Thursday, January 12, 2012

 

No Surprises in New Hampshire

For months on end, the Republican candidates for their party’s presidential nomination have focused almost all of their efforts on two tiny states: Iowa and New Hampshire. And just like that, the big days in both states are gone, and the political world can go back to ignoring them completely for four more years. The key question for the moment is: have the two states decided the contest already, or do we still have a race?

One thing we can say for certain is that we have a strong leader. Mitt Romney accomplished something that no non-incumbent Republican has managed since 1976, winning both Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa may have been won by the narrowest of margins (or not at all, if you believe some of the stories that came to light this week about the routine minor irregularities in the count), but New Hampshire was won convincingly, with Romney taking 39.3% of the vote, miles ahead of Ron Paul in second place with 22.9%. Ron Paul, of course, doesn’t care about appealing to most Republican voters and will never win the nomination. Jon Huntsman, who came in third with 16.9%, has run as too much of a moderate to be a threat this time around. Deliciously for Romney, his two most direct opponents, Rick Santorum (who came within 8 votes of beating him in Iowa) and Newt Gingrich (who has spent the last week bashing him as forcefully as possible), were reduced to squabbling for 4th place, each on 9.4% with just fifty votes separating them. Rick Perry got less than 1%.
This represents a great result for Romney. Expectations matter as much as results, and on both counts he delivered: 40% is convincing front-runner territory, especially when you’re up against four other credible contenders, and everyone was expecting him to land in convincing front-runner territory. The fact that he did gives him a credibility boost. Just like he planned, his New Hampshire victory now makes him seem considerably more inevitable than he did before. That will help in gathering endorsements, raising money, and winning over undecided voters.
The result was quite a good one for Ron Paul, too: polls had been showing him in a solid second, and that’s what he achieved. He doesn’t really have a hope of winning overall, so a string of second and third place results, lasting all the way through to the convention, is the best case outcome for him. If he keeps this up – and there’s no reason to think that he won’t – he’ll go into the convention carrying a lot of delegates and will do his best to shift the party platform in a libertarian direction.
It wasn’t such a good result for the other candidates. Jon Huntsman really needed a convincing second place finish to give him some momentum, and despite a late, potentially Santorum-like surge, he didn’t get it. Third place may allow him to limp on for a bit longer – and he certainly seems to intend to – but he can’t go far now. He’s out of cash and his organisation in South Carolina and Florida – the next two big states – is not very well developed. His particular brand of moderation doesn’t go down well in South Carolina especially, so he may be holding out for Florida, but it remains to be seen how effectively he’ll be able to campaign. He’ll certainly drop out: maybe before South Carolina, maybe after, or maybe after Florida. Whenever it comes, it won’t be a surprise.
Newt Gingrich also did badly. His attacks on Romney made a big impression, as everyone predicted, but despite shaping the debate he didn’t personally benefit all that much. At one point he was a strong contender for a second place finish in New Hampshire; fourth is pretty dismal. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to arrest his slide in South Carolina. If he can’t, then his hopes of clinching victory will pretty definitively evaporate.
Rick Santorum, too, must have been hoping for more of a bounce. Polls after Iowa showed him leaping up the pack, and second place at one point didn’t seem unreasonable. But the reality of New Hampshire is that Santorum’s social conservatism doesn’t appeal there, a fact which he realised and which made him downplay expectations for the results. He’ll be hoping to win the nomination on a Southern and Midwestern strategy, so although New Hampshire’s result is disappointing, it probably doesn’t affect his game plan or prospects all that much.
The campaign in New Hampshire did bring one big, important change to the campaign dynamic, though, and that has to do with the nature of the attacks on Mitt Romney. Up to now, Republican attacks on Romney had focused on his privilege, his lack of sympathy for the common man, his moderation, his flip-flopping, and (sotto voce) his religion. His successful business experience – the bedrock quality that he is running on – had remained off bounds. This is the Republican Party we’re talking about, after all: running big businesses and being ruthless in order to succeed are more often marks of credibility than sticks to beat each other with. Party elites and donors often hail from business backgrounds; grass roots party members tend to support free enterprise reflexively. Attacking candidates for their business backgrounds usually isn’t good Republican politics. Indeed, the Obama campaign had been preparing its own lines of attack on those grounds on the expectation that Republicans wouldn’t go there.
They did. The Wall Street elite financier label was too irresistible. Romney himself didn’t help, saying things in New Hampshire to the effect that he likes to be able to fire people (in the context of consumers being able to choose the companies that provide services to them) and that he has had cause in the past to worry about receiving a pink slip (something Americans receive when they lose their jobs). The first  was simply an unfortunate phrase and the second was broadly true (albeit disingenuous), but both were easily taken out of context and reflected badly on him when widely repeated. They provided a nice accompaniment to Gingrich’s vicious prodding of Romney’s time at Bain Capital, the private equity firm that he founded and led and still has a large stake in. Gingrich has acquired a half-hour long movie attacking Romney’s time there, which (if you believe his critics) was mostly spent buying virtuous companies in the heartland, stealing all of their money, closing their factories, and then setting them free again under a huge debt burden which caused them to go bankrupt. Rick Perry, campaigning down in South Carolina, also got in on the act, scoring a rare rhetorical success to the effect that Romney was indeed worried about pink slips – about not having enough of them to hand out. He also attacked Romney’s brand of “vulture capitalism”, a label which could stick.
