Yes, Tom Malinowski probably would have won on the old NJ convention card

If Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) conceded in the 7th congressional district race for congressman-elect Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) two weeks ago, he identified a clear culprit for his loss: the new map of Congress of New Jersey.

“While we’ve done as well or better than 2020 in the communities I’ve represented over the past four years, and I expect the results will continue to worsen as all votes are counted, the new district proved to be too big a hurdle to clear,” Malinowski said in his Nov. 9 admission. (He ultimately lost by three points.)

Malinowski was there on election night even clearer: “There is no question that we would win hands down in the original district.”

In fact, the main obstacle to Malinowski’s ability to win a third term was the congressional lines drawn by Democrats on the congressional redistribution commission. To support other members of the Democratic House, the 7th District was saddled with many additional Republican-leaning territories, reducing President Joe Biden’s lead in the district from 10 to just four points.

But is Malinowski right when he says he would have won if his district had stayed the same?

While there’s no way to know for sure, it’s possible to make a guess by comparing Malinowski’s city-level performance in 2020 and 2022 (using detailed data only recently made available). And by that guess, the answer is yes: Malinowski would have won re-election under the old New Jersey county lines.

When Kean first faced Malinowski two years ago, the race for the 7th district was the closest in New Jersey; Malinowski’s 50.6%-49.4% win was a nine-point underperformance from Biden. That year, Kean won 51.5% to 48.5%.

A direct comparison of these two results is not possible because the district was redrawn. But 62 towns, or about two-thirds of the county’s population, were fully committed to both the old and new county is possible to specifically compare the results in these cities.

In 2020, while losing by 1.2 points overall, Kean won that series of cities by 5.3 points.

This year, however, Kean won the same cities by a margin of 2.9 points, more than two points worse than 2020. Had the 7th district remained the same, that would have resulted in a healthy Malinowski win by 3.6 points.

Technically, it’s possible that Malinowski underperformed specifically in the cities that were removed from the district, but there’s no reason to think that would be the case.

In other words, Malinowski matched or surpassed the numbers he needed to win in the old 7th District, and what brought him down were the changes made by members of his own party in the New District Commission.

Given the big victories of Neighbor Reps Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) and Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) in counties the commission bluered, there was some heartburn among Democrats that Malinowski’s sacrifice was for nothing.

If the 7th Ward had remained about the same and solid Republican counties of Warren and Sussex had been placed in the 5th and 11th Wards instead, Malinowski might have been favored for the win. Since Democrats won the 5th district by 10 points and the 11th district by 19 points, such a shift would not have endangered incumbents there either.

And such a change would have had an impact on the race as a whole. If Malinowski had run in a more favorable circle, national democratic circles would have seen his race that way rather worth investing in; From the start, the redder district lines set a narrative that Malinowski would lose, and the congressman was never able to fully convince his party otherwise.

(One caveat is that a map that protected all vulnerable Democratic officeholders might not have stood with Redistribution Commission tiebreaker John Wallace, who appeared to favor Democrats but may have resisted an overly rigged map.)

Despite this, the hypotheses did not materialize. What happened is the congressional card was approved, Malinowski lost, and Kean is an elected congressman. Not only that: Kean performed about seven points better than Donald Trump two years ago, one of the biggest overachievements in the state.

But Kean won’t have an easy time holding the 7th District for years to come, even with his new, more Republican lines.

At the heart of the 7th Precinct are affluent suburbs that began outpacing Republicans in the Trump era. And it’s in those suburbs that Malinowski fared best compared to 2020, indicating that Kean can’t necessarily count on ancestral Republicans to split their tickets on him.

Malinowski performed between four and eight points better than 2020 in Berkeley Heights, Mountainside, New Providence, Springfield and Summit, five Union County suburbs that Kean formerly represented in the state legislature. In Westfield, Kean’s hometown, Malinowski performed by a staggering 12 points better than 2020 and won by 28 points.

Malinowski and frustrated Democrats will likely spend the next two years regretting the New District Commission’s decision to make the 7th Circuit more Republican, claiming that it was the determining factor in Malinowski’s defeat.

And they will be right. There is no way to interpret the city-level data so that it does not point to a probable Malinowski victory in the old 7th district. That doesn’t take away from Kean’s win, but it does mean he can’t just sit back and relax for the next two years; the 7th district has many more exchanges to offer.