The Essex Conundrum: Dems Seek National Level Clues in Newark Environs

Durkin

A ripple of worry gripped the Democratic Party establishment two weeks ago when sources looked at early VBM totals showing less than robust performance in the cities of the Garden State amid concerns about a sometimes less than prime-time-footed Joe Biden occupying the top of the Democratic ticket. It’s not as moribund now as it was then. But Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin today told InsiderNJ that Essex – site of the state’s biggest plurality of Democratic voters and home to Democratic Party behemoth Newark – appears on pace to record totals in the vicinity of 300K.

If that turns out to be so, the election in Essex would hover around 2016 prez totals or Essex – not 2008.

Still talked about in hushed tones, 2008 was the high water mark for Essex, the year of Eddie Osborne versus Charles Bell for the Newark Central Ward seat (nationally it was actually known as the Barack Obama election).

In that election, 320,000 voters plugged in, compared to over 200,000 ballots already cast to date in the 2020 general election, which Durkin says likely puts the election on pace – given the daily trend lines – to  just over 300,000.

Just over 300K?

That’s 2016 territory, when Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump created a 304,000 outcome.

If the numbers have punched up slightly since the abject totals of earlier this month, they still could be closer to 2016 than 2008 – if Durkin’s predictions are accurate – which could be worrisome news for Biden backers hoping for a bigger urban showing to defeat Trump’s galvanized rural base.

Of course, Newark, New Jersey – the voter centerpiece of Essex County – may not prove microcosmic of other U.S. cities where battleground dynamics create more vibrant GOTV efforts. Newark this year – as it does in most general elections – occupies a blue state with snow-on-the-TV-screen statewide politics, in part driven by Trump’s New Jersey unpopularity and the fact that the state contains over a million more registered Democrats than Republicans. Neighboring Pennsylvania, by contrast, a battleground state with potentially game changer implications, features an intra-party ground game duel between Democrats in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to turn the state for Biden.

But if the suburbs ultimately are that proving ground for this election, epitomized by the president’s own podium plea to suburban women to like him, and Trump’s unfavorables with women, and that demographic pushes back mightily – voter performance in New Jersey’s suburban battleground districts (namely 11, 7, and 3, which are wholly suburban, and 2 to a somewhat lesser extent) could unlock the dimensions of what Atlantic County Democratic Committee Chairman Mike Suleiman calls “the big chessboard” for his party. Somerset County Clerk Steve Peter today, for example, held to his prediction of 180K votes recorded in his suburban county compared to 151K four years ago.

In 2008, Somerset – which has trended Democrat during the Trump years – recorded in the vicinity of 150K votes.

Even still, Durkin notes that Essex’s 2020 voter performance in the Democratic Primary outpaced even the 2008 primary, which was a contested dogfight between Obama and Clinton.

Whatever ends up happening, Durkin said Election Day and the aftermath will not record the drama and anxiety of this cycle, created by COVID-19, which afflicted two people in the clerk’s office and caused a complete revamping of Durkin’s operation in the name of public health.

“I’m an optimist by nature and we ultimately got a lot of positive change out of it,” said the clerk, who expressly thanked Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo for spearheading the changes necessary to create a safe work environment amid the hail of VBM ballots.

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