From its notoriety as the setting for the mobster series The Sopranos to the grating stereotypes of its citizens on Jersey Shore, New Jersey gets a bad rap, and it has for a long time. During his two years as governor, Woodrow Wilson said, just a tad defensively, New Jersey is “a sort of laboratory in which the best blood is prepared for other communities to thrive on.”
Its early settlers included Dutch in towns behind the Palisades on the Hudson and Quakers on Delaware River bottomlands opposite Philadelphia. From the start, New Jersey was plagued by rival claims from its neighbors and, still defensive in the 1980s, went to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that it and not New York owns the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. New Jersey eventually got most of the islands’ acreage, but New York got the immigrant museum and the Great Hall, which are built on fill land. For a century after the American Revolution, New Jersey was a modest, slow-growing, even backward state. It became known as the Garden State because of its vegetable farms, which supplied the tomatoes for Campbell’s Soup. But its proximity to New York and Philadelphia brought into its empty spaces immigrants and inventors.
Jersey City, Newark, and Camden grew to be significant cities in their own right. Thomas Edison churned out inventions in his laboratory at Menlo Park and gave birth to General Electric and Bell Labs. On open fields near large labor pools, U.S. automakers built assembly plants in the years after World War II, and the container port on the New Jersey side of New York harbor overshadowed the crumbling, racketeer-plagued docks of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Much of the pharmaceutical industry came to be concentrated in New Jersey, including the headquarters of Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis, and Schering-Plough. Connected to Wall Street by Hudson tubes and ferries, New Jersey became the home of finance professionals and lawyers. This economy gave the state a high median income, a well-educated workforce, and a prosperous middle class, with a relatively high concentration of scientists and engineers. New Jersey has long had the highest or second-highest median household income of any state, although it trails others in per capita income and wealth. Indeed, most people in New Jersey are making their fortunes in more legitimate ways than Tony Soprano.
Physically, New Jersey has been transformed in recent decades. The oil tank farms and swamplands of the Meadowlands have become sports palaces and office complexes. The Singer factory in Elizabeth, the Western Electric factory in Kearny, and the Ford Motor plant in Mahwah are all gone, replaced by shopping centers and hotels. The intersection of Interstates 78 and 287 has become a major shopping and office edge city. U.S. 1 north from Princeton to North Brunswick has become one of the nation’s high-tech centers. Casting off its suburban image, New Jersey has developed an identity of its own. It is the home of big-league football and hockey franchises and of the world’s longest expanses of boardwalk, on the Jersey Shore from Cape May to Sandy Hook.
Within New Jersey’s close boundaries is great diversity—geographically, from beaches to mountains; demographically, from old Quaker stock to new Hispanic arrivals; economically, from inner-city slums to hunt-country mansions. Although New York writers are inclined to look on New Jersey as a land of 1940s diners and 1970s shopping malls, the state much more closely resembles the rest of America than does Manhattan, although drivers will find some peculiarities: horizontal traffic lights, jug-handle intersections (to make a left turn, you exit to the right and then cross over after the light has changed), and a ban on self-service gas stations. The row houses one used to encounter upon emerging from the Holland Tunnel are now joined by office and apartment towers and, a few miles further out, the skyscrapers of Newark and its new performing arts center. Farther out are comfortably packed middle-income suburbs and the horse country around Far Hills, the university town of Princeton, old industrial cities such as Paterson and Trenton, and dozens of suburban towns and small factory cities. Among them are commuter towns such as Middletown, whose commuter trails lead to Lower Manhattan.
Regardless of which state holds legal title to Ellis Island, New Jersey has long been a magnet for immigrants. In its post-World War II years of rapid growth, the state was a quilt pattern of WASPs, Irish, Italians, Jews, and Hungarians (the nation’s largest concentration of the latter was in Middlesex County). Small-town-like suburbs centered on Dutch Reform or Episcopal churches became heavily Catholic or Jewish. Immigrant growth has been concentrated in North and Central Jersey, within range of New York City. (South Jersey, as in adjacent Philadelphia, has few immigrant communities.) In 2011, New Jersey’s population was 15% African-American; 18% Hispanic, higher than any other state outside the West, Texas, and Florida; and 9% Asian, higher than any other state except Hawaii and California. One-third of New Jersey schoolchildren have immigrant parents. Hudson County, opposite Manhattan, was the home of hundreds of thousands of Irish, Italian, Polish and Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, and it is now 42% Hispanic, a grouping that includes Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans, and 14% Asian. Immigrants are also plentiful in the small middle-American towns of Bergen County: Filipinos in Bergenfield, Guatemalans in Fairview, Koreans in Leonia, Indians in Lodi, and Chinese in Palisades Park. The old industrial cities of Elizabeth and Paterson are majority Hispanic and Newark is black majority.
