He’s In The Huntsman – But For What?

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At first glance, the political dynamics leading to tomorrow’s New Hampshire primary seems to have little in common with the run-up to and the outcome of the January 3 Iowa caucus.  As a caucus state, of course, voting procedures for choosing delegates in Iowa differ markedly from the secret ballot that will be used tomorrow in New Hampshire. Participation rates will vary, as well; although turnout in Iowa, at about 130,000, was up slightly compared to past Republican caucuses in that state, that’s only about half the 250,000 who are expected to turn out in the N.H. Republican primary.  Moreover, the composition of the two states’ voting pools differs as well.  According to entrance polls, about 80% of Iowa’s Republican caucus participants were strong or moderate conservatives and 64% supported the Tea Party.  About three-quarters were Republicans and 22% independents.  This is a far more conservative voting pool than what we will see tomorrow.  Consider that in the 2008 New Hampshire primary, only 23% of those voting described themselves as “born again”, and Republicans constituted only 61% of the primary voters, while independents were 37%. And that was during an election in which many New Hampshire independents voted in the Democratic primary.  New Hampshire voters will also, in the aggregate, tend to be better educated and a bit wealthier than their Iowa caucus counterparts.

In short, New Hampshire primary voters tomorrow are likely to be more moderate than the Iowa caucus-goers, which explains why in contrast to Iowa, Mitt Romney is – barring a “Bachmann miracle” – going to win the primary easily tomorrow.  In this case, being a “Massachusetts moderate” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As the chart below indicates, his support has remained relatively steady at about 40% for many weeks now, although there is evidence that that number is beginning to slip (see below).

And yet, if polling is to be believed, there is one similarity between Iowa and New Hampshire: Republicans voters, on the whole, still aren’t sold on Mitt.  First, it is again quite possible that he won’t exceed his vote percentage – 32% – from four years ago, when he finished second to McCain.  Moreover, much as happened in Iowa, recent polls indicate that New Hampshire voters – excluding Paul’s supporters – may be beginning to coalesce behind a non-Mitt candidate.  But instead of Santorum, the beneficiary seems to be Huntsman.  As Mark Blumenthal shows at Pollster.com polls from the last four days show Huntsman gaining 3-5%, putting him at about 13% and climbing.

That’s enough to challenge Ron Paul for the second slot, although it won’t be nearly enough – unlike with Santorum in Iowa – to catch Romney.  (Indeed, it now appears possible that Santorum beat Romney in Iowa, pending a recount there.) Santorum, after receiving an early polling boost coming out of Iowa, has dropped back in the pack – a not unexpected development given the more moderate voting pool in New Hampshire.  Gingrich, meanwhile, as he did in Iowa, has stabilized his support, this time at about 9%.

At this point, the bigger suspense for tomorrow is not whether Romney will win, but by how much.  If his winning percentage drops close to 32%, that is, what he received in 2008, in this, his backyard state, it will renew questions regarding the depth of his support among Republicans more generally heading into South Carolina which holds its primary on January 23.   To their credit, the remaining Republican candidates seem to realize, albeit somewhat belatedly, on Sunday that Romney would win this race by default if they didn’t begin to attack his record.  And so they did – but probably too late to prevent him from winning tomorrow.  South Carolina, on the other hand, could be a different story – if Republicans can take the necessary second step and decide which one will be the anti-Mitt candidate.  That process will be more complicated because no fewer than three conservatives-in-waiting – Gingrich, Perry and Santorum – will be competing for the same bloc of voters, assuming none drop out after tomorrow.  (I’m not counting Huntsman in this regard.)

Ron Paul, meanwhile, has made his strategy clear: knowing he can’t win primaries outright given the limited size of his voting coalition, he intends to maximize his resources by focusing on those states that either use caucuses, or which have adopted a proportional allocation of delegates, which applies to most of the later primaries.  That means he won’t contest the January 31 primary in Florida, which is winner-take-all.  New Hampshire, however, is potentially fertile ground for his brand of libertarianism and, judging by the signage, he seems to have a strong presence in that state.  This raises the larger question regarding his endgame which I will address in a separate post.

I’ll be on later tonight with a last-minute assessment of the state of play heading into tomorrow.  But for many reasons New Hampshire is not likely to play kingmaker this year – indeed, the Republican primary  lacks the suspense and significance that we saw in the 2008 Democratic primary, with the Clinton-Obama contest that so energized voters.  Nonetheless, because media pundits and party leaders will try to impute some significance to tomorrow’s outcome  – no matter how different that spin is from what the numbers actually show – the results are not meaningless.

In the meantime, Bert Johnson has been surveying the lay of the land in New Hampshire, and I expect him to report back later tonight.  We’ll see then if he predicts any surprises.

3:00 P.M. Suffolk has just released their latest tracking poll – the first to incorporate Saturday’s and Sunday’s debates (at least partially) and it shows Romney’s support eroding – he’s down to 33% in this poll, or precisely where he finished in 2008:

Q7. If the Republican Primary for President of the United States were held
today and the candidates were {alphabetical} Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Fred
Karger, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Buddy Roemer, Mitt Romney, or Rick Santorum for
whom will you vote or toward whom would you LEAN at this time?
N= 500 100%
Newt Gingrich ……………………………. 02 53 11%
Jon Huntsman …………………………….. 03 63 13%
Fred Karger ……………………………… 05 0 0%
Ron Paul ………………………………… 06 98 20%
Rick Perry ………………………………. 07 6 1%
Buddy Roemer …………………………….. 08 8 2%
Mitt Romney ……………………………… 09 166 33%
Rick Santorum ……………………………. 10 48 10%
Undecided (DO NOT READ) …………………… 11 58 12%

2 Responses to He’s In The Huntsman – But For What?

  1. Marty Lapidus says:

    The problem with this post is that it probably was written too early in the day. That is to say before Romney misspoke and and said how he liked to fire people who worked for him. Sure, the remark was taken out of context. But with all the candidates trying to take each other down, who cares about context? None of them. Romney certainly didn’t help himself. But who knows how much he hurt himself. In the words of an old radio show, “Only the shadow knows.”

  2. Matthew Dickinson says:

    Marty – You are right. Even before Romney’s most recent indelicate comments (granted that they were repeated out of context) his support was beginning to erode. I’ll be on in a bit with the most recent polling data, but he’s lost anywhere from 5-8% in the last three days, most of it post-debate. It’s just not clear to me that it is all going to Huntsman. I’m not ready to say this race is up for grabs, however – I think Romney’s slide will be too little, too late, for the other candidates….. but then, that’s why the hold the election.

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