The Huntsman-Santorum Effect: Will Republicans Become Self Aware?

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The New Hampshire Primaries are today, and Mitt Romney seems to be holding his strong lead, though there are some interesting changes in the numbers. But that is utterly irrelevant. Let me explain why:

Notably, Romney’s lead has varied across recent polls from a bump of over 41 to a still strong 35 percent, depending on which polls you look at. One might argue that this kind of variation is meaningless, and Romney is still in a commanding lead with any of those numbers, but that would actually be an irrational argument. It does not matter how close another candidate is to the leader, variation of 6 points in a candidate’s numbers, especailly in a place like New Hampshire, has meaning even if it does not cause a swap in position. The reason for this is the way things play out in New Hampshire.

Unlike larger and more populous states, a very large percentage of the people who will be voting in the primaries actually get to either see one or more candidates in person or see key operatives and impressive supporters of those candidates (local elected officials, etc). Or, at least, they get to feel like this is true given the tradition of the primaries. The theory is that his sort of more immediate contact between candidates and voters can have larger short term effects. A candidate that was previously low in the polls, and low on name recognition, that everybody in Moultonborough New Hapmshire (for example) has pretty much ignored, can suddenly become a factor in that small town if he shows up and shares a box of donuts with the guys at the Legion Post. This can happen, village by village, town by town, step by step until that person goes from 1% to 3%. Or single digits to double digits. Romney’s (minor but possibly not insignificant) variation in the polls is not because people are getting to know him (see below) but rather, because people are getting to know John Huntsman.

Huntsman’s numbers are high in New Hampshire (for him … over 10 percent, easily) and seem to be the numbers that go up or down most in relation to Romney’s (though Gingrich’s do as well). He’s been trying to get his numbers up in New Hampshire and this is indeed exactly what it looks like. Huntsman’s 1% has gone to as much as 16%. It is quite possible that these numbers will increase still. New Hampshire is exactly the kind of place where someone like John Huntsman can have a strong last minute showing. Doing a little well in New Hampsire, however, would probably be wiped out soon after by doing poorly in some of the southern states where much of the focus shifts next. And he likely will do poorly there, where he is currently showing only a slight improvement over his consistent 1% take of the poll numbers. But if he shows very strongly, perhaps getting second place a few points ahead of third place, there will be funding, there will be support, and he may survive the upcoming sweep through Dixie (South Carolina and Florida) before heading to Nevada then Michigan.

Why is name recognition for Romney not a factor in New Hampshire? This is obvious to most people watching these things, but just in case you are only now tuning in to the action: Romney was well known as a candidate running against Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy years ago, and then subsequently, he became Governor of Massachusetts. What you may not realize is that the geographical center for much of the 1.3 million or so people who live in New Hampshire is actually Boston. Boston Massachusetts (and surrounds). I’m not sure what the number is, but a very large percentage of the people who live in New Hampshire a) work in Massachusetts; b) are from Massachusetts; c) are members of families split between New Hampshire and Massachusetts; d) actually live in Massachusetts but pretend to live in New Hampshire for tax reasons; or e) whatever.

This is why, as I’ve said before, a Romney win in New Hampshire is meaningless. The distribution of the other candidates, among themselves, is much more meaningful. But really, that may not be very meaningful for all of the lower echelon candidates; By most polls this seems to be a Paul-Huntsman-Santorum horse race, and if Paul either wins (second) or has a good show, that will be ignored because we have all, Democrats, Independents and Republicans alike, learned to ignore Ron Paul a very long time ago. The real question will be which of the two other candidates … Hunstman vs. Santourm, but let’s not totally forget Gingrich yet … will come in closest behind Romney, regardless of where Paul places.

And it will be very interesting if Santorum and Huntsman both place, remain in the race, and become meaningful elements in the debates and discussions. The two represent very different places (I hesitate to say “opposite ends of the spectrum” but maybe) in that party. For the most part, Republican party politics is like a narrow coastal strip on which everybody lives with a vast mostly unpopulated hinterland (much like New Hamphsire itself!) which is always ignored. Huntsman is a guy from the hinterland allowed to sit at the table for a while, before he finishes his milk and cookies, picks up his musket and raccoon cap, and heads back off into the wilderness. But if Hunstman places fair with Santorum, say within two percentage points, he may be invited to stay for lunch.

Then the Republican Party may actually have to engage in a conversation about its own internal philosophy. I’m not sure if that’s ever happened before . No one knows that that will look like. It could be interesting.

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2 thoughts on “The Huntsman-Santorum Effect: Will Republicans Become Self Aware?

  1. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, NH Republicans are a different breed from those in most red states. As a result, NH Republican primaries are almost always a pretty bad indicator of the results of the other primaries. (McCain in 2000 ring any bells?) I don’t have any polls or statistics to back this up but in my experience NH Republicans tend to lean libertarian rather than social conservative.

    Nailed in terms of many NH residents essentially living in Northachusetts. Wikipedia provides a few statistics, such as that the center of population is currently in Merrimack, NH (google to see how close to the MA border that is).

    And nailed the fact that there was never any doubt Romney would win this primary because he’s a hero to pretty much all New England conservatives.

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