For all its strengths, New Jersey has faced difficulties in the new century. Population growth has slowed to a crawl, with only very small patches of suburban boom. Immigrant inflow from 2000 to 2008 was 4.8% of the 2000 population, but there was an even higher non-immigrant outflow. Only Ocean County, with its retirement communities, and Gloucester County, on the New Jersey Turnpike outside of Philadelphia, attracted significant numbers of non-immigrant new residents. New Jersey’s emblematic private-sector firms are in trouble. Lucent, the successor to Bell Labs, was burned in the high-tech bust and was acquired in 2006 by the French firm Alcatel. The pharmaceutical firms have foundered and cut payrolls. The state had 20% of U.S. pharmaceutical jobs in 1990, but only 13% by 2008. Two New Jersey industries that once seemed launched on eternal growth trajectories got into trouble in the recession. Gambling revenues fell steeply in Atlantic City. And banks and financial service firms in distress cut back sharply both on Wall Street and in New Jersey back-office jobs. Unemployment rose from 4.3% in December 2007 to 9.7% in December 2009, close to the national average and higher than any other state in the Northeast. In 2012, it lingered at 9.6%, still well above the national average.
State government has helped build New Jersey’s identity, but it also has placed heavy burdens on its private sector. In the 1970s, Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne started the Meadowlands Sports Complex and legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City. He also pushed through an income tax in a state that, until that point, had far lower taxes than New York. Republican Gov. Thomas Kean in the 1980s reformed education and promoted the state shamelessly (“New Jersey and you: perfect together”). The revolt against Democratic Gov. Jim Florio’s tax increase in 1990 took on national significance with his defeat by Republican Christine Todd Whitman in 1993. In the 1990s, crime and welfare rolls dropped, but auto insurance and property taxes remained the highest in the nation. Health insurance premiums skyrocketed, thanks to state mandates requiring all policies to cover all manner of treatments. Meanwhile, property taxes kept rising.
While these problems festered, New Jersey was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012. The storm surge hit the whole Jersey Shore from Cape May to Sandy Hook and peaked at eight and a half feet there. Damage was substantial on barrier island communities and in low-lying land next to New York Harbor and the Passaic and Hackensack rivers. Bridges were smashed, and the Holland Tunnel and much of the Garden State Parkway were shut down; utilities were not restored for many days and evacuation orders in some areas continued for two weeks. At least 72,000 homes and businesses were damaged, according to initial Federal Emergency Management Agency numbers. In the immediate aftermath, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has long vacationed on the Shore, surveyed the damage, denounced those who ignored evacuation orders, and heaped praise on the response of President Barack Obama and his administration. Christie and the New Jersey congressional delegation sought $30 billion from the federal government to repair the damage.
Politically, New Jersey leaned Republican from the 1940s through the 1980s. But in the last two decades, it has become a Democratic bastion because of its growing immigrant population and the presence of many affluent suburbanites who reject the GOP’s conservative stands on cultural issues. No Republican has won 50% of the state vote for president or for governor since presidential candidate George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Kean in 1985. No Republican has been elected to the U.S. Senate since Clifford Case in 1972. On a map showing election results by city and township, Democrats have carried the spine of the state, on either side of the Amtrak Acela route and through the South Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. Republicans have carried the outliers, most of the Jersey Shore on the east, and the affluent suburban and exurban areas on the northwest. The Democrats’ margins have been augmented by the outflow of modest-income Americans from the formerly middle-class suburbs. In a state where, according to the 2012 exit poll, 18% of the voters are African-American, 10% Latino and 3% Asian, Republicans need to get about two-thirds of the votes from whites to win.
