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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 04/24/05        NJBiz online

Parallels from a Hard-Fought Race

by Ingrid Reed

Now that the filing date has passed, the state's gubernatorial primary campaign is officially underway. The election takes place on June 8. For one party, the standard bearer is well known and is behaving like an incumbent: well financed, well organized and constantly being asked to explain the performance of the administration in power.

On the other side, seven candidates are vying for the chance to represent the party out of power—a party without resources or a solid focus. On this side the political establishment has yet to make a clear choice. While it should be able to capitalize on the mistakes of the incumbents, the opposition lacks a coherent message that would let it do so.

Sound familiar? With a slight change of time and party, the current state of New Jersey politics looks strangely like the presidential politics of 2004.

What lessons, if any, can be drawn from the comparison? The outsiders are going into the primary with a sense that this is the time to build victory on the mistakes of those in power. They are also fielding an assortment of possible candidates and appear to lack the strategic organization to grasp what seems a reasonable chance at victory.

Eventually the Democrats came very close to winning in November, but in the spring of 2004 they looked much like today’s New Jersey Republicans. Through a series of state primaries, John Kerry emerged from the pack. In New Jersey, however, despite various county conventions and endorsement meetings, no consensus candidate had arisen for the Republicans.
The primary contest may help capture the attention of Republican voters and lead to a clear choice. If past Republican primaries are a guide, however, that is unlikely to happen. More likely, about a third of registered Republicans will go to the polls and spread their votes among the seven candidates. The winner will squeak by with a small margin and not be seen as unifying the party.

But, like the Democrats in 2004, rather tepid support for the standard bearer will not dampen the enthusiasm for change among party supporters—if they are angry enough with the current administration and dedicated to replacing it. Can the Republicans mobilize and expand their base to make this happen?

Success for the Republicans may result from selecting the candidate who has the most persuasive message and whose personality projects well enough on television to capture the attention of New Jerseyans once the World Series is over and they start following the race. The candidate himself (no herself in this race, alas) may be key if you agree with the consensus that John Kerry was lacking in message and personality.

If there are lessons in the parallels between the national Democrats in 2004 and the New Jersey Republicans in 2005, has the national Republican Party noticed them? Do they think the gains Bush made in the Garden State in 2004 combined with the Republicans’ opportunities in 2005 deserve help from the party to orchestrate the sophisticated grass-roots and Internet campaigns that gave them the edge in 2004?

Of course, the Democrats too can take cues from 2004. Can they reassure the voters that even though there are significant challenges ahead for the state, the party in power has shown it can deal with difficult problems—many of which it inherited from previous Republican administrations? Can they show that they are in the best position to address them in the future? It was a winning strategy for Bush. Will it be for Corzine?

While the comparisons are interesting, each year is a new game in politics. And this year, with the increase in registered voters in 2004, there are about 500,000 new players. They could represent the margin of victory in the primary and in the general election. What will they do in 2005?