If Ron Paul wins Iowa, as he’s currently favored to do, his campaign’s viability as a threat to win the nomination could hinge in large part on how he does in New Hampshire. And despite polling poorly there so far, there’s reason to suspect that the White House hopeful has a chance to connect with the state’s independent-minded voters.
In many ways, the Texas congressman's standing in primary’s first two contests is backward. Iowa is heavy with evangelical voters, the kind of social conservatives who aren’t predisposed to support Paul and his fiscally focused message. They constituted 60 percent of the state’s caucus vote in 2008, according to exit polls.
The “live free or die” state, meanwhile, has a far more libertarian bent — only 23 percent of its primary voters in 2008 were evangelical, according to exit polls. On the surface, the state’s fiscal focus should make it far more fertile ground for Paul, whose far-reaching plans for government retrenchment are paired with a decreased emphasis on social issues and a message of reduced international engagement.
“New Hampshire has had that strong fiscal conservative streak, but it’s also looking for more restraint in foreign policy and more social tolerance,” said Jim Forsythe, a New Hampshire state senator and cochair of Paul’s campaign there. “I think it’s a very good fit for Paul.”
Paul himself, in a recent interview with National Journal/CBS News, said his contrarian foreign-policy views -- which much of the GOP establishment loathes -- and other unique positions can help him in states other than Iowa, as well as potentially in a general election. “I think if you look at the support we get from the independents and Democrats that it really makes a point that we would be a very strong candidate against [President] Obama,” he said.
Polls in each state suggest nearly polar opposites, however, with the presidential candidate performing far better in Iowa. A poll released Friday from the American Research Group, conducted from Dec. 19 to Dec. 21, shows him locked in a tight three-way race atop the state at 21 percent, one point better than Mitt Romney and two points better than Newt Gingrich.
It’s a much stronger position than the one he holds in New Hampshire: A 7News/Suffolk University poll released earlier this month reported he was in a distant fourth place in the state, receiving just 8 percent of the state’s vote. That trailed Romney (38 percent), Gingrich (20 percent), and ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (13 percent), not to mention the percentage of people who said they were undecided (11 percent).
If Paul wants to continue his campaign’s momentum after Iowa, he won’t need to win, his campaign said, he’ll need to finish better than fourth.
“We’ll consider it a very strong victory to get a second place in New Hampshire,” said Forsythe.
Why the discrepancy? For one, Paul benefits from the lack of a clear front-runner in Iowa. That stands in stark contrast with the Granite State, where Romney — who governed neighboring Massachusetts and owns a home there — has stood at or near 40 percent for months.
“Romney lives here,” Forsythe said. “He’s spent a significant amount of time here. That makes it a little more challenging.”
Knowing that, Paul has focused hard on building a robust organization in Iowa. And he’s been successful — most Republican operatives in the state acknowledge he has the best ground game there of any campaign, running the kind of retail-oriented effort many candidates have failed to do. That organization is tailor-made to turn out supporters for a caucus, which benefits candidates who have the kind of dedicated, fervent backing that defines many of Paul’s supporters.
Those obstacles remain if Paul wants to perform well in New Hampshire. And as they acknowledge his campaign could hold a certain appeal to some of the state’s voters, some Republicans there suspect the state will stop whatever momentum Paul has coming out of Iowa. That would fit with historical trends: No Iowa victor has ever gone on to win New Hampshire in an open-primary race.
“Traditionally, New Hampshire has reacted negatively to the Iowa outcome,” said Fergus Cullen, an ex-chairman of the state GOP. “That’s part of why I think Huntsman, Romney, and Newt Gingrich are hoping for a Ron Paul win there, if they can’t win it themselves.”
A Paul victory also will mean the uptick in criticism he’s already beginning to face — first and foremost, racially bigoted newsletters published under Paul’s name and collected by The New Republic on Friday. The congressman has denied he was aware of the newsletter’s content, but they surely provide his campaign’s critics ample ammunition.
“I think that would come to a roaring crescendo if Ron Paul were to win in Iowa,” Cullen said.