Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Romney Wins New Hampshire; Rivals Split Vote

Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire Primary on Tuesday, a result which should come as no surprise. With 81% reporting, Romney won with 38%. Ron Paul came second, losing by about 15 points. Romney's margin of victory, though large, was less than many polls had suggested it could have been. The more important story is how Romney's main rivals for the nomination--Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum--will be weakened by the result. The following is the result, as of this posting, and an analysis of how the result will influence the race going forward:

New Hampshire Primary (81% reporting)
Romney -- 38%
Paul -- 23%
Huntsman -- 17%
Gingrich -- 10%
Santorum -- 10%
Perry -- 1%

Yesterday, Elephant Watcher predicted that if Romney finished in the 30s, it would be treated as an underwhelming victory, particularly if second-place was not far behind. After all, winning by 15 points is not a great performance when so many polls had indicated a win by 20 points or more. Some pundits will claim the result shows weakness on Romney's part, offering some version of "This is one of Romney's best states, he's been campaigning here all year (or for the past five years) and only beat his 2008 performance by a handful of points. Romney can't close the deal. He is a weak frontrunner. The voters want this thing to continue." Other pundits will also remark on Jon Huntsman's third-place finish, speculating on whether he can be yet another candidate to surge.

Although it's true that Romney would have preferred a bigger margin of victory, it's important to view the race in its proper context: Romney isn't running against himself or his poll numbers; he's running against Gingrich and Santorum.

From that perspective, Romney had a very good result. Romney's biggest fear is that either Gingrich or Santorum will beat the other convincingly, become the chief Anti-Romney, and coalesce all of the Anti-Romney vote. Therefore, Romney's best scenario was for Gingrich and Santorum to finish well behind himself, and as close to each other as possible. Gingrich and Santorum would then continue to split the Anti-Romney vote. New Hampshire voters gave Romney his wish: Gingrich and Santorum virtually tied at 10% each, an embarrassing and ambiguous finish.

What about Paul and Huntsman? Neither man has a chance of winning the nomination. Paul is viewed by most Republicans as a "kook." Huntsman, who finished barely high enough to justify remaining in the race, entered the race by making the unspeakably poor decision of running to the left of Romney. He will be unable to play an Anti-Romney role, because the Anti-Romney vote is comprised of people who think Romney is too far to the left, not too far to the right. Thus, Paul and Huntsman served only to diminish Gingrich and Santorum more.

Now the race moves to South Carolina. The contests in Iowa and New Hampshire have done nothing to clarify the Anti-Romney situation. Rather than providing Romney with one strong opponent, he has two evenly-matched opponents who weaken each other. Romney's campaign has been professional and disciplined. More important, he continues to be lucky.