In preparing for a presentation I gave at the New Jersey Political Science Association meeting last week, I spent some time reviewing the exit poll data compiled by the New York Times. In assessing whether or not moving the New Jersey presidential primary from June to February was worth the reported $ 10 million it would cost state and local governments, I looked at the turnout rate and specifically the number of new primary voters it produced.
According to the Times poll, 19 percent of the 1.1 million voters participating in the Democratic primary identified themselves as "Independent," in essence unaffiliated voters. Extrapolating form the numbers, this means that approximately 210,000 new Democrats decided to participate in the primary process. Not surprisingly, a plurality of these voters supported Barack Obama (49%), while Hillary Clinton drew 43 percent and seven percent went to John Edwards, who had suspended his campaign the week before the primary.
Democratic leaders throughout the state were reportedly giddy over the increase in their rolls. However, my colleague Ingrid Reed of the Eagleton Institute expressed some skepticism about the number of new voters. Professor Reed believes that these "new" Democrats and Republicans are actually individuals who regularly vote on a partisan basis in the general election. In other words, these are not individuals who up to this point have been apolitical, but rather are general election participants who have decided to vote in the primary.
On the Republican side, there may be cause for an equal measure of optimism. According to the exit poll data, 25 percent of the 560,000 Republican primary voters identified themselves as "Independents". Again, extrapolating from the turnout, this translates into 140,000 "new" Republicans voters. In a non-competitive election, this would appear to be good news for the GOP. These voters were split among the major candidates, with McCain receiving 47 percent, Romney getting 27 percent, Paul attracting 13 percent and Huckabee garnering eight percent.
While the Republican gains are unlikely to tip the balance in the presidential or U.S. Senate races, they could have an impact locally, particularly in the two Congressional seats being vacated by Ferguson and Saxton. On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic gains will undoubtedly free up resources that may have been dedicated to other Congressional races, and allow the Democrats to concentrate dollars and manpower into these two contests.