Mitt Romney won an expected and decisive victory in New Hampshire’s Tuesday primary. As the GOP field pivots to South Carolina, Romney will likely clinch the nomination. Although a strong showing by Newt Gingrich or a coalescing of social conservatives around one candidate, Rick Santorum probably, could slow Romney’s momentum. Still his coronation as the Republican candidate seems inevitable.
What else did we learn from the New Hampshire primary?
First, Ron Paul is a force to be reckoned with. He won 24% of the vote yesterday, a stronger showing than was expected. Although the Republican commentariat has dismissed his candidacy from the very beginning, he has won almost a quarter of the vote in the first two states, and his views and supporters simply cannot be ignored.
While I agree that he won’t be able to amass enough delegates to actually win the nomination, he will change the terms of the debate considerably and perhaps be a real spoiler for Romney in the general election.
Paul has advocated such massive spending cuts ($1 trillion in the first year) that he’s forcing the discussion about austerity to an extreme. Even if he eventually drops out of the contest, he will have pushed the Republican Party farther to the right than they possibly want to go.
Paul will have a similar effect on the foreign policy debate. His radical isolationist position is completely outside the mainstream of the GOP. The enthusiasm his supporters show for his ideas, however, must be unnerving to the Republican leadership.
As Paul debates his opponents in the coming weeks, he’ll inevitably highlight the agreement he is in with the Obama administration’s foreign policy accomplishments: ending two wars. (Yes, I know that the process began during the Bush administration, but I suspect that detail be lost on a lot of voters in November.)
Second, turnout for the primary was disappointing. Early on Tuesday, several news organizations had predicted a record turnout in NH. That proved not to be the case. From Nate Silver at The New York Times: “[turnout] projects to about 185,000 votes statewide, as compared with about 240,000 votes in the Republican primary in 2008. The drop-off in turnout looks worse for Republicans since a higher fraction of voters — about half this year, compared to 37 percent in 2008 — are independents. That means that turnout among registered Republicans could alone be off by nearly 40 percent from 2008.”
It has been clear for months that Republicans have been unenthusiastic about their field of candidates. In fact, a third of yesterday’s voters confirmed that they were “dissatisfied” with the choices on the ballot. The lack of enthusiasm for the GOP and lackluster turnout are bad omens for the Republicans in the general election.
Third, Romney isn’t doing particularly well among independents. He won only 29% of the independent vote, whereas libertarian Paul won 32% of independents. General elections depend on winning independents.
Fourth, NH isn’t a good indicator of Southern success. Although Rick Perry, Santorum and Gingrich had dismal showings last night, they might enjoy better results in the South. Voters in the Bible belt are more akin to the Iowa electorate, where almost 60% of the voters consider themselves to be evangelical Christians. This group largely supported Santorum in Iowa.
Fifth, health care was, again, not a salient issue. Only 5% of voters in New Hampshire, as in Iowa, named health care as the most important issue in considering their vote. While the Republican candidates have spent a lot of time talking about repealing Obamacare, they would be better served using their time to focus more on the economy and the budget deficit, which continue to be the top two issues for voters.
Finally, we can expect Romney to get battered during the run-up to the South Carolina primary. The Gingrich campaign is releasing a 30-minute film today that highlights some of Romney’s work at Bain Capital and makes the argument that Romney and his Bain colleagues were responsible for raiding companies and destroying jobs and, consequently, people’s lives in the process. I believe that the average voter will find it easier to believe the Gingrich narrative than Romney one — that he helped create 100,000 jobs. The “creative destruction” aspect of capitalism is a cogent theory to the destroyers, not the destroyed.
Most of the entrance and exit polls are confirming that voters pick Romney primarily because they believe he will beat Obama in November. National polling, however, shows Gingrich and Romney are running neck and neck. It remains to be seen if the primary season will produce a more electable Romney. So far he’s getting very little help from his Republican colleagues.