The polls all showed the tidal wave for "change" that carried
Barack Obama into the White House in 2008 had ebbed in 2012. The
question on Tuesday night was whether it had receded enough to break
for Mitt Romney.
Unemployment remained too high. Obama's stimulus law and health insurance overhaul were toxic in some states. And his campaign went from inspiring voters about the future in 2008 to targeting swing state voters, warning about the future if Romney won.
But in New Jersey - a state coping with a higher unemployment rate than the national average - Obama saw a slight boost over 2008. It became the only state in the country where Obama won four years ago and garnered even more support this year.
There were signs that superstorm Sandy played a key role in the president's performance in the state, according to Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray.
"He was always going to win, it was just the margin," said Murray, adding that polls before the storm showed Obama getting less support than in 2008. "Now he's won by more than he did four years ago. That's all due to Sandy."
According to exit polls, some 53 percent of New Jersey voters, compared with 42 percent nationwide, said Obama's handling of the storm was an important factor in their vote. And among those who said it was important, 77 percent voted for Obama, who went to the Jersey Shore two days after the storm and got high marks from Governor Christie for the federal response.
Election returns on Tuesday night, which could change significantly when tens of thousands of paper and electronic ballots are counted, showed that Obama carried 14 of New Jersey's 21 counties -- the same counties he won in 2008.
While overall turnout was down, Obama received 58 percent of the vote, up from 57 percent in 2008. This happened despite the continued popularity of the Republican governor New Jersey elected the year after going overwhelmingly for Obama. Christie was a top Romney supporter, and traveled the country giving speeches slamming Obama. But after Sandy hit, Christie praised the president's response.
To be sure, New Jersey was always in Obama's corner, and exit polls show some reasons why: 59 percent of voters want the health insurance law that Romney promised to repeal to be left alone or expanded; 57 percent support raising taxes on those making more than $250,000; and 81 percent said most illegal immigrants should be offered a chance to apply for legal status.
Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who campaigned on all three issues, also got 58 percent of the vote against Republican challenger Joe Kyrillos. Menendez and Obama each carried 14 of the state's 21 counties, including the typical Republican strongholds of Somerset and Burlington.
Obama may have focused his energies in swing states, and even drafted New Jersey volunteers to go into Pennsylvania. But Menendez also worked with the state Democratic Party to make sure a coordinated ground game was running for his race, even though plans had to be rewritten when Sandy hit.
"Bob Menendez campaigned the way I campaign: Assume you're down, and keep slugging away until 8 o'clock comes," said John Wisniewski, chairman of the Democratic State Committee and an assemblyman from Sayreville. "He didn't leave any stone unturned, and he didn't give up raising funds to get his message out until he got that Senate seat."
Republican leaders said the state's demographics, with a higher Democratic voter registration and large numbers in groups that traditionally support the party, such as immigrants, always make it tough for the party's presidential candidates to win.
"This area is so solidly Democratic now, it's a struggle to have a two-party system," said Bob Yudin, the Bergen County Republican chairman. "You can run almost anybody and they'll vote Democratic."
But voters said it did matter who was running.
"I didn't want to live in the world Romney was envisioning," said Bridget Freihart, an Obama supporter from Chester. "It wasn't so much Obama's track record. I feel like he wasn't allowed to get a lot done because of the House. But the policies Obama is working on, I put more faith in."
Barbara Bradley of Edgewater said she believed Obama "is doing a good job" after inheriting a mess that could not be reversed in only four years. And Romney's position on women's issues "would have had us back in the Stone Age," she said.
Omar Clavijo of Palisades Park wrote in a vote for Ron Paul in 2008, but he "had to make sure Obama won" because "Romney was so full of it."
"And it's not a Republican/Democrat thing. I would have voted for [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg or Chris Christie. I think with eight years, Obama can probably turn the country around," Clavijo said.
Many states gave Obama more support than New Jersey, including Romney's home state of Massachusetts, where Obama got 61 percent of the vote.
Early tallies showed Sandy lowered turnout by more than 550,000 votes, or 15 percent. The biggest drops were in Ocean and Essex counties, which were off by 20 percent and 19 percent, respectively. Those figures are likely to change when absentee, fax and email ballots are added, but no one Wednesday could provide information how many of those votes there were.
Murray said that nationwide, turnout was down by 7 to 8 percent, and he thought it was significant that New Jersey's vote was not off by more than that.
The exit polls show 44 percent of the electorate called themselves Democrats and 26 percent Republicans. It was 44 percent to 28 percent four years ago," Murray said.
"Democrats made sure they got themselves to the polls come hell or high water, literally. Before Sandy, that did not look like it would be the case," he said.
Staff Writers Chris Harris and John Reitmeyer contributed to this article. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: northjersey.com/ thepoliticalstate
Of all the states that President Obama won in 2008, New Jersey was the only one where the percentage of votes increased Tuesday.
State : 2008 : 2012 : Chg
New Jersey : 57% : 58% : 1%
Rhode Island : 63% : 63% : 0%
New York : 63% : 63% : 0%
Maryland : 62% : 62% : 0%
Vermont : 67% : 67% : 0%
D.C. : 92% : 91% : -1%
Maine : 58% : 56% : -2%
Florida : 51% : 50% : -1%
Hawaii : 72% : 71% : -1%
North Carolina : 50% : 48% : -1%
Massachusetts : 62% : 61% : -1%
Minnesota : 54% : 53% : -1%
Ohio : 52% : 50% : -1%
Virginia : 53% : 51% : -2%
California : 61% : 59% : -2%
New Hampshire : 54% : 52% : -2%
Iowa : 54% : 52% : -2%
Colorado : 54% : 51% : -2%
Washington : 58% : 55% : -2%
Pennsylvania : 54% : 52% : -3%
New Mexico : 57% : 53% : -4%
Connecticut : 61% : 58% : -3%
Nevada : 55% : 52% : -3%
Delaware : 62% : 59% : -3%
Oregon : 57% : 53% : -3%
Wisconsin : 56% : 53% : -3%
Michigan : 57% : 54% : -4%
Illinois : 62% : 57% : -5%
Indiana : 50% : 44% : -6%
United States : 53% : 50% : -3%
Note: Figures are rounded. 2012 figures are not official.
Sources: Federal Election Commission, realclearpolitics.com
Staff Writers Chris Harris and John Reitmeyer contributed to this article
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