Throughout this year’s election, I will pose and answer key questions at critical moments during the campaign. On New Hampshire primary election day, I shared the five things I was watching for.
Here is how it all shook out.
GOP Candidate Mitt Romney after the New Hampshire Primary (CNN).
1. What was the margin of victory?
Four years ago, Mitt Romney snagged 32.6 percent of the vote, but lost the New Hampshire primary—even though he had governed a neighboring state—to Sen. John McCain. This time he arrived with McCain at his side, and with a threshold to meet: Eclipse his 2008 second-place finish or fall short of expectations.
By the time the votes were counted on Tuesday night, Romney had scored nearly 40 percent of the vote, even with four other Republicans actively campaigning in the state, and another inactive but still on the ballot.
Runner-up Rep. Ron Paul clocked a distant 23 percent. And former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who staged a minor comeback in the campaign’s closing days, scored almost 17 percent to come in third.
These margins matter because, heading into South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary, Romney’s most vigorous competitors appear to be the guys who landed in the distant single digits—Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry.
Expect those three to make a vigorous next—and perhaps last—stand in the Palmetto State.
Momentum is tough to stop once it begins. And in a year when voters say what they want most is to defeat Barack Obama, Romney’s goal is to become a consensus candidate as quickly as possible. Gallup reports he has gained 10 points nationally since Christmas.
2. Can Jon Huntsman survive?
Answer: Kind of.
Huntsman began lowering his definition of success days before the New Hampshire primary, telling me he only had to exceed “market expectations.” Well, since the market had largely counted him out, that was not hard to do.
He did rebound a bit, but it remains unclear how Huntsman—perceived as moderate at best and an Obama partisan at worst—can make his mark with a more conservative electorate. Plus, since Romney began flaunting his dominance within days of the New Hampshire win (multiple endorsements, $19 million in the bank), Huntsman is going to have to start matching that right away if he is to be taken seriously in Florida on Jan. 31.
3. Does Ron Paul have a path forward?
Sure. It’s hard to see if that path takes him to the actual White House, but Paul draws crowds, changes minds, and often manages to cut through the muck.
Witness his defense of Romney against attacks from Gingrich and Perry this week over his background as a venture capitalist.
GOP candidate Rep. Ron Paul addressing supporters in Hollis, N.H. (FlickrCC/Gage Skidmore)
Shouldn’t Republicans be applauding business, not taking after someone who did well at it? Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity agreed, and suddenly Paul was in the Republican mainstream again. With one caveat.
Exit polls show Paul did as well as he did in New Hampshire because he appealed, not to registered Republicans, but to new voters who did not have to declare a party. These people were often Democrats who chose to vote in the GOP primary. It will be interesting to see how well he fares in a closed primary that does not allow such crossover voting.
4. Was Rick Santorum’s Iowa breakthrough an anomaly?
Maybe. But he never had much of a chance to score an upset in a state like New Hampshire, where Republicans think of themselves more as fiscal conservatives than social conservatives.
However, in a year where great chunks of money are arriving in the form of super PACs seemingly every day, and in a state like South Carolina, where advertising is so much cheaper to buy, he may yet be able to gain some traction.
5. How low will Newt go?
He can’t seem to make up his mind. Although Gingrich definitely has Romney in his sights, he appears to shift the intensity of his attack from day to day. The Gingrich ads take on Romney for changing his mind on abortion, and he has also faulted Romney for his private sector background. Gingrich also seems to realize he has to give voters someone to vote for – not just against.
But at what point does Gingrich begin to realize how much ammunition he is handing Democrats? Romney supporters are anxious to remind other Republicans of that fact, in part with a non-subtle super PAC-funded ad that says in part that, “Newt attacks because he has more baggage than the airlines.”
All of the attacks, counterattacks, and baggage will be on display between now and the South Carolina primary. I’ll be on the ground for the PBS NewsHour and Washington Week next week to pose five more questions.