A different way to view our NJ federal legislators

We tend to view the members of our legislative delegation in terms of how progressive or conservative they are, such as how much they support or oppose the Trump agenda. Another view of them is how close or far away these members veer from what might be expected of them by their constituents. In a highly Republican district they would be expected to vote far more frequently in support of Trump, and in highly Democratic district much less in support of Trump. By being in synch with their constituents incumbents generally remain more likely to stay in power. By veering too far off course their re-electability might be in danger.

Naturally in elections there are confounding factors such as the power of incumbency and voter turnout. Also in spite of Trump’s recent uptick in the polls, his level remains so low that overall support for his agenda by both Republican and Democratic legislators might be less than anticipated. As the NY Times explains, “The president’s unceasing habit of making inflammatory and insensitive remarks is galvanizing opposition against him — especially from women — that could smother Republican momentum going into the midterm campaign.”

The Five Thirty Eight group takes a multi-step approach to establish the difference between each legislator’s actual and predicted Trump support score. It takes into account how often a member votes in line with Trump’s positions, Trump’s share of the district’s vote in the 2016 election minus Clinton’s, and how often a member is therefore expected to support Trump. Hence in theory if a legislator votes in line with the predicted score there should be no plus or minus difference in the member’s actual Trump support.


In reality many New Jersey representatives’ votes are inconsistent with the predicted score. As an example, Rep. Lance (CD 7) has voted in line with Trump 88.1% of the time, but with Trump’s margin in the election being a -1.1 share of the votes (Clinton won slightly in his district) Lance’s predicted score on support of Trump should be 63.4%. Instead the Plus or Minus difference is a +24.7 (88.1% – 63.4%). In effect his Plus or Minus difference in support of Trump is significantly higher than what constituents might desire. He recently has been modulating his tone to appear more moderate, but his voting record begs to differ. Progressive activists can see his data here and by clicking on Lance’s line see his complete  2017 and 2018 voting record here, which suggests how out of touch he is.

In spite of Rep. Tom MacArthur’s (CD 3) vociferous support of Trump his Plus or Minus difference was closer in tune with his constituents with a difference of +15.8. Interestingly enough, conservative Chris Smith’s (CD 4) Plus or Minus difference was a -12.5 indicating he supported Trump less that what his constituent might have expected or desired. The departing Rep. Frank LoBiondo (CD 2) scored a Plus or Minus +3.7 close to what would be expected. Conversely the departing Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (CD 11), like Lance, proved himself to be a highly loyal Trump supporter with a Plus or Minus Score of +23.1 – a seemingly unsustainable high for his district.


You can see the data here on our Democratic representatives with their Plus or Minus differences on the minus side with all (except one of them) voting more frequently than expected against the Trump agenda. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (CD 5) in a Republican district has voted in support of Trump on several key occasions. Nonetheless his Plus or Minus difference is a high -20.6, a substantially more progressive leaning than his constituents might expect. Only Rep. Frank Pallone (CD 6) at -23.3 exceeds Gottheimer’s difference. Barbara Watson Coleman (CD 12) has a difference of -10.1 while Rep. Donald Norcross (CD 1), Rep. Donald Payne (CD 10) and Rep. Bill Pascrell (CD 9) hue close to the predicted level. Rep Albio Sires (CD 8) at +7.8 is the only Democrat to support Trump more than expected.


Using the same scoring system, but applied state-wide, our two Democratic senators voted less frequently for Trump than their constituents might have wanted. Sen. Cory Booker’s higher votes against Trump was a -18.0 while the difference for Sen. Robert Menendez was -5.8.

Knowing how much aligned or unaligned a NJ delegation member is can be useful in strategizing a challenger’s campaign. In the case of the two House open seats it provides a picture of what constituents might expect of their legislator. In all cases it reminds us of the slippery balance that challengers and incumbents face. Nonetheless, co-opting a famous phrase from conservative Barry Goldwater, one might say in today’s world of Trump that for legislators “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Such a call for even less support than expected toward Trump seems to be a good direction for our 2018 midterm Democratic candidates.

Go here (fivethirtyeight) for the summary data on all federal legislators and click on the line of a specific legislator to see his or her vote on 2017-2018 bills.

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