This is all very interesting, coming from the Republicans. The strategy of Gingrich and Perry seems to be to take down Romney in any way possible, and this is the most promising line of attack because it strikes at the heart of his credibility. In the context of the populist Tea Party surge, which sometimes demonises big business, this may just give them the edge. Alternatively, it may not: the party establishment, battered enough by the Tea Party, seems to be issuing a collective shudder at the tone of the attacks. Rush Limbaugh said that they sounded like something Elizabeth Warren – a very liberal Harvard professor running for the Senate in Massachusetts – might say. Romney’s response has been to describe such attacks as being worthy of the Democrats, which is entirely accurate: the Obama campaign has been publicly gleeful at the bipartisan stamp that all of this gives to their main line of attack, and liberals haven’t hesitated to adopt some of the language being used by Gingrich and Romney. The attacks may therefore backfire.
Or not. Romney took the opportunity of his victory in New Hampshire to assert that they haven’t worked, but that may be premature: they didn’t have enough time to sink in before the New Hampshire primaries. In any case, we’ll find out. South Carolina has a reputation of being the state where desperate campaigns resort to the basest possible tactics to secure a victory (anyone remember the Bush campaign’s utterly false insinuations about John McCain’s out of wedlock African-American love child in 2000?), it’s over a week until the primaries there, and Newt Gingrich has used a giant PAC donation to buy a huge amount of airtime to run negative ads pressing the attack. This could be Romney’s downfall if it works, but if it rebounds it could mark the utter defeat of Gingrich and Perry. The race may have some excitement in it yet.
Going into South Carolina, then, Mitt Romney has a big lead and will hope to keep it. This is a big test for him: can he successfully win over the party’s Southern base of religious, socially conservative voters? If he wins here, he’ll be on course to wrap things up in Florida and then sail through Super Tuesday eliminating the rest of the competition. Defeating him here is the last good chance that his opponents have.
The first post-New Hampshire polls haven’t trickled in yet, but post-Iowa polls seemed to show him with a 30-40% lead – a big bump from December when Gingrich led the state. Victory in New Hampshire will increase that lead further, but the attacks on his record may work to lower it. He needs a front-runner sized win to keep up his momentum going into Florida.
Gingrich – a fellow Southerner, from neighbouring Georgia – was around second place, but has probably declined since then. A comeback for him doesn’t seem likely, but he is very determined and it’s not impossible. If he can’t win or come in a close second here of all places, his chances for continuing won’t be good. The most likely scenario, however, is that his attacks will diminish Romney without benefitting himself all that much, with voters turning away from Romney to one of the other candidates.
Rick Santorum would seem like the ideal person to pick those votes up: his social conservatism and strong national security credentials will work well in South Carolina. He’s the natural anti-Romney poised to emerge in this campaign. Close second would keep him very much in the race. First would be very, very good indeed for him. Less than that will put him back in also-ran territory. This is his big chance to establish himself as a serious candidate at the front of the pack, and he needs to grab the opportunity with both hands.
Rick Perry was hoping that Santorum would stumble in New Hampshire to give him an opportunity to shine in South Carolina, but in the end Santorum didn’t do too badly relative to the low expectations for him there. That means that Perry’s window is now closing. Unless his attacks on Romney cause voters to give him another chance, this will be his last stand. The polls in the next couple of days will tell. If he’s still right at the bottom, then he probably won’t be able to make much of an impact and will most likely drop out after the primary.
As for Jon Huntsman – South Carolina isn’t a good state for him, seeing as how he’s socially very moderate and favours drawing down America’s commitments overseas, while state voters are very socially conservative and, with a large defence industry and big military presence in the state, are keen on boosting the military. Assuming he doesn’t actually drop out before the primary, he’ll be hoping just to finish as far from the bottom as possible to let him continue plausibly into more hospitable Florida.
For Ron Paul, too, the state doesn’t look hospitable: his isolationism and calls for reductions in military spending don’t go down well, and he’s not really cut out to appeal to the socially conservative crowd. A solid third or fourth place finish would be good for him.
The winner of this state has gone on to be the Republican nominee in every cycle for the last 32 years. That seems likely to continue this time around. If Romney wins, he’ll be well on track to overcoming the attacks against him and knocking his opponents out of the race. But if anyone manages to beat him, they might well knock out the other not-Romneys and start to gather enough pace to steal the nomination. In many ways this state, not Florida, is the last stand of the initial primaries. On January 21st, the fate of many of these candidates will be decided once and for all.

Comments:
My thinking on this - if Romney wins South Carolina, it's over.

If Romney loses South Carolina (most likely to Santorum or Newt), but wins Florida, it's over.

If Romney loses South Carolina AND Florida, it's still open. At this point Huntsman and Perry are just embarrassing themselves. And Ron Paul is... Ron Paul.

Anyone for Roemer?
 
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