5 takeaways from the New Hampshire primary

at 09:48 AM ET, 01/11/2012

One week after the Iowa caucuses were decided by just eight votes, the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night was a relatively drama-free affair.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney cruised to an expected victory . Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished a clear second, a blow to former Utah governor Jon Huntsman who had hoped to leapfrog the libertarian favorite. Neither former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum nor former House Speaker Newt Gingrich broke double digits.

In short: If Iowa was like the thrill-filled Game 6 of the 2011 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers, then New Hampshire was like the more humdrum Game 7.

But, every baseball game, er, election teaches us lessons going forward to the next vote, which in this case will come on Jan. 21 in South Carolina.

Here’s a look at the lessons we learned from the New Hampshire primary.

* Mitt the heavy favorite: There are scenarios that you can come up with that don’t end with Romney being the nominee — lose South Carolina, make a big mistake, lose Florida — but they just aren’t that likely.

While Romney had long been the prohibitive favorite in New Hampshire, he and his team deserve credit for stomping on any potential momentum that Santorum was hoping to build coming out of Iowa.

Romney’s victory in New Hampshire was complete. He beat out Paul by 40,000 votes and he got twice as many votes as Santorum and Gingrich combined. His 39 percent vote share bested the 37 percent that Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) won in the 2008 New Hampshire primary. He carried all but one of the Granite State’s 10 counties. (Paul won Coos County in the far northern reaches of the state.)

South Carolina will be Romney’s biggest test yet. But momentum matters in the Palmetto State and Romney has it. Win there — and that is a real possibility at this point — and the race is effectively over.

* Ron Paul isn’t going anywhere: All of the chatter prior to Tuesday night’s voting in New Hampshire was that the Texas Republican Congressman’s support was starting to fade and that Huntsman could well beat him out for second place.

Nope. Paul got more than 55,000 votes — triple his total in 2008 and plenty for a solid second place finish. The speech he gave following his runner-up performance made clear that Paul and his Paul-ites think he is on the way up not on the way out of the race. “We’re nibbling at his heels,” he said of Romney.

Paul’s continued presence in the race is, quite clearly, good news in the short term for Romney as it badly complicates the attempts of Santorum and Gingrich to consolidate conservative/tea party support. One example: Thirteen percent of the New Hampshire Republican primary electorate said that a candidate being a “true conservative” was the most important attribute in deciding their vote. Of that group, Paul won 42 percent (!) while Santorum took 21 percent and Gingrich 16 percent.

Polling in South Carolina suggests that Paul starts with a smaller base in the Palmetto State than he did in either Iowa or New Hampshire. But, Paul’s message is clearly resounding with staunch fiscal conservatives — a wing of the conservative movement Santorum or Gingrich badly needs to emerge as the not-Romney.

One other Paul note: He could wind up being a longer-term pain for Romney. If Paul remains in the race for months — well past the time it’s clear Romney is the nominee — he is likely to accrue enough delegates to wring some concessions from the party at the Republican National Convention next year. Could Paul be given a speaking slot?

* Iowa does not equal New Hampshire: Four years ago, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee came storming out of Iowa with a win over Romney under his belt. He left New Hampshire with a 11 percent of the vote and a distant third place finish.

Ditto 2012 where Santorum, whose narrow second place finish in Iowa made him the story in the week leading up to New Hampshire, took just 9 percent of the vote in the Granite State — a total good for fifth place.

The differences in the two electorates — as judged by exit polls in each — are stark. In New Hampshire 47 percent of the primary electorate said they considered themselves “moderate or liberal”; in Iowa that number was just 17 percent. In New Hampshire, 22 percent of voters described themselves as evangelicals; in Iowa that number was 57 percent.

Social conservative candidates — or at least candidates who put that part of their ideology front and center — rarely prosper in New Hampshire while they often do in Iowa. Lucky for Santorum (and maybe Gingrich) that the electorate in South Carolina is likely to look a lot more like Iowa than New Hampshire.

* No Huntsmentum: It was clear in his speech following the New Hampshire voting that Huntsman was trying to create some momentum where there didn’t appear to be any.

“Third place is a ticket to ride,” Huntsman said at the start of his speech and repeated the line at the close of his remarks. But, a look inside the numbers suggests that Huntsman’s third place finish provides few signs of optimism for the former Utah governor as the race moves to South Carolina.

Among self described moderate/liberal voters Huntsman came third behind both Romney, who took 37 percent, and Paul (26 percent). Among voters who said an ability to beat President Obama was the most important attribute in a candidate, Huntsman took nine percent as compared to Romney’s 62 percent.

Those numbers are even more damning when you remember that Huntsman spent almost the entirety of the campaign in New Hampshire, lavishing time and money far in excess of his rivals on the state.

It’s hard to see then where Huntsman goes for votes in South Carolina. He’s not going to be the conservative alternative to Santorum/Gingrich (among “very conservative” voters, Huntsman got just 5 percent) nor does he appear positioned to siphon of any significant portion of Romney’s establishment support.

Huntsman’s personal wealth — and the personal wealth of his family — means he can stay in the race far longer than a candidate without those means. But, a path to victory — or even relevance — doesn’t seem to exist.

* John Sununu = good TV: The former New Hampshire governor — and Romney surrogate — appeared on MSNBC moments after the network had declared Romney as the winner in the Granite State.

What followed was the most entertaining five minutes (or so) of the entire night. (Possible exception: Ron Paul’s speech, which spanned 20 minutes and was carried in its entirety by all the cables.)

We don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it but Sununu does use the phrase “crock of crap”. ‘Nuff said. (Watch the highlights here thanks to the good folks at BuzzFeed.)

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