First, the numbers:
- Romney “won” (as expected) with 38% of the vote.
- Ron Paul, who is irrelevant, used up 24% of the vote.
- Huntsman kept in the race but with little prospect of going forward, with 17% of the vote
- Santorum and Gingrich are battling it out for fourth place at 10% (as of this writing they are fewer than 100 votes apart).
- Rick Perry, who is still running for the nomination did not campaign in New Hampshire, received an ort of less than 1%
And now, the burning question: What does it all mean? As I’ve noted before, not what a lot of he talking heads are saying.
Romney’s win here was no more significant than Tsongas’ win here several years ago. New Hamshire is, politically and demographically, a quaint neighborhood of Massachusetts, and this is Romney territory. The fact that he got less than 40% means that his campaigning did not push him forward, might mean that the Bain effect is kicking in or it might mean that Huntsman increased his footprint effectively. There is absolutely no significance to winning both the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary … assuming that we base “significance” on precedent and pattern. It’s never happened before in an open election season for this party, and only once for the Democrats. It just does not matter.
None of this ambiguity means that Romney is not the front runner. He is. There have been two contests and he’s won twice. But those who are saying that the nomination is now locked up are placing their bets on the good odds, but the game is still on.
The following questions remain:
Is Huntsman now a factor, or did he shoot his wad, as it were, in the Granite State? Most talking heads have dismissed him. In my view, it depends on the money. If some of the millionaires who plan to back a Republican see Bain as Romeneys Bane, they will put their money somewhere else, and it won’t be Ron Paul. They may have to choose between obnoxious (Gingrich), Right wing evangelical (Santorum) and low pain-level for the thinking person (Huntsman). He could get enough of a boost in funding to campaign in several of the upcoming less conservative or fundamentalist states. A not-so-conservative Republican candidate running in the general election will not need that much support in the rightest leaning states, because, after all, the Republicans in those states will be dutifully Voting Against the Black Guy(TM). Huntsman could do better in the moderate or bluish areas against an Obama people may be frustrated with. Hell, if I was the Republican Party, I’d be pushing for that strategy.
Is the field (below Romney) set, or is it volatile, and how fixed is Romney’s lead going forward? Let’s go back to the numbers for a moment. Here’s the breakdown in rank order of the last two contests and the current poll-based prediction for the South Carolina primary.
The leader will remain the leader until he is unseated, but the chance of that happening goes up as the contest goes south. Romney is a Yankee and a Mormon and a big businessman and his shine will not exactly be the right kind of shine when he is campaigning in Dixie. Look for news stories of special gaffs that only a Yank in the heart of the Old South can make over the next 10 days. Look for other candidates gaining on him.
Santorum showed well in Iowa, not so well in New Hampshire but his southernosity may pay off in South Carolina. But the real ringer there will be Perry. Perry, who often comes off like a clone of Bush, could end up doing better in South Carolina than polls currently suggest. We assume Huntsman will stay on ice. And, of course, Gingrich will falter and fail in ever more spectacular ways, but if he gets sufficient funding he may stay in the race for a few more primaries.
Has all the money settled on Romney or are there other strategies being considered? What we are looking for is a sling shot effect. None of the sub-Romney candidates is staying in place so far … they all seem to be bobbing up and down across these two contests and one poll. Certain bobbing is expected. Huntsman spent in New Hampshire do he did well, as did Paul. But some of what has happened was not expected. Santorum was a bit of a surprise, and please keep in mind that he came in “second” by only dozens of votes. The winner is the winner, but we’d be having an entirely different conversation if the count in Iowa was switched by the number of people eating the Fired Mopzzarella at Pazzesco’s on that Tuesday night. The point is that Santorum has been and will be all over the map.
There is an unknown but not small number of wealthy individuals ready to pay for the rest of this campaign, to back a certain candidate through the primaries then run that individual against Obama. Romney is the clear choice right now to the talking heads, to anyone who notices that he’s won twice and is on top of the polls in the next contest. But if you look at each of the candidates running in polls, head to head, against Obama, the outcome is not so clear; Romney is not a True Republican and certainly not a Teabagger; The Republican Party hasn’t put a Northerner up for election in a long time, except when they did, and they pretended those guyz was from Texas. Perry made a fool of himself but he can come back. The Huntsman strategy could be viable if other candidates start looking bad. Santorum represents the core of the party far better than Romney. Gingrich is like a muscle spasm you get in your back in the same exact place and you never quite know how to get rid of it, and Ron Paul is … well, whatever.
Romney is not the clear leader. He is the current leader and the leader-apparent, sitting on top of a bubbling cauldron. If his campaign weakens, some of those wealthy backers are going to start side bets, and if those side bets start to work out, they are going to pick a new horse and it could (almost) be any of them.