New Jersey 2nd District
The builders of the Camden & Atlantic Railroad in 1852 may not have known it, but when they extended their line to the little inlet town of Absecon, they were starting America’s biggest beach resort, Atlantic City. Like all resorts, it was a product of developments elsewhere—of industrialization and spreading affluence, of railroad technology and the conquest of diseases that used to make summer a time of foreboding. In the years after the Civil War, Atlantic City and then the Jersey Shore from Brigantine to Cape May became America’s first seaside resort, and Atlantic City developed its characteristic features: the boardwalk in 1870, the amusement pier in 1882, the rolling chair in 1884, salt water taffy in the 1890s, and the Miss America pageant in 1921. By 1940, when 16 million Americans visited every summer, Atlantic City was a common man’s resort of old traditions. It declined in the years after World War II, and by the early 1970s, Atlantic City was grim, featuring a bedraggled convention hall (site of the 1964 Democratic National Convention), empty hotels, and bleak streets of Philadelphia-style row houses.
2008 Presidential Vote
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Then in 1977, New Jersey voters legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City, and gleaming new hotels sprang up, big-name entertainers came in, and the resort became more glamorous than it had been in 90 years. But it’s not that way for all of its residents: Casino and hotel jobs tend to be low-wage, and decrepit neighborhoods began just feet from the casinos’ massive parking lots. Atlantic City’s gambling business had been thriving. For years, its dozen casinos had net annual revenues of more than $5 billion, nearly as much as Las Vegas’s casinos. The recession hit hard here. For the first time, revenues fell in both 2007 and 2008. The hotels laid off 3,000 people in 2008. The casinos also suffered from the competition of slots parlors in New York and Pennsylvania. A smoking ban on the gambling floors was suspended in November 2008 for at least a year in hopes of drawing customers back. Still, Atlantic City in prosperous times has one of the nation’s largest tourism economies and is developing into what Las Vegas has become, not just a collection of gaudy casinos but also a gaggle of theme parks, with entertainment for the family as well as adults.
Beach resorts populate the Jersey Shore south of Atlantic City. There is the old Methodist town of Ocean City, where Gay Talese grew up the son of Italian immigrants, a story he told movingly in Unto the Sons. There is Wildwood, with its refurbished 1950s motels and the doo-wop revival, and also Cape May, with its lovingly preserved Victorian houses and a “ghosts of Cape May” trolley tour. West of the Shore are swamps and flatlands, the Pine Barrens and vegetable fields that gave New Jersey its “Garden State” nickname. Growth has been slow in these small towns and gas station intersections. Some towns are clustered around low-wage apparel factories or petrochemical plants on the Delaware estuary. The Northeast high-tech and service economy has not reached this far south in Jersey yet.
The 2nd Congressional District covers this part of South Jersey. Politically, it has strong Democratic leanings in the chemical industry towns along the Delaware River and in Vineland and a strong Republican presence in Cape May. Atlantic City often votes Democratic, but it has an antique Republican machine that goes back generations. Al Gore carried this district by 54%-43% in 2000. In 2004, it swung back to the Republicans and George W. Bush, 50%-49%, but in 2008, Democratic nominee Barack Obama won 54% to 45%. Republican John McCain won only in Cape May County.