Bergen County voters have been willing to vote for both Democrats and Republicans in both presidential and gubernatorial elections over the past 40 years.
by Jake Aferiat
Karen Kosch was born and raised in northern New Jersey, taught in northern New Jersey and still resides in northern New Jersey.
So it makes sense that the former high school history teacher of 33 years said she believes she has a good grasp of the politics of a region she really knows — Bergen County, the most populous county in the state and among the most electorally variable.
I just wanted to vote for the best person.”Karen Kosch
“The partisanship was never that strong,” Kosch said in a recent telephone interview. The results seem to underscore her point.
In the 10 presidential elections dating back to 1980, Bergen County has experienced a dramatic switch of the gears. It voted for the Democrat for the last six elections – 2016, 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000 and 1996. It voted Republican in the previous four – 1992, 1988, 1984 and 1980.
When it comes to electing a governor, the variability is even more pronounced. In the 10 gubernatorial elections since 1981, Democrats and Republicans have each won five elections, with three elections decided by single digits and four decided by a margin of 20 or more points.
Over the last 40 years in Bergen County, Republicans won all but one election from 1981 to 1997, while Democrats have seen similar success over the most recent 20-year span, winning all but one election from 2001 to 2017.
Kosch sees herself as a representative voter of the county. “You might say [someone is a] ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican,’ but I think most people growing up, myself included, registered as an independent, and I didn’t want to identify with the party. I just wanted to vote for the best person,” she said.
Bergen County spans much of northern New Jersey, covering an area from immediately adjacent to the George Washington Bridge, connecting the state to Manhattan about 10 miles away, to the westernmost parts of the county, which are upward of 30 miles away.
While it is difficult to explain the differences and changes in voting, Kosch has one theory: Residents of Bergen County, where the median household income is $95,837, view a governor’s action as having a more direct effect on their lives.
“People in the area make really good money and I always attributed it [the conservative tendencies] to a protection of their pockets,” Kosch said. “Supply side economics, Reaganomics — the conservative Republicans were all about protecting that money, so I always thought it was an economic thing.”
In a report from the New Jersey State Division of Elections, as of April 1, Bergen County has 263,644 unaffiliated voters, 236,935 Democratic voters and 137,024 Republican voters. That gives Bergen the largest number of unaffiliated voters in any of New Jersey’s 21 counties and the second largest number of Democratic voters.
The county saw 20,879 new voters register between April 1, 2019, and April 1 this year. Of those, 19 percent were unaffiliated, 55 percent were Democrats and 23 percent were Republicans.
The lean toward the left was evident even before this past year. In the 2016 presidential race, Bergen County went for Hillary Clinton by 13 percentage points.
But Trump still won support in a large part of the county. In New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District, which encompasses 61.4 percent of Bergen County, Trump beat Clinton by a percentage point.
That wasn’t the only anomaly, though.
Voters in that Fifth District elected Democrat Josh Gottheimer to Congress, upsetting and unseating a seven-term Republican incumbent, conservative stalwart Scott Garrett. The win made Gottheimer the first Democrat elected to represent the district since 1930.
At the time, experts said that part of Gottheimer’s appeal was his moderate image. In fact, Gottheimer has lived up to the image. According to the politics website FiveThirtyEight, Gottheimer has voted with Trump 34.5 percent of the time, the fourth most of any Congressional Democrat.
That all helped him get reelected handily in 2018 and made him the first Democratic member of Congress to represent the district for more than one term in over a century.
As an unaffiliated voter and a teacher, Kosch used to keep her political opinions to herself. Now retired, Kosch is a registered Democrat. She canvassed and volunteered earlier this election season for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who ultimately dropped out of the race.
Kosch said she’s witnessed firsthand evidence of what she views as a leftward shift, the county’s purple tint.
“I learned that with getting signatures to get Pete Buttigieg on the ballot. I could walk up and down a street somewhere and nine out of 10 people were going to stop, see my Pete stuff and sign. A couple of people would say, ‘No, I’m for Trump or no I’m a Republican,’ and they weren’t mean or anything, they just moved on,” Kosch said. “But as I went further west just a bit toward the edge of and out of Bergen [County] to get signatures, I had some guy accost me and say, ‘Get out of here. You can’t be doing that for a guy like this. We have Trump.’”
Noting the county’s large number of unaffiliated voters, Kosch said she expects the political differences within the county to remain for at least a little while longer. In her mind, that penchant for moderation is a deeply held belief and tradition – even a point of pride for many.
“For a real long time, the independent posturing has been a proud thing to do,” she said. “You stayed more middle of the road and you did go back and forth and would vote for a Republican or you would vote for a Democrat.”