations, an early primary would be a boon for the state and its voters.

“When you have presidential campaigns traversing the state – Republicans at the Salem County Fair, Democrats at a street festival in Jersey City – that’s going to begin to change some people’s minds and maybe get more people back into the game,” Rooney said. “Which you need in a state that has the kind of challenges and problems that New Jersey has.”

“It would be a great opportunity for people to engage voters and turn them into lifelong voters, which is only ever a good thing in New Jersey,” Altman agreed.

As for Codey, still in the legislature more than a decade after pushing forward the 2008 primaries and personally stumping for Barack Obama, he said he’s excited for what the coming years may bring:

“Let the games begin.”

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