With New Jersey’s current reputation of leaning heavily toward the Democratic Party, it is easy to forget that in 1992—when Bill Clinton was seeking his first term in office—the state was a critical swing state. So critical in fact that the last stop Clinton made on his 1992 presidential campaign trail was in East Rutherford.
Now, as Clinton’s wife Hillary Clinton makes her own presidential run, the Democratic Party support in the state that turned solidly blue after her husband solidified his support there is unwavering.
Does Clinton’s long history in the state explain why no Democratic elected officials will speak out against the presidential hopeful despite an ongoing email scandal that has her dipping in the polls? Does it explain why Bernie Sanders—now the favorite among likely New Hampshire Democratic voters—can’t seem to gain any traction?
According to long-time Democratic fundraiser John Graham, while Bill Clinton’s presidential success in New Jersey might have some impact on Clinton’s overall standing in the state, there is much more to consider.
“I think that Bill Clinton and his relationship with this state—when Hillary became first lady—became very formidable,” Graham said. “He solidified the relationship between Washington D.C. and here.”
For Graham, however, those ties to 1992 and beyond are only a small part of the puzzle of what makes the former Secretary of State so strong in New Jersey. In the 2008 presidential primary, New Jersey was a different kind of battleground than it was in 1992 during the presidential run. In the 2008 race in New Jersey, Hillary Clinton beat eventual-president Barack Obama.
According to Graham, that victory is representative of the deep respect many New Jersey democrats have for Clinton. He also believes that Clinton’s ties in the state come from a strong fundraising presence.
“It is very important to understand that in New Jersey, being a state that really represents a cross section of the United States in terms of diversity in our population, we raise a lot of money here,” Graham said. “The funds part of this game in terms of politics is very important for any candidate to be able to maintain a political stronghold in the state. I think that what we do has helped Hillary become very strong here in New Jersey and I think she understands that.”
Like Graham, Montclair University political analyst Dr. Brigid Harrison believes that Clinton’s support in New Jersey goes deeper than the long political ties her family has here.
“I would argue that the change of the state was not because of the Clintons. I think it was really because of the demographic changes we have see in the state,” said Harrison.
According to Harrison, Clinton’s current position in the state stems from a number of factors including her “very longstanding and deep relationship with the Democratic party in this state,” the fact that New Jersey has “very strong political machines,” and the fact that Clinton was a “U.S. senator of a neighboring state that shares our media market.”
Harrison believes that because North Jersey and New York share a media market, New Jersey residents were able to better follow Clinton’s term as a U.S. Senator, giving many a “deep affinity” for her.
While Bernie Sanders is gaining ground among voters, Harrison claims that he is still very much considered the underdog candidate by those within the state’s Democratic Party machine.
“Typically you see underdog candidates gain traction in areas that are not controlled by a political party,” Harrison said. “In New Jersey we have pretty strong machines, both Democrat and Republican, but the powers that be in the Democratic Party are powerful and protect the status quo. In this race I would argue that Hillary Clinton is the status quo.”
Ben Dworkin of the Rider University Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics also thinks that Clinton’s strength in the state has a significant grounding in her long history here.
“I think Hillary Clinton has strong support because she has been a known quantity in the state for the past 25 years,” Dworkin said. “Part of why she is getting so much support is because of her long history and relationships here in New Jersey and part of it because she is the frontrunner. As the senator from New York, people from New Jersey saw her, heard about her, saw her commercials, saw what she was doing.”
While Dworkin acknowledges that Sanders is a challenge to Hillary, he said that is “unclear to most observers how Sanders knocks her off and wins the nomination.”
Like Harrison, Dworkin does not necessarily credit Bill Clinton’s 1992 run with the shift of New Jersey away from swing state territory.
“Bill Clinton ran at the right time when the country was ready for a candidate like him,” Dworkin said. “New Jersey not only went blue in 92 but the demographic changes that have occurred over the past two decades have made it more blue. She certainly benefits from the fact that a Clinton has run and won here and that she ran in 2008 and won here.”
In a recent Monmouth University poll, Sanders was found to have a 7-point lead over Clinton in New Hampshire (43% and 36%, respectively).