1. It’s Mitt Romney’s nomination to lose. Coming off a razor-thin victory in the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney picked up a decisive, double-digit win in New Hampshire. That makes him the first Republican to win both Iowa and New Hampshire since Gerald Ford in 1976. Romney exceeded his performance in New Hampshire in 2008, when he finished second to John McCain and picked up 32 percent of the vote. Now 2-0 this primary season, Romney goes into the South Carolina primary with a huge amount of momentum.
The New Hampshire exit poll shows that while Romney picked up large percentages of those voters who call themselves moderate and somewhat conservative, he also won the support of 30 percent who self-identify as very conservative. Twenty-nine percent of voters who finally made their voting decision on Election Day supported Romney—Romney won more of these late deciders than any other candidate, which is good news for him heading into later primaries. Meanwhile, preliminary New Hampshire returns indicate that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich will finish a distant fourth and fifth (who finishes in which position is yet to be determined), putting them in a weaker position relative to Romney heading into South Carolina.
Romney leads in South Carolina and Florida polls, and his strong performance in New Hampshire is likely to bolster and even increase his poll numbers in these states. Very little in politics is certain, but it’s hard to see how Mitt Romney doesn’t take the GOP nomination now.
2. Ron Paul has no chance of winning the Republican nomination. First, the good news for Ron Paul supporters: Paul has had a remarkably successful primary season thus far. This marks his second runner-up finish in as many contests, in a crowded Republican field. He will get more than 20 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, up from about 8 percent in 2008. As my colleague Marc Thiessen pointed out yesterday, Paul’s sizable support in New Hampshire shows that many Republicans there are embracing the isolationist perspective he espouses.
Now, the bad news for Paul’s supporters: even though he racked up another second-place finish in NH, he will definitely not be the GOP’s presidential nominee this year. His supporters may be the most fervent out there, but a large percentage of Republicans say they would not support him under any circumstances. A recent CNN/ORC poll showed that 43 percent of self-identified Republicans would not consider supporting Paul—this is the highest percentage for any Republican candidate. By contrast, only 16 percent say they would not consider voting for Mitt Romney. Similarly, a Gallup poll released Tuesday indicated that just 25 percent of conservative Republicans and 35 percent of moderate to liberal Republicans find Paul to be an “acceptable” Republican nominee.
Paul’s anti-war sentiment, love for Austrian economics, and emphasis on liberty may have won him a strong group of devoted followers, but they also mean that a substantial chunk of Republicans would never consider casting a vote for him. Despite his runner-up finish in New Hampshire, the exit poll showed that 56 percent of New Hampshire voters would be dissatisfied with a Paul nomination. Paul is clearly popular among his supporters, but he has limited ability to extend this support.
3. Jon Huntsman’s performance will not be enough to extend the campaign. In the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, there was a good bit of discussion about a potential Jon Huntsman surge in New Hampshire. Huntsman had made more campaign appearances in the state than any other candidate, and polls indicated that he could possibly challenge Ron Paul for second place. Though Huntsman did pull off a solid third-place finish, he did not come close to challenging Paul, which had to be at least mildly disappointing for his campaign.
Had Huntsman finished second in New Hampshire, it’s possible that his campaign could have received the needed shot in the arm to strip some of the moderate vote away from Romney in later primaries—not enough to ultimately win the Republican nomination, but at least to prolong the campaign somewhat. Huntsman polled in the low single-digits in the most recent South Carolina poll, and while his New Hampshire performance might give him a small boost there, it will not be enough for him to emerge as a moderate alternative to Romney.