There is a deep tradition of New Jersey Democrats miscalculating in presidential politics.
Governor Meyner withheld support from John Kennedy in 1960 in order to cast the decisive vote at the Los Angeles Convention. When they called the roll call, Robert Kennedy told him that his brother did not need him.
With Jimmy Carter closing in on the 1976 nomination, State Party leaders sensed a chance to be brokers. They elected an uncommitted slate of delegates on the last election day of the contest. The next thing they knew Carter squashed their ambitions having won the Ohio primary, on the same day, and thus securing the nomination. NJ Democrats were marginalized for another eight years.
Then, of course, there was our finest moment. Jim McGreevey calculated the inevitable Howard Dean victory. He became the only Governor to deliver his entire state party leadership. It was a decision that still offers the punch line for a variety of jokes.
The new calculation is to move the New Jersey primary into the action. Forget having the last word in June and let’s get our voice heard in February. It might not be a bad idea if it wasn’t everybody else’s idea. Eighteen states have decided or are planning to move their Democratic primary on Feb. 5. More than 1,900 delegates, 44 percent of the total delegates available, will be elected in a single day in what amounts to the nation’s first national primary. They include mega-states like California, Florida and Illinois. New Jersey with 127 delegates would be the fifth largest and competing with North Carolina and Georgia for attention on the second tier.
The larger problem is the political and financial calculations of the campaigns. The cost of reaching NJ primary voters through the media will be higher than any other state. Campaigns will have already been advertising around the nation for more than a month. Money will be tight. Our media markets (New York and Philadelphia) are the first and fifth most expensive in the nation. A campaign can spend much less money advertising in San Jose, San Diego or Tampa and impact as many, if not more, delegates.
We will get our share of airport press conferences. New Jersey will always be relevant. What we’re not going to get is what we so desperately need. A presidential campaign that addresses issues like urban development, mass transit, and the environment that are unique to a highly developed and densely populated state like New Jersey.
We’ve just moved from being lost on the calendar to being lost in the crowd.