NH Predictions: Romney Will Cruise, Huntsman Second

Four years ago, the New Hampshire Republican primary delivered a dramatic finish, propelling Senator John McCain toward the Republican nomination.  He knocked off Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney by a margin of 37% to 32%, on the heels of his campaign being declared dead just four months earlier.  Hillary Clinton’s remarkable come from behind win over Barack Obama in the Democratic contest overshadowed what took place between Mitt Romney and John McCain, but suffice it to say there was a great deal of acrimony and hostility exchanged between the two campaigns.  As a McCain volunteer in New Hampshire, I witnessed it firsthand.  It was a dogfight – McCain’s ads lambasted Romney as a flip-flopper, Romney’s ads accused McCain of being insufficiently conservative.  The campaign staffs absolutely loathed each other.  The stakes in that primary fight were enormous.  In effect, the NH primary that year would serve as a winner-take-all for the Republican nomination.

This year, Mitt Romney again finds himself at the front of the pack in New Hampshire, only this time he faces no real competition.  This primary has lacked any of the excitement or punch that the 2008 primary packed.  For a state that is known for upending conventional wisdom and backing insurgent candidates, it is remarkable how vanilla the 2012 edition of the NH primary has been. 

There is no intrigue factor in this New Hampshire primary – no sexy story line for the media to sell.  Mitt Romney will cruise to a double digit victory tonight, but there is nothing remotely sexy about a result that has been preordained for months.  Jon Huntsman, meanwhile, is surging and could possibly overtake Ron Paul for 2nd place.  This is an interesting subplot, but can hardly be called sexy.  The same applies to the Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum battle for 4th place.  The result could have some effect on their respective campaigns heading into South Carolina, but a battle for 4th place is seldom a sexy affair. 

In the absence of an exciting NH primary, what I expect is a heavy dose of pundits and experts bloviating about the “expectations game.”  Roland Martin and other know nothing pundits from the Best Political Team on Television (CNN, if you don’t get the reference) will spend hours offering their opinions on whether Mitt Romney met, exceeded, or fell short of “expectations.”  Democratic operative James Carville will paint Romney as falling short of expectations (no matter his share of the vote); while Romney apologist Ari Fleischer will praise Romney for his professionally run campaign (even if Romney only ekes out a small victory).  As part of this whole charade, you can also bank on British funnyman Piers Morgan having some stupid commentary to offer.

Despite its inherent silliness, I nonetheless am aware that the “expectations game” is important.  How the media decides to spin the result from New Hampshire tonight will affect the race moving forward.  So, without further ado, I present my predictions for tonight and how each result will be spun by the media. 

1st Place – Mitt Romney (36%)

The only question tonight for Mitt Romney is whether he wins comfortably or in a rout.  The final Real Clear Politics polling average shows him running a full 20% ahead of Ron Paul.  If Romney managed to win by that margin tonight, that would give him huge momentum heading into South Carolina.  The expectations are so high for Romney right now, though, that if he were to only pull off a high single digit victory, the media could go so far as portraying the result as a loss for Romney.  I predict an outcome in the middle of those two scenarios.  Romney’s support is too firm to fall off a cliff, but at the same time the sustained attacks on him in recent days ensure his support will decline at least marginally.    

The Spin Room: A 16 point victory would have to be satisfying for Mitt Romney and his camp.  Under this scenario, his percentage of the vote in New Hampshire primary would have risen from 32% in 2008 to 36% in 2012.  This would demonstrate some positive growth for his candidacy, unlike in Iowa where pundits partially discounted his victory by pointing out that his 25% share of the vote was unchanged from 2008.  In addition, this victory will help Romney build his narrative as the inevitable nominee.  Ultimately, Romney should get a small New Hampshire bounce in South Carolina and Florida, but from there he will have to defend himself against a barrage of negative advertising from Newt Gingrich’s Super PAC.  

2nd Place – Jon Huntsman (20%)

Most of the polls released in the past 2-3 days still show Congressman Ron Paul ahead of ex-Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.  What is important to remember, however, is that the same thing could have been said of Ron Paul vis a vis Rick Santorum in Iowa last week.  The final Real Clear Politics polling average in Iowa projected Paul to finish at 21.5% and Santorum to finish at 16.3%.  On Caucus night, Santorum outperformed that projection by roughly nine percentage points.  Now, I am not suggesting that large of an over performance for Jon Huntsman tonight, but I do believe his momentum will carry him past Paul, who leads Huntsman by roughly three points in the most recently released polls.  As Nate Silver has documented, momentum can play an outsized role in a primary.  Besides Romney, Huntsman has the highest favorability ratings (55/30) of anyone in New Hampshire and his numbers are far better than Ron Paul’s (43/51).  With as many as 25% of people undecided or still willing to change their mind, Huntsman’s combination of momentum and likeability will likely deliver him enough of the late breaking vote to snag 2nd place. 

