Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination even as he continues to endure whispers that he is simply too moderate to win over a majority of the GOP.
Exit polling from Romney’s 16-point victory in New Hampshire tells a very different story, however.
Among the 49 percent of primary participants who identified themselves as Republicans — registered independents are also allowed to participate in the New Hampshire vote — Romney won 49 percent of their votes as compared to 15 percent for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, 13 percent for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum 12 percent for former House Speaker Newt Gingric h and 10 percent for former Utah governpr Jon Huntsman.
Romney’s 49 percent is the highest mark among self-identified Republicans for any presidential candidate since New Hampshire moved its primary forward in the calendar.
Here’s a look at how Romney stacks up historically:
That Romney overperformed even Reagan among self-identified Republicans is somewhat eye-opening, particularly considering that the Gipper won the 1980 New Hampshire primary with 50 percent statewide — 11 points better than Romney did earlier this week.
Context, of course, matters. Romney’s two best-funded challengers in New Hampshire were Paul and Huntsman — both of whom were making a major play for independents. (Paul’s appeal was to the libertarian-minded New Hampshire unaffiliated voters; Huntsman’s was aimed at sensible centrists.)
And, Romney had spent six years tilling the political soil of New Hampshire — not to mention the four years in the early part of the last decade he spent as the governor of New Hampshire’s neighbor state.
Still, the numbers are the numbers. And they provide a solid pushback for a Romney campaign trying to avoid direct comparisons between his candidacy and that of Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008.
McCain is the only candidate since 1980 to win New Hampshire even as he lost among self-identified Republicans. In 2008, Romney took 35 percent among GOPers compared to McCain’s 34 percent; in 2000, then Texas Gov. George W. Bush won New Hampshire Republicans by a 41 percent to 38 percent margin over McCain.
Romney, in New Hampshire at least, is considerably more credible among Republicans than was McCain. The question now is whether he’s able to keep it up in South Carolina and, especially, Florida, which will hold the first 2012 vote open only to registered Republicans.