Coloring New Jersey

By Thomas Lang

Yesterday morning on CNN’s “American Morning,” former Clinton aide Lisa Caputo nominated New Jersey’s transformation to a “purple state” as the “undercover story of the week.” Last Monday, New Jersey showed up as a battleground state in a Reuters piece laying out the electoral map.

As Public Enemy once said, don’t believe the hype.

Almost two weeks ago the New York Times’s Adam Nagourney christened New Jersey a battleground state allegedly up for grabs this election season. New Jersey, Nagourney noted, had “been considered a lock for Democrats in presidential elections,”as New Jersey’s electoral votes went to Gore in 2000 and Clinton in 1996 and 1992.

Reporters putting New Jersey into the “in play” category have mostly relied on polls showing a relatively close race there. Last Thursday, Quinnipiac University released a poll showing Kerry with a surprisingly low 46 percent to 43 percent lead over Bush in a trial heat that also included Ralph Nader (5 percent). A poll conducted in early April by Fairleigh Dickinson University also depicted a close election, with Bush leading Kerry 48 percent to 44 percent (Ralph Nader again captured 5 percent of the vote).

Yet, a closer look at the facts reveals a New Jersey — which Al Gore won by 16 points in 2000 — almost certainly destined to fall to the Democrat.

To begin with, a number of other polls have shown Kerry ahead of Bush. In early April the Newark Star-Ledger found that, counting leaners, 49 percent of registered voters supported Kerry, while 40 percent supported Bush. Then in late April, a Rasmussen Report poll showed Kerry with a double-digit lead over Bush, 51 percent to 39 percent.

More importantly, however, the New-Jersey-as-battleground hype ignores the fact that, in 2000, while Gore ultimately crushed Bush, early polls 2000 depicted a close race. In early May of that year, American Research Group found Gore receiving 45 percent, Bush 44 percent, and 11 percent undecided. In June 2000, a Quinnipiac poll had Gore at 41 percent, Bush 37 percent, and Nader 7 percent. That same month Mason-Dixon Polling & Research released a poll that measured Gore’s support at 42 percent, Bush’s at 40 percent, and Nader’s at 4 percent, and a Gannett New Jersey Poll suggested a Bush victory with the Republican out dueling Gore 35 percent to 34 percent (29 percent were undecided).

Then, in August 2000, Gannet measured Bush’s lead at 8 percent, before the numbers miraculously shifted in the middle of month giving Gore a 10 percent lead.

Simply stated, the early polls out of New Jersey have not proven to be accurate forecasts of the November vote. Rather, they have proven to be entirely unreliable. (This holds for non-presidential elections also. For example, in 1996, a Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll administered just days before the election depicted a dead heat between the Republican candidate Dick Zimmer and the Democratic candidate Bob Torricelli at 41 percent and 42 percent, respectively. But, when the votes were tallied on Election Day, Torricelli defeated Zimmer by a ten-point margin, 53 percent to 43 percent.)

New Jersey is a “weird state,” according to John Hassell, the chief political writer for the Newark Star-Ledger, who added that “polls show things close and tend to break Democratic in the end.” Likewise, Cliff Zukin, director of the Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll said, “New Jersey has been considered a solid Democratic state in the last few presidential contests, and it looks like that will probably be the case this year … Unless there is some dramatic foreign happening that causes a rally for the president, Kerry will probably increase his lead as he becomes better known after the Democratic convention.”

The battleground map for this election originally included states decided in 2000 by less than 6 or 7 percentage points. Since then, the definition has expanded to include states in which the campaigns have spent or are considering spending advertising money. The thinking goes that if a campaign attacks a state that had been considered safe for the other candidate, then the other campaign must spend money to defend it. Simply because a campaign spends money in a state, however, does not necessarily mean the election will be close there. New Jersey may become a strategic battleground, but not an electoral battleground.

Those familiar with New Jersey politics agree that if, in fact, New Jersey is shaping up as a closely-contested battleground state, then the press is missing a bigger story: An impending landslide for Bush. As the Newark Star-Ledger’s Hassell told Campaign Desk, “If it is close in New Jersey, then the [national] race will be a romp for Bush.” New Jersey Democratic Rep. Robert Menendez echoed this sentiment in his interview with John McGlaughlin last Sunday: “if we have to fight for New Jersey in this election, then we’re in trouble.”

It seems the purple-colored glasses the media are wearing aren’t helping them distinguish red from blue.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.