NEW YORK — Never mind the bitter partisan bickering in Washington. New Jersey resident Peter Cahill will go to the polls twice within the next month and do something unusual: vote for a Republican and a Democrat.
On Wednesday, Cahill, 44, will cast a ballot for Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, in a special election for U.S. Senate.
Then, on Nov. 5, he’ll vote to reelect Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, to a second term.
Booker and Christie are very different, the Hillsdale man acknowledges. They disagree on gay marriage, abortion and government spending, to name a few differences. But that doesn’t bother Cahill.
“Both of them aren’t trying to serve the party, but are making sure they do the right thing for New Jersey,” he said. “Which ultimately helps them both in the long run.”
Both appear poised to win. Booker holds a 12-percentage-point lead over tea party opponent Steven M. Lonegan, according to an average of recent polls by Real Clear Politics. Christie is up 27 percentage points over Democratic opponent Barbara Buono, a state senator, according to a separate average of polls.
Neither Christie nor Booker is a typical member of his party.
Christie criticized fellow Republicans when they dallied providing aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy. He also infuriated the GOP when he appeared with President Obama to tour the damage within a week of election day.
Booker has taken moderate positions on some hot-button issues, including gun control and school vouchers. He has also turned to big business to help revive Newark.
The fact that both have produced accomplishments by working with the opposition appeals to voters, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
“I don’t think this is unique to New Jersey,” he said. “I think we have two distinct charismatic politicians, both of whom are committed to a very traditional definition of politics that demands bargaining, negotiating and compromise. That’s a contrast to other politicians who think that bargaining, negotiation and compromise are the reason America went off the rails in the first place.”
Ticket splitting — choosing candidates from different parties on the same ballot — is declining, but that isn’t quite what’s going on in New Jersey. The elections are three weeks apart, and Christie’s critics say that’s because he didn’t want Booker supporters turning out in droves and voting against the governor, so he called the special election to replace the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg for a different time.
But the share of voters who choose a Republican president and a Democratic congressman, for instance, has steadily declined from 20% in 1984 to 12% in 1992 to 9% in 2008, according to American National Election Studies.
“Call them ticket splitters or swing voters, but there are fewer and fewer of them as the parties have become polarized,” said David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied ticket splitting.
There used to be fewer differences between political parties, Kimball said, so voters would just choose the candidate they liked best. Now, voters identify with a party and support its candidates.
“There’s less room for candidates from the other side to break through,” he said. “Booker and Christie seem to be exceptions.”
Their outsize personalities appear to help them resist the bitterness emanating from Washington, as do their independent centers of power: Christie as governor, Booker as mayor.
Both candidates’ broad support may stem partly from the less-polarized state electorate. A huge plurality of New Jersey voters — about 47% — are not registered with any political party. One-third are registered as Democrats and 20% as Republicans. (That contrasts with California, where about 44% are registered as Democrats, 29% as Republicans and 21% as “decline to state,” or independent.)
Other factors help too. Christie, Dworkin said, “doesn’t look or sound like anyone else out there,” which fascinates voters.
Some of his conservative positions may be at odds with the majority of New Jerseyans — he vetoed a bill that would have allowed gay couples to wed, for instance, despite polls showing that 60% of state residents want to legalize it. But voters don’t much care about social issues in state elections, said Patrick Murray, poll director at Monmouth University in New Jersey.
Booker has an impressive resume: a Stanford football player, a Rhodes scholar, a mayor of a struggling city and a hero who ran into a burning building to save a neighbor.
“It’s also style,” Murray said. “Like Chris Christie, he comes across as somebody who’s not the traditional Democratic politician.”
Booker and Christie are friends, and both are playing up bipartisanship as the elections approach. In a recent campaign ad, Christie touted his ability to work with the Democratic Legislature. Booker has called on members of Congress to compromise and pledged not to be a partisan politician in Washington.
That appeals to voters like David Stevens, 45, of Manasquan, N.J., who says he’s sick and tired of political bickering.
“Maybe they’re starting to realize that compromise isn’t a bad thing,” he said.
Whether both New Jersey politicians will be able to remain popular if they leave the state for higher office remains to be seen. Voters say they like Booker and Christie because they stand up for New Jerseyans, and analysts say it’s important that both continue to do that, regardless of what their party tells them to do.
Mark Squitieri, 59, is planning to vote for both Booker and Christie. His nephews work in public safety in Newark; they like Booker, and so does Squitieri. Although he disagrees with Christie’s social positions, he likes everything else about the governor.
He’ll continue to support both Booker and Christie as long as he feels both are on his side, not catering to politics.
“I’m looking for whether people are going to defend me, whether they’re going in the same direction that I’m going,” he said. “That’s important for me.”