After going more than three weeks without meeting on a public stage, the Republican presidential hopefuls went at it twice within a 12-hour span, in New Hampshire, over the weekend.
In terms of drama, the two debates weren’t up there with other storied moments in New Hampshire campaign lore – Ronald Reagan taking back his microphone in Nashua in 1980, Ed Muskie breaking down in front of the Manchester Union-Leader in 1972, Bob Dole angrily telling the elder George Bush to “stop lying about his record” after 1988’s votes were counted, and Bill Clinton promising to stick with the people of New Hampshire “until the last dog dies” in staging his second-place “comeback” in 1992.
Indeed, drama may be the one thing in short supply if, as widely expected, Mitt Romney coasts to an easy win in the Granite State.
The chattering class is starting to write that Romney is looking more and more like a shoo-in for the nomination. Talk about a curious contrast. Depending on the author, he’s either headed for a coronation this spring, or a royal drubbing this fall.
It’s hard to argue with the former – especially when the debates’ meatiest attack was a charge of “pious baloney”.
When in doubt about the outcome, check the polls. And here’s what they’re say, heading into Tuesday’s vote:
- Romney 35%
- Paul 20%
- Huntsman 11%
- Gingrich 9%
- Santorum 8%
- Perry 1%
(Two-day tracking poll, 1/6-1/7)
- Romney 42%
- Paul 18%
- Santorum 13%
- Huntsman 12%
- Gingrich 8%
- Perry 1%
(Poll taken 1/5)
So if this vote looks like a fait accompli (granted, one should “never say never” in this political climate – and, yes, the surveys were taken before the weekend’s back-to back debates), why pay attention to New Hampshire?
1. Romney’s Ceiling. For Romney, Iowa wasn’t so much about winning as it was surviving in the top tier. In New Hampshire, it’s all about winning – and margin of victory.
And that begs the question of how high can he go?
Romney won 11 states in 2008 (here’s a map of how he did vs. McCain and Huckabee). His performances, in order of strongest to weakest:
- Utah 89.5%
- Colorado 60.1%
- Nevada 55.1%
- Maine 51.7%
- Massachusetts 51.1%
- Minnesota 41.4%
- Michigan 38.9%
- Montana 38.3%
- Alaska 35.9%
- North Dakota 35.8%
(Wyoming voted by county convention delegates)
However, Romney dropped out of the race on Feb. 7 of that year – his fate having been decided in the following four states (he didn’t bother to campaign in South Carolina, focusing instead on friendlier/same-day Nevada).
Romney’s numbers in those four make-or-break states that eventually broke his candidacy:
- Iowa 25% (2nd place)
- New Hampshire 32% (2nd place)
- Michigan 38.9% (1st place)
- Florida (30.1%, 2nd place, only 0.6% behind John McCain)
- In the state of his birth – Michigan – Romney “peaked” at a shade under 39%. Let’s see if he reaches 40% on Tuesday night.
2. The Independent Vote. About four in ten Live Free or Die voters are neither Republican nor Democratic by registration. But as independents, they’re free to vote in the GOP primary. And they could decide the November election – by determining if the purple state swings red or blue (just ask Al Gore, who lost New Hampshire by 7,200 votes – with 22,00 votes going toRalph Nader).
The Obama-Biden re-elect already has seven offices and 20 staffers scattered across the Granite State. Here’s why: those same independents who gave him four electoral votes in 2008 aren’t pleased with his performance – ironically, even though the state is better off economically than most others.
A second reason for concern for Team Obama: New Hampshire’s one of just a handful of states that ping-ponged between the two parties in recent elections (for Bush in 2000, for Kerryin 2004; pro-Obama by 9.6% in 2008).
The numbers to watch on Tuesday night: 40% and 13%.
The former was McCain’s take of the independent vote in the 2008 New Hampshire primary – 13% better than Romney, though Romney actually did better among Republicans (35%-34%).
That 13% figure: Ron Paul’s share of the independent vote. Overall, Paul received only 18,000 votes in New Hampshire in 2008 – 7.8% of the overall vote and a fifth-place finish. Let’s presume he does close in on 20% of this year’s vote. And let’s also presume that New Hampshire’s turnout in 2012 is about the same as it was in 2008 on the Republican side (235,000 voters – some 50,000 fewer than in that year’s Democratic primary, a sign of an enthusiasm gap to come). That would give Paul about 47,000 votes on Tuesday – Nader, on steroids.
It’s not enough to stop Romney from an easy win – but more than enough to explain why you won’t hear a bad word about Paul coming out of the Romney camp.