Other factors beyond demographics have helped Democrats. New Jersey’s high-earning, relatively well-educated voters tend not to vote in often crucial primaries—nearly half are not registered in either party—and those who do vote tend to defer to the choices of county and city political machines, which are of varying degrees of competence and cronyism. For candidates in both parties, it is a great advantage to have the designation of the local county party on the primary ballot. Another factor has been Democrats’ willingness to pitch losers aside, and the willingness of the legal and political establishments to go along. In September 2002, Sen. Robert Torricelli, plagued by scandal, was allowed by the state Supreme Court to drop out of his race for reelection and to be replaced by former Sen. Frank Lautenberg. In August 2004, Gov. Jim McGreevey announced that he would resign amidst a gay sex scandal. Democratic Senate President Richard Codey stepped in as acting governor and considered running for a full term, but was elbowed aside by Sen. Jon Corzine.
But in 2009, these factors were not enough to stop Republican Chris Christie from beating Corzine. As U.S. attorney for New Jersey Christie had secured the convictions of dozens of political figures from both parties. New Jersey government, he argued, was bloated and overly expensive, and he promised not to raise taxes. Corzine had a huge financial advantage, spending his own money while Christie was limited to the state’s public financing. But Christie stuck to his themes and won 48%-45%, with 6% for independent Christopher Daggett.
In his first year as governor, Christie sought sharp reductions in spending and substantial concessions from public employee unions. He blocked the Democratic legislature from raising taxes and with cooperation from Democrats he produced a balanced budget, although he did not fully fund the state’s depleted pension funds. He quickly became a Republican to watch, and presidential nominee Mitt Romney chose him to give the keynote speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention. But Christie’s luster dimmed with conservatives in the party after he praised Obama’s handling of hurricane recovery efforts just a week before the election and blasted fellow Republicans for holding up a relief bill in Congress.
In the second half of the 20th century, New Jersey was a close state in close presidential elections, giving small margins to winners in 1960 and 1968 and to losers in 1948 and 1976. In the 1980s, the vast suburban expanses of New Jersey leaned toward the Republicans. Since the middle 1990s, New Jersey has leaned Democratic. The suburbs, with many secular and Jewish voters and few Christian conservatives, reject Republican positions on cultural issues, and rising immigrant communities have generally voted Democratic. As a result, New Jersey, which had voted 56%-43% for George H. W. Bush in 1988, voted 54%-36% for Bill Clinton in 1996 and 56%-40% for Al Gore in 2000. In 2004, George W. Bush’s campaign strategists kept an eye on New Jersey’s polls to see whether September 11 had had enough impact on voters to make the state worth contesting. A few public polls showed the race close or tied, but Democrat John Kerry carried the state 53%-46%.
In 2008, neither party targeted New Jersey, and Barack Obama carried the state 57%-42%, the best Democratic showing since 1964. In 2012, New Jersey was again not targeted, and it was one of five states where Obama increased his percentage, to 58%-41%. This may have been the result of Hurricane Sandy: Turnout was down everywhere, but down most in Republican Ocean and Monmouth counties on the Jersey Shore. John McCain won 55% from Catholics and 61% from white Protestants; Romney won about 53% from Catholics and over 60% from white Protestants (the exit poll did not give an exact figure). But Obama won by very wide margins among the one-sixth of voters who listed their religion as Jewish, secular or other.
For years, New Jersey held its presidential primary in early June, but it was usually overshadowed by the California primary on the same day. In 1996, 2000, and 2004, both parties’ nominations were sewn up long before New Jersey voted. In April 2007, the legislature rescheduled the primary for February 5, Super Tuesday. But New Jersey again got lost in the shuffle. Polls showed Hillary Clinton and John McCain with solid leads here and in New York, which also voted on Super Tuesday. So every campaign decided to save money by not buying New York television. Democratic turnout was 1.1 million, nearly double the previous record, and Clinton beat Obama 54%-44%. She carried Jewish and Latino voters, while Obama carried blacks and did well in high-income suburbs, except those with large Jewish populations. Turnout on the Republican side was only 566,000, more than ever before but only half the number of Democrats who voted. McCain defeated Romney by a surprisingly large 55%-28%. Romney was unable to duplicate here the appeal he demonstrated in high-income suburbs in several other states. McCain topped 50% in all but two counties. In 2012 New Jersey went back to the June primary. By then the race was over, and Romney won 81% with a very light turnout.