By Nick DAngelo
Since 1916, a time when presidential politics was still defined by party bosses and backroom deals, New Hampshire has had its now-famous primary. But it wasn’t until 1952 when the primary earned its reputation for allowing second-tier candidates to make a name for themselves. In 1952, General Dwight Eisenhower used the primary to prove his popularity in the Republican primary against establishment favorite Sen. Robert Taft, the son of our 27th president. In the Democratic primary that year, Sen. Estes Kefauver performed so well that President Harry S. Truman declined to seek a second full term.
The New Hampshire primary has had a reputation of changing the make-up of the campaign, as it did in 1968, 1992, 2000 and 2008. And that’s why the 2012 results were dull in comparison. But 2012 may say a lot more about the primary process, this cycle’s crop of candidates and the future of the Grand Old Party.
For months it had been widely anticipated that Gov. Mitt Romney would win in the Granite State, further solidifying his known status as GOP front-runner. The questions became (1) By how much, (2) Who would finish behind him, and (3) How would it shape the rest of the race?
Pundits generally agreed that in order to diminish speculation that he is a weak candidate, Romney needed to win by double-digits and capture over 40 percent. He did win by eighteen points, but Romney fell short of the desired 40 percent threshold. His victory was by no means disappointing. After all, when John McCain beat Romney four years ago in New Hampshire, he did so by capturing 37 percent and finished only five points above Romney. That was still a game changer.
Despite Romney being the only non-incumbent Republican to ever win both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, the Republican electorate is still largely unimpressed. He is uninspiring and, according to some, unable to lead the Party in the strong, forceful way it needs to be led. While the primary diminishes most other candidates’ claims that they can take down Romney, it has not ended the race.
It was a good night for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the second place finisher who now has some added momentum after a disappointing third place finish in Iowa. Paul’s victory at a solid 23 percent far exceeds expectations. Gov. Jon Huntsman’s third place finish is less impressive. Huntsman was the only candidate who invested everything in New Hampshire. His poor performances in the debates and his unwillingness to compete in Iowa meant that a loss in New Hampshire would severely handicap his chance of winning the nomination.
That being said, Huntsman was the only candidate with a New Hampshire ground staff that could compete with Romney. The former Ambassador to China also created a McCain-like structure of over 100 town chairs for his campaign, encompassing all of New Hampshire’s ten counties. He needed a second place finish to stay relevant in this race, and a first place finish to have a shot at the nomination.
What does it all mean going forward? South Carolina matters more than it has in the past. The Palmetto state catapulted McCain to victory in 2008, ending Romney’s chance at the nomination with a bruising fourth place finish. South Carolina could again dismantle the Romney campaign, or it may simply solidify the front-runner. Romney can boast the support of popular conservative Gov. Nikki Haley. The campaign certainly understands what is at stake in South Carolina and has for a long time. In 2010, Romney backed Haley, then a little-know State Representative, in the gubernatorial primary. She squeaked out a victory as the Tea Party favorite and now owes Romney for his celebrity endorsement. Regardless, this is still Romney’s last high-profile fight against the far right. In Iowa he just barely edged out Sen. Rick Santorum, arguably the United State Senate’s most conservative member from 1995-2007. Santorum may be able to use his Iowa momentum for a full-blown victory in a state that is more evangelical, more conservative and more predictable. More likely than a Santorum victory though is a Gingrich one.
The latest poll on RealClearPolitics from Thursday, January 12, 2012 showed Romney and Gingrich in a virtual tie. In order to become credible again, the former Speaker must win a primary. His oratorical sound bytes of “the Reagan Conservative vs. the Massachusetts Moderate” play well in a state known for far right values. And let’s not forget that this is Gingrich-territory—he represented neighboring Georgia in the U.S. House for over a quarter of a century. For Romney South Carolina must be a solid win to end party infighting. He simply cannot afford another Iowa.
The New Hampshire primary last week continued the trend of this election: no matter how impressive Romney’s win, he will be challenged. But the results do say something about our Party. New Hampshire is in some cases a swing state. In the last ten presidential elections, New Hampshire has gone to a Democrat four times and a Republican six. Despite its four electoral votes, it can define an election (George W. Bush would not have been president without New Hampshire). The state represents the most educated primary electorate in the country, the most politically observant, and the top three finishers were two conservative moderates and a libertarian. Despite the fear of a far-right hijacking of the Republican Party, it looks like sober conservatism may still be leading.