Pundits: Democratic registration edge doesn’t assure Corzine second term

Political pundits tend to agree that the surge in Democrats on the voter rolls will help New Jersey Democrats this election cycle, from those running for federal office down to freeholder.

But as Gov. Corzine pitches his economic proposals for dealing with the financial crisis today — which many see as the second early salvo of his reelection campaign – the pundits are less clear on whether the state’s bolstered Democratic majority will provide a big boost to him next year.

Right now, the new registration numbers look good for Democrats. Statewide, as of the latest report from the Division of Elections dated October 13th there just under 600,000 more Democrats than there were in November, 2007. Republicans had a much more modest gain, with 176,000 new party members.

Many of those new registrants are merely voters who leaned Democratic anyway but never bothered to vote in a primary before this year. The number of unaffiliated voters, for instance, dropped by 322,000.

But there have also been 449,000 new registrants since November, and all indications are that the newly enfranchised are trending blue.

Even in some traditionally Republican counties, Democrats have gained a registration advantage.

  • Burlington County, a major part of the 3rd Congressional district – the site of has an extremely competitive race — had about 700 more registered Republicans than Democrats last year. There are now 26,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
  • Atlantic County Democrats, who trailed Republicans in registration by about 3,000 last year, now lead the GOP by 10,000.
  • Last year, Monmouth County had 10,000 more Republicans than Democrats. That has now flipped to 12,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
  • In reliably Republican Somerset County, which comprises a large part of the competitive 7th Congressional District, Republicans last year had a registration advantage of 15,000. There are now 677 more Democrats than Republican.

Democratic State Chairman Joseph Cryan said that he’s thrilled with the new numbers, but admits that he can’t count on them as future reliable voters.

“Of course it’s a significant advantage. It gives us momentum going into November, and now our responsibility is to get these folks to the polls,” said Cryan, who tempered his remarks by saying “I’m cautious about this stuff.”

Cryan did stress that, in order for the votes to help in the future, his party would need to keep its new members of the electorate engaged. But he added that it does bode well for a party that hasn’t lost a statewide election since 1997.

“These registrations give us not only momentum into November, but a foundation for the Democratic Party for years to come,” said Cryan.

Monmouth University pollster and political science professor Patrick Murray agreed that the numbers are, in fact, a big deal – for this year. Next year, however, is no sure thing.

Corzine, whose approval ratings have recently ranged from lukewarm positive to upside down negative in Murray’s polls, said that the trend does not necessarily make for a safe incumbent.

“This particular surge in registration doesn’t make it any easier for Republicans, but it’s largely due to the presidential campaign. Whether these people will come out in a gubernatorial campaign is an open question,” he said.

Yes, the Republicans haven’t won a statewide race since 1997 (49 other states have elected a Republican to statewide office since then) and even then barely. And they haven’t won a Senate race since 1972. But Murray said the party, and not just demographics, are to blame.

“It doesn’t show the Republicans off very well in terms of the machinations that they went through to get to Dick Zimmer as their chosen nominee,” Murray said. “However,there are a couple exciting Republicans on the horizon, and [U.S. Attorney] Chris Christie certainly tops that list.”

One problem with Christie, the Eliot Ness of New Jersey: voters care about the economy and property taxes much more than they do about corruption. If he’s going to run, Murray said, he’s going to need to come out of the gate with a plan.

“Many people don’t know where he is and he’s certainly not known for having a position on the number one issue in the state,” he said.

Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project, gave another reason why Corzine can’t get cocky about his reelection prospects based on the new Democrats is that there’s a steep drop in voter turnout between presidential and gubernatorial years.

In 2004, 75% of registered New Jersey voters turned out to vote. In 2005, when the Corzine/Forrester match was at the top of the ticket, only 49% did.

“I would say we’d have to take a wait and see on this, because we really don’t know, first of all, how many people will be paying attention to the gubernatorial race,” said Reed. “It’s an entirely different electorate.”

Fairleigh Dickinson University pollster and political science professor Peter Woolley, whose most recent poll showed Corzine with slightly positive approval ratings, was more confident that the new registrants would remain as active participants in the political process.

“Once some new voters have done the deed, gone out and cast their ballot, they’re going to like it enough to come back,” he said.

But that’s only one factor that makes Corzine the automatic favorite for reelection no matter who runs against him, despite his tepid approvals.

“He’s the odds-on favorite, no doubt, based on the whole combination of advantages,” said Woolley. “Close to 100% name recognition, a bottomless war chest, the big edge in Democratic voters getting bigger. And I think he’s already started his reelection campaign.”

Pundits: Democratic registration edge doesn’t assure Corzine second term