What Didn’t Happen in New Hampshire
Yesterday, the voters of New Hampshire went to the polls and acted exactly as they were supposed to. Mitt Romney strolled to victory, Ron Paul fended off Jon Huntsman’s weak attempts to take second, the conservative vote was split almost equally between Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, and a few people threw a pity vote Rick Perry’s way. But still, there were lessons to be learned: not from what happened, so much as what didn’t happen in New Hampshire.
1. Romney’s lead didn’t fall.
Mitt Romney had been far ahead of the rest of the pack in New Hampshire for weeks leading up to the primary, with a double-digit lead that looked unassailable. However, in the last few days, attacks on the frontrunner surrounding his time as head of Bain Capital had escalated and his poll numbers began to drop. Romney was never in danger of losing New Hampshire, but if he was to win with around the 32% of the vote he gained when he lost to John McCain in 2008, he would face a very tough battle in the more conservative states of South Carolina and Florida. In the end though, his numbers stayed steady and he faced off Ron Paul, his nearest competitor, by 17 points.
2. … But he also didn’t land a knockout blow.
While a 17 point lead is an good result, it appears less impressive when one considers that Romney failed to break 40% of the vote after what amounts to 5 years campaigning in the state. With all six candidates vowing to stay in the race, and setting their sights on Romney in the battleground that is South Carolina, he really could have done with a more convincing win in friendly New Hampshire. Most worrying for Romney should be Ron Paul, who has now taken 20% in both of the first two contests. Should this trend continue, Paul will have amassed a considerable number of delegates by the time of the conference and will be in a strong position to either extract concessions from Romney in return for his endorsement, or (and this is perhaps more likely knowing Paul) break off and run as an independent. Anyone who watched the debates at the weekend will have seen Paul refuse to rule out a third-party run, and with an unpopular president and weak challenger, he may just think this could be his year.
3. Jon Huntsman didn’t take second.
Jon Huntsman was never going to beat Romney in New Hampshire, but having ignored Iowa (where he came last with 1% of the vote), South Carolina (polling at 1%) and Florida (hitting the dizzy heights of 2%), he really needed a strong showing. In the end, having practically lived in New Hampshire since October, Huntsman won 16.8% of the vote and very little credibility. He says he will stay in the race and contest South Carolina but with even his billionaire father appearing to stop supporting his campaign, he could be heading for a result similar to the 0.7% Rick Perry achieved last night.
4. Neither Gingrich nor Santorum pulled away from the other.
What is it with Rick Santorum and close contests? After finishing just 8 votes behind Romney in Iowa, he trails Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire by less than 0.1%. Though the battle for fourth place is rarely one that produces much excitement, the result illustrates nicely one of the biggest problems the Republicans have faced in this primary season – their inability to unite around a conservative to challenge Romney. Had Santorum built on his second place in Iowa to finish comfortably ahead of at least Gingrich and Perry, possibly taking third from Huntsman, he would have had a real chance in South Carolina, where his views are more accepted than in New Hampshire. That didn’t happen though, and still the search for a viable right-wing alternative to Romney goes on.
5. That ‘record turnout’ didn’t materialise.
This is possibly the most important thing to take from yesterday’s vote. Leading up to the primary, commentators were speaking of potentially the highest turnout in the history of New Hampshire. Not only did this not happen, but turnout was actually down on the 2008 election. This is a sign of a lack of enthusiasm for the Republican candidates (unsurprising when you take into account the fact that there is a clear frontrunner that nobody seems to actually like) and is very encouraging for Barack Obama and the Democrats. Romney will gain the nomination, but it will be a reflection of the weakness of the rest of the field rather than of his strength – if indeed he has any strength to speak of after a South Carolina campaign that promises vicious attacks from his own party.
Indeed, with everyone speaking of preparations for a ‘nasty’, ‘bare-knuckle’ fight against Romney in South Carolina, perhaps the main thing that didn’t happen in New Hampshire is the Republicans remembering that they will, eventually, need a candidate to take on Obama, and it would probably help if he was still in one piece.