Mitt Romney didn’t quite hit the number I suggested for him in New Hampshire (40 percent), but I’m changing my mind about how significant his win was. The exit polls portray his performance as solid-to-dominant in many of the categories that will matter going forward in this GOP primary.
Romney out-polled Ron Paul among tea partyers and those who consider themselves “very conservative” when it comes to taxes and spending. He beat Rick Santorum among evangelicals, Catholics and those who consider themselves “very conservative” regarding gay marriage and abortion. He beat his nearest competitor (Paul) by a 2-to-1 margin among those who said the economy was their most important factor in deciding who got their vote and by 1 percentage point among those who named the federal budget deficit — by far the two most-named issues. (Santorum got a healthy plurality among those who named abortion, but they made up just 6 percent of the electorate.)
He didn’t fare well among voters who were most interested in moral character or ideological purity, but he lapped the field (62 percent!) among those who said job No. 1 is beating President Obama. He also won a majority among those who most valued “leadership/personal qualities.” He was the only candidate with whom a majority of New Hampshire voters said they’d be satisfied as the nominee, and the candidate they deemed most likely to beat Obama. He won a plurality of those who didn’t pick a candidate until Tuesday.
Paul did well overall, and it does not appear a stretch at this point to predict a second-place finish for him in the entire primary process. He will have the opportunity to help orient the party’s platform in a more libertarian direction, which for him probably represents a kind of Mission Accomplished.
I consider Jon Huntsman’s results insurmountably bad. Here is a candidate who identified New Hampshire early on as his best shot, but who won just one in six voters there. If he can’t do better than a clear third place — almost exactly in between second and fourth places — there, where exactly is he going to do better? His best showings were among those who usually vote Democratic and those who pronounce themselves “satisfied” with Obama’s job performance. In short, he is not GOP nominee material in 2012.
Santorum and Newt Gingrich were back-and-forth most of the evening for fourth place, but both were so far out of third that it hardly matters their final ranking relative to one another. Neither was fatally wounded, but I doubt either can survive much longer without a win, or near-win, in South Carolina on Jan. 21. Ditto Rick Perry, who essentially skipped New Hampshire.
One or all three of them, however, might be able to wound Romney in South Carolina. If so, this thing could drag out until Super Tuesday. If not, and if Romney wins the Palmetto State, it will be difficult to see how anyone seizes enough momentum, support and funds to overtake him.
– By Kyle Wingfield