During Tuesday’s primary election, over 1.25 million voters turned out to the polls to cast ballots, according to preliminary data from NJ Spotlight. That number is more than twice the amount of people who showed up to vote during the 2012 primary and only slightly less than the 2008 primary when president Obama was first elected.
While a spike in the numbers makes sense on the Democratic side due to the unusually competitive New Jersey primary this year between eventual victor Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, numbers also spiked on the Republican side for a primary that featured Donald Trump as the uncontested nominee. The data show that the 43 percent Republican turnout this year was much larger than the 24 percent turnout in 2012 even though both nominations were decided by the time New Jersey’s primary rolled around. On the Democratic side, approximately 51 percent voted this year compared to just 20 percent in 2012, says the data.
So what drove voters to the polls?
One possibility has to do with New Jersey’s closed primary process. Sanders’ campaign gained notoriety for attracting independent voters nationwide. But, because of the NJ primary process where voters need to be affiliated with a political party in order to cast ballots in that party’s primary, it is possible that the numbers this year were saturated by voters who, up until Tuesday, were ineligible to vote in a primary. While there are no numbers yet available on the number of unaffiliateds who declared themselves Democrats on Tuesday because they were “feeling the Bern,” a small part of the turnout uptick is likely due to that change. Furthermore, New Jersey makes it especially easy for unaffiliated voters to change parties. One simply needs to enter their polling location, tell the poll worker which party they would like to be in and walk into a voting booth.
According to director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University Ben Dworkin, however, while Sanders may have had an influence, it should not be overstated.
“I don’t know if it was specifically Sanders,” Dworkin said. “Any competitive primary would get people organized. There are any number of factors that go into this. People felt voting was going to make a difference.”
Another reason for the Democratic uptick likely has to do with the fact that Clinton’s ties run deep in New Jersey. She won the NJ primary in 2008 despite Obama being named the eventual victor. That loyalty to Clinton means that her supporters in the Garden State were more than willing to push hard with the GOTV efforts in order to offset the votes cast for Sanders. Clinton also had the county line in every single county in New Jersey meaning that her campaign on the ground in New Jersey was prosperous from the get-go.
“The Clinton team had their team on the ground, they were making phone calls in different counties, they were working through various county organization to get out the vote and people were motivated because they felt the race hadn’t quite been decided. That is not always the case with New Jersey and the presidential primaries,” Dworkin said.
According to Dworkin, the regular NJ visits from Clinton family—including former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton—in New Jersey also played a role in encouraging people to vote.
“The Clinton campaign certainly had multiple stops including her, the former president and Chelsea,” Dworkin said. “They were pursuing a big win and they got it. When you campaign in a place and you ask people for their vote, you ask people for their vote and you motivate the crowd, you are going to see a difference in the turnout. This is not to say that Clinton wouldn’t have won if they hadn’t campaigned as hard, she probably would have.”
For Dworkin, Clinton’s deep ties with New Jersey’s “political class” also had an impact.
“The Clintons have had a strong and positive relationship with the Democratic Party here in New Jersey,” Dworkin said. “They have done a tremendous amount of fundraising here. Bill Clinton won New Jersey in 1992 after the previous two election the state had voted Republican. We weren’t nearly as blue back then as we are today. Those kind of relationships will always help in a race because you are able to call old friends and have them make a difference on your behalf.”
According to Matt Farrauto, Communications Director for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC), increased excitement about the Democratic primary in general is part of what boosted NJ’s numbers.
“The robustness of the debates lead to enthusiasm for both campaigns in the Democratic Party and I have no doubt that boosted turnout,” Farrauto said.
NJDSC chairman John Currie, an early endorser of Clinton, said that both Clinton and Sanders had a huge part in driving the turnout.
“Having two strong Democratic presidential candidates — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — reaching out to voters definitely helped drive turnout in the Garden State. I’m glad we could be a part of such an exciting and positive contest. It clearly shows that New Jersey Democrats are eager to continue the progress made by President Obama, and to prevent Donald Trump from undermining our country the way that Chris Christie has undermined our state,” said John Currie, Chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
Another factor that likely impacted primary turnout were he contested congressional races throughout the state. In CD1 in particular turnout was high, particularly in Camden. In that race, challenger Alex Law failed to topple Congressman Donald Norcross. In fact, the younger brother of New Jersey Democratic influencer George Norcross won the district by a landslide. The power of the Norcross’ family likely played a role here as voters turned to the polls to protect the interests of the NJ power broker. Including the CD1 Democratic primary, there were nine contested congressional primaries in New Jersey between the two major parties.
As for the Republican uptick, according to Dworkin that has little to do with anything other than Trump being Trump.
“I think Trump is his own generator of attention and excitement so I think he is somebody who is unlike any modern presidential candidate we have ever seen,” Dworkin said.
According to Dworkin, the race in general is different this year, something that has also possibly helped drive turnout on the Republican side.
“This race is different just with the advent of social media and its influence,” Dworkin said. “I think Republicans are excited to get involved and get in the race. There were people who were looking forward to casting a ballot for Trump even though he had effectively won the nomination a month ago.”
Clinton and Trump, as the presumptive nominees from each of their parties, stand to face off in the November general election.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article claimed that 2016 numbers were higher than 2008 numbers.