The Spin Room: A second place finish for Huntsman would be significant.  Just a week ago, Huntsman was mired in the high single digits and had barely seen his NH poll numbers move in several months.  Even with this surprising finish, though, Huntsman is not really poised to capitalize.  He will benefit from increased media attention (he will not get as much as Santorum did in Iowa), but South Carolina does not set up particularly well for him and he lacks the money to run sustained advertising campaigns there or in South Carolina.  Huntsman also will have a tougher time of becoming the alternative to Mitt Romney than candidates like Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.  Rightly or wrongly, he is perceived as a political moderate and is therefore competing for many of the same voters as Romney.  Huntsman will be able to carry on with this type of performance, but even with a big check from his billionaire industrialist father, it is hard to see Huntsman’s path to the nomination.  Who is his natural constituency in a state like South Carolina?

3rd Place – Ron Paul (19%)

Ron Paul should finish right around the 18% figure that the final New Hampshire polls have projected for him.  While his campaign once again boasts a strong ground game and a committed group of supporters, it appears that he will passed by a surging Huntsman for 2nd place.  Sadly, conservatives who dislike Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy will use his consecutive third place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire as evidence that his message is not catching on.

The Spin Room: Unfortunately for Ron Paul, this may represent the zenith of his presidential campaign.  In Iowa, Paul’s campaign out organized everyone else and worked the caucus system to its advantage to finish a close third behind Romney and Santorum.  In New Hampshire, Paul benefits from an open primary system where independents are allowed to vote alongside Republicans.  In South Carolina, there is neither an open primary nor a caucus, which means it will be hard for Ron Paul to crack 15%.  His string of top 3 finishes will end there.  After that, additional candidates will drop out of the race and it will become harder and harder for Paul to remain competitive with Mitt Romney.  Paul will get a chance at a last hurrah in early February when several states (Nevada, Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota) hold caucuses.  He could spring an upset in one of them and should have no problem locking down 2nd or 3rd place in the rest.      

4th Place – Newt Gingrich (13%)

Newt’s finish in New Hampshire will be remarkably similar to his finish in Iowa.  It will give him enough reason to continue his campaign, but will not provide the momentum he needs to get a victory in South Carolina.  Finishing ahead of Rick Santorum will not prove all that helpful considering the small margin that will separate the two of them. 

The Spin Room: Gingrich will come out guns blazing in South Carolina.  His Super PAC is set to spend $3.4 million on an ad campaign to bloody up Mitt Romney.  This ad blitz will pay some dividends by knocking Romney down a peg, but it will not end up being anywhere near as devastating to Romney as the ads in Iowa were to Gingrich.  The media will continually question whether Gingrich is serious about winning or if he simply stayed in the race to damage Mitt Romney.  Ironically, Gingrich would probably be more helpful to the anti-Mitt cause if he did not run those ads and simply dropped out of the race in favor of Rick Santorum.  In all fairness to Gingrich, though, his favorability numbers are still relatively strong in South Carolina and he is from the neighboring state of Georgia, so I wouldn’t entirely discount his chances of winning the state.  In my mind (and apparently the Romney campaign’s), he is still more of a threat to win the Republican nomination than Rick Santorum. 

5th Place – Rick Santorum (11%)

Rick Santorum’s Iowa momentum has come to a screeching halt in New Hampshire.  After an initial bounce in New Hampshire, his polling numbers have settled in the low double digits or high single digits.  A 5th place finish will be a disappointment for Santorum after all of the positive energy his campaign built up from Iowa.  It would have been smarter for him to skip New Hampshire and move on directly to South Carolina, which he needs to win to become the clear anti-Romney alternative.  Santorum should have learned from Mike Huckabee’s similarly disappointing New Hampshire experience back in 2008.  Huckabee, the winner of the Iowa Caucuses that year, emerged in New Hampshire in a distant third place with just 13% of the vote.  History has repeatedly shown that New Hampshire’s voters have no interest in rubber stamping Iowa’s results.  They like to pick their own favorites and moreover they are usually averse to supporting someone with Santorum’s strong profile of social conservatism.    

The Spin Room: After tonight’s vote, the media will begin questioning whether Rick Santorum can consolidate the anti-Romney vote.  This, of course, is highly problematic for Santorum.  With the vote in South Carolina just eleven days away, Santorum cannot afford to have conservatives splitting their votes between himself and Newt Gingrich.  Unfortunately for him, I predict this is exactly what will happen.  Gingrich and Santorum will combine to take 45-50% in South Carolina, but neither of them will secure enough votes to deny Mitt Romney a victory.  At that point, the nomination will effectively be ceded to Romney. 

6th Place – Rick Perry (1%)

Rick Perry should have hung it up after Iowa, but he decided to soldier on.  As his reward, he will be lucky to earn 1% of the vote tonight in New Hampshire and there is a real risk that he finishes behind ex-Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer.  This would be very embarrassing for the man who was once the Republican frontrunner, but in all honesty it has no real bearing on his chances in South Carolina. 

The Spin Room: Candidates who poll 1% in the New Hampshire primary are not serious candidates for the Republican nomination.  Perry is nothing more than a sideshow at this point.  Even in South Carolina, which should be hospitable territory for the Texas Governor, Perry cannot crack double digits in the polls.  After seeing his numerous debate gaffes, punctuated by a big “oops” moment, Republican voters simply do not believe Perry is up to the task of beating President Obama.  The best case scenario for Perry is to mimic Fred Thompson’s campaign in 2008 when Thompson managed to garner 16% of the vote in South Carolina and then gracefully bowed out.