Why New Hampshire hasn't joined the anti-Romney bandwagon

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney struggles to get more than 20 percent support in most polls. But he's long held a healthy lead in New Hampshire. The two are well matched.  

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks at the Devine Millimet-Manchester Chamber of Commerce Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire on Friday.

In national polls, Mitt Romney doesn’t have a clear hold on front-runner status. In New Hampshire, though, he’s generally had a double-digit lead over a revolving door of second place candidates.

One reason: He’s not taking the Granite State for granted.

Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, hasn’t rested on his laurels since finishing second here to Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the 2008 primary. He’s crisscrossed the state holding town hall meetings, and he’s campaigned not only for himself, but also on behalf of local candidates, building a solid network of Republican support.

For New Hampshire primary voters, such known brands are appealing, political experts say.

Romney, who attended a forum sponsored by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce Friday, is also “a good fit ideologically for the state’s Republican voters,” says Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

While the label “New England Republican” may earn Romney scoffs among the more conservative wing of the party nationally, among Republicans here, “moderate and somewhat conservative” voters dominate, Professor Scala says. “This is not a state where tea party Republican voters have the upper hand.”

According to the count on Romney’s campaign website, he’s been endorsed by 47 New Hampshire state representatives and 8 state senators. In late October, he officially won the endorsement of one of the most well-known Republicans in the state, former Gov. John Sununu.

Part of Romney’s lead can be attributed to the perceived lack of credibility among some of his opponents, says Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. “Voters are starting to figure out that there are a group of people in this race looking to sell books and get a media contract after the election, and Romney isn’t one of them.”

In New Hampshire and nationally, Romney has also avoided the missteps that have tripped up opponents like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Herman Cain. And even things like being on time for events make a difference. Mr. Cain kept his supporters waiting over an hour Thursday at a rally in Nashua. But when Romney holds an event, “it’s like a Swiss watch,” Mr. Levesque says.

Most surveys in recent months show Romney with about 40 percent support among people likely to vote in the New Hampshire GOP primary. A Bloomberg News Poll of 504 such voters conducted Nov. 10-12 showed Romney at 40 percent, Rep. Ron Paul at 17 percent, and Newt Gingrich at 11 percent. By comparison, the same poll also looked at Iowa voters and found Romney with only 18 percent, slightly behind Cain and Congressman Paul.

Some of the social issues that bother more conservative voters don’t seem to be a detriment in New Hampshire. Romney has been criticized for supporting abortion-rights in the past and “flip-flopping” to position himself as pro-life. But 74 percent of the likely voters in New Hampshire wouldn’t rule a candidate out for changing positions on abortion, the Bloomberg poll shows.

Romney has also taken heat from some Republicans nationally for his support of a mandated health-insurance law in Massachusetts when he was governor. Calling it “Romneycare,” his critics have said he’s not a good choice to dismantle the national version of health reform dubbed “Obamacare.”

But only 46 percent in New Hampshire would rule out a candidate on that issue, compared with 58 percent in Iowa, according to the Bloomberg poll.

None of this is to say that Romney has a definite lock on the nomination here.

“New Hampshire has a way of being quirky,” says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Hillary Clinton edged out Barack Obama here in 2008, despite being behind in polls, and Senator McCain beat George W. Bush in 2000.

Given Romney’s name recognition and the way he’s worked the state, “maybe the story is, he should be doing even better,” Professor Fowler says.

There are doubts about Romney in two directions, she explains: “Hard-core” Republicans think he’s too much of a “Massachusetts Republican,” and some independents worry that he’s not enough of one anymore, that he’s moved too far to the right.

That leaves an opening for a challenger, and the latest who seems to be gaining steam is Mr. Gingrich. Paralleling his rise in national polls, the New Hampshire Journal reports that its new poll shows Gingrich practically neck in neck with Romney in New Hampshire, 27 percent to 29 percent, with a 3.59-point margin of error.

The poll of 764 likely voters, both Republicans and independents, was conducted Nov. 15 and 16. Several polling experts and political scientists say they wouldn’t be surprised if Gingrich is moving up, but it would be important to see other polls – conducted over a longer time frame and with interviews, rather than the autodial method this one used ­– to verify if the New Hampshire electorate has shifted that significantly.

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