A week after Iowans gave Mitt Romney a down-to-the-wire caucus victory, New Hampshirites are headed to the polls to put their own stamp on the GOP nomination. As the host of the nation’s first primary, the Granite State has historically played a key role in selecting the party’s eventual nominee. With Romney enjoying a commanding lead in the polls, however, tonight’s election appears to be a race for second place.
Romney in the Lead
Romney entered today’s contest with a double-digit lead in New Hampshire polls and, fresh from his narrow victory in Iowa, an emerging lead nationally. Perhaps more important, polls now show that Romney has taken a lead in South Carolina, where he limped to a fourth-place finish in 2008. A victory tonight in New Hampshire will likely only strengthen Romney’s standing in South Carolina, pushing him closer the to the GOP nomination.
Romney’s status as the eventual nominee seems to be seeping in the national media, with heavy hitters John Dickerson, Ron Fournier, and Michael Barone predicting that the former Massachusetts Governor will outlast the field.
Taking care not to choose sides, Walker County Republican Chair Russell Martinez seemed to accept the media consensus: “It’s not a certainty, but Romney appears to be the strongest candidate right now. If he wins New Hampshire and does well in South Carolina, it may become more evident that he will be the eventual nominee.”
Primary Decisions More Psychologically Demanding
For most of the electorate, voting in a primary is more psychologically and cognitively demanding than voting in the general election. In the general election, voters largely rely on party identification to make their decision. In the primaries, however, voters must choose among candidates of the same party, creating a more complex decision-making environment.
Many voters cut through this complexity by examining the issue positions of the candidates and voting for the individual who most closely reflects their ideological outlook.
More strategic voters, however, also consider the candidates’ chances of winning when selecting their preferred candidate. For this sizable group of voters, the best candidate is the one that can win.
Jockeying for Second Place
With Romney looking like tonight’s winner, however, the remaining candidates are hoping that a second place finish will prove their seaworthiness.
Currently it’s not at all clear which candidate is positioned to present himself as the best alternative to Romney. According to Martinez, “it changes from week to week.”
This week’s flavor may well be Rick Santorum, whose strong showing in Iowa could carry him to a second-place finish in New Hampshire; Newt Gingrich, the one-time front runner, could end his six-week slide by leading the “also rans”; while Jon Huntsman, who skipped the Iowa caucuses to target New Hampshire, may be surging in New Hampshire at just the right time.
The spoiler in all of this may be Ron Paul, whose enthusiastic group of supporters has him polling consistently at 20 percent, which may be good for second place in New Hampshire. At any rate, he certainly appears to be enjoying himself more than any candidate on the trail.
The same cannot be said for Rick Perry, whose dismal fifth-place finish in Iowa prompted James Carville to refer the Texas Governor as the “worst presidential candidate in American history.” Indeed, Perry’s performance opens the possibility that he will finish behind Michelle Bachmann, who dropped out of the race last week.
For those who are unhappy with the entire Republican field, there are other choices. A total of 30 candidates are on the Republican ballot in New Hampshire. John Davis, for example, is running on the slogan “Let’s Fix America,” which he punctuates by appearing in a picture with a red, white, and blue wrench. Speaking of slogans, Joe Story is encouraging voters to elect an “average Joe,” while Randy Crow promises to “get rid of filthy Communists and lots of others.”
And just because President Obama is not facing any major challengers doesn’t mean that there won’t be options on the Democratic ballot. Edward O’Donnell isn’t actively campaigning this time around, but his name will be on the ballot—for the sixth time. In previous campaigns, he has ambitiously pushed for a constitutional convention “to start the whole government over again” and promised a four-day work week. There’s also Bob Ely, who offers visitors to his website “two dozen good reasons” to vote for someone else, including “I want to make it easier for you to get fired.” The most entertaining of this year’s candidates, however, is Vermin Supreme, the “Emperor of the Millennium,” who promises to make all Americans brush their teeth, push for “Zombie apocalypse awareness,” and to give every American a “pony,” a platform that is almost certainly more popular than Rick Perry’s recent promise to send troops back to Iraq.
Although Romney appears to be the clear favorite at this point, New Hampshire has thrown monkey wrenches in the path of past front runners. Bob Dole lost the state to Pat Buchanan in 1996, and New Hampshirites gave Gary Hart life in 1984 against front runner Walter Mondale.
Even if Romney does run away with the nomination, however, there remains some political intrigue for the political junkies among us. If Paul, Santorum, Gingrich, or Huntsman can stay in the race with respectable showings, they will compile delegates which will allow them additional leverage at the national convention. In the past, such leverage has translated into consideration for cabinet posts or accommodation on the party’s platform.
And while the platforms are unlikely to include a “pony in every barn,” this may be the most the 2012 primary cycle has to offer.