Experts say Romney can’t win New Jersey

There may have been a time when Mitt Romney would have appealed to New Jersey voters, even potentially carrying the state against a Democrat in the presidential election.

Not any more, says a group of academics who monitor New Jersey campaigns.

While the pundits say Rudy Giuliani has a good chance to carry New Jersey – two independent polls have him leading all of the Democratic contenders — they say that Romney can't win a state that has gone Democratic in the last four presidential elections.

Romney was, by most accounts, a socially moderate governor of Massachusetts. He was pro-choice, pro-stem cell research and touted a strong record in support of gay rights. But during the latter part of his term, perhaps when his mind started to wander to the White House, those stances changed. And since his campaign began, he’s moved even further to the right, cooling off on gay rights issues, declaring his support for overturning Roe v. Wade, joining the NRA and opposing the types of stem cell research that he once championed.

“I think he'd be a very strong candidate in New Jersey, and he’s showed that in Massachusetts,” said Republican Assembly candidate Jay Webber, who sits on Romney’s recently created New Jersey Steering Committee. “This is a Republican governor of a very blue state, and he demonstrated an ability to communicate with voters in the northeast and advance Republican principles while winning elections in a though environment. There’s no reason to think he can't do that in New Jersey.”

It’s relatively common for blue states to elect Republican governors and vice-versa, while continuing to vote for a president along traditional ideological lines. But Romney’s shift to the right makes it difficult to endear him to voters in a state that hasn't cast its electoral votes for a Republican presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush in 1988.

“It’s hard to know how his candidacy will play out, but certainly his move to go back to a more conservative stance does not bode well for taking New Jersey,” said Ingrid Reed, a political analyst at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

David Rebovich, Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics, agreed.

"He has really separated himself from what people would call the centrist views of some Republicans, and that’s the only way you're going to have a chance to win in New Jersey,” said Rebovich. “Realistically speaking, Giuliani is the only Republican who would have a chance of winning in New Jersey.”

Some aspects of Romney’s background may appeal to New Jersey voters. He’s been lauded as an efficient corporate manager, most notably credited for cleaning up the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, pulling the organization out of debt and running an ultimately profitable event. And while he was Governor of Massachusetts, he instituted a program in which just about all of the state’s residents were required to be on some form of health insurance.

But that’s not likely to carry much weight in a campaign when the Democrat — be it Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards or someone else — will remind the electorate time and time again of Romney’s conservative campaign positions.

“He’s perceived as having moved to the right for the primary season, and if it were a general election match up, you can be sure his primary opponent will remind voters of those shifts,” said Tim Vercellotti, the Eagleton Institute’s Director of Polling.

Drew University Political Science Professor Joe Romance said that Romney has, perhaps wisely, moved to the right of Giuliani on social issues because he can't trump him on national security. That way he can appeal to voters in more conservative early primary states.

But Romance said that Romney is not likely to sell many New Jersey voters on his anti-abortion, anti-stem cell and anti-gun control credentials.

“He moved so hard that it looks like he’s in danger of being called a waffler and it’s going to be hard for him to run back to the center in New Jersey,” said Romance.

Michael Riccards, Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy and former President of Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, knew Romney when he ran for the U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994.

While Riccards acknowledged that Romney would have a better shot in New Jersey if he held onto his more moderate views, the state’s recent demographic shifts make it difficult for any national Republican other than Giuliani to make any headway here.

“He would have had a better chance, but I think New Jersey has pretty much tipped to being a blue state because large numbers of people have moved from New York City into New Jersey in the last ten years,” said Riccards.

Quinnipiac University pollster Clay Richards agreed that, even if Romney retained his moderate positions, he'd still have an uphill battle in New Jersey.

While Giuliani has been a familiar face to New Jerseyans since becoming mayor of New York City in 1994, even he would struggle to gain traction here had it not been for his association with the 9/11 terror attacks.

“Just being the mayor next door wouldn’t be enough without 9/11,” said Richards.

But State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, who’s leading the charge for Romney in New Jersey as chair of his steering committee, said that Romney has not yet had the chance to build his name recognition with New Jersey voters.

In Romney, Kyrillos sees a special candidate who voters will warm to as they get to know him. While Kyrillos acknowledged that Romney’s tone had changed on social issues, he downplayed their importance in the race.

“It’s just like academics to forecast who can win an election fourteen months before it takes place, and before the dynamics are set,” said Kyrillos. “I think that there are other big issues for the country: the global war on terror, dealing with the economic threat of competition from Asia and other places, and dealing with our economic and budget problems here at home. They make him especially suited to be a great president, and time will tell.”

Experts say Romney can’t win New Jersey