Has there ever been a bigger gap between a party’s enthusiasm for its presumptive nominee (very low in this case) and the ease of his path to the nomination? Romney emerges from New Hampshire with a win that won’t impress anyone, given his ties to the state and the relentlessness he showed in courting it. But the win preserves the status quo in the overall race, a status quo in which potential rivals split the anti-Romney vote in roughly equal portions, all but assuring him of victory.
Here, in a nutshell, is what happened in New Hampshire: Romney spent the past few years persuading voters and local officials that, whatever their suspicions, he was the man to beat Barack Obama. According to exit polls, some 82 percent of GOP primary voters were either “dissatisfied” or “angry” with the Obama administration, and Romney won about 45 percent of them. A plurality of GOP primary voters—35 percent—cited a candidate’s chances of defeating Obama as his most important attribute, and Romney won 62 percent of them.
Romney’s efforts to collapse the decision facing New Hampshire voters into a single electability question was so successful that he ran up pluralities not just among blithely pragmatic types, but among groups that have traditionally spurned him, including: evangelicals (30 percent to Rick Santorum’s 23 and Ron Paul’s 22); voters who identify as “very conservative” (33 percent to Santorum’s 26); staunch social conservatives (29 percent to Santorum’s 24); and Tea Partiers (36 percent to Paul’s 21).
But there was a final twist that made last night’s victory even more perversely impressive: Even after Romney’s war of attrition against the state, as my colleague Alec MacGillis has described it, Romney was still fading in the final two weeks of the campaign. More than half the voters who made up their minds in 2011 supported him, versus in 34 percent who made their decision in January and 32 percent who decided in recent days. But instead of consolidating around someone, like Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, who might mount a challenge in the contests to come, many of these late-deciding voters settled on the idiosyncratic Jon Huntsman. Which is to say, the man who expended the most mental energy over the last year thinking up ways to knee-cap Romney only advanced his cause in the end.
In fact, Romney could hardly have hoped for a better configuration of also-rans last night. Second and third place went to Paul and Huntsman, who will have little to say about the broader nomination fight and even less about South Carolina, the next major battle ground. Meanwhile, Gingrich and Santorum, who could theoretically pose a threat in South Carolina (their combined polling there typically swamps Romney’s), finished in a near tie for fourth. Any tie between Gingrich and Santorum was great news for Romney, since its leaves neither in an especially strong position to pitch supporters of the other. But a tie for fourth is almost embarrassingly fortunate for Romney, since it also denies his two strongest challengers any collective momentum. Thanks to New Hampshire, the Gingrich-Santorum bloc isn’t in a great position to either consolidate or grow.
At this point, the only real question may be how much bleeding Romney does before he claims the nomination. When we last checked in on South Carolina, the super PAC supporting Gingrich planned to strafe voters with a 28-minute video about the casualties of Romney’s private-equity career. The footage goes online today and, according to The New York Times, will be backed by $3.4 million worth of ads promoting and amplifying its message. One wonders, though: With Romney closing in on the nomination, will whoever makes phone calls on behalf of the GOP establishment pick up the phone and tell Newt’s minions to knock it off?
If they do, and the private-equity attacks mysteriously cease with plenty of time before the January 21 primary, we'll know that something worth calling the Republican establishment still exists. If not, Gingrich and the other embittered Romney rivals could end up handing Barack Obama another term in office—a good nine months before Election Day. David Axelrod must wake up some days wondering if he’s being punked.
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