By How Much Must Romney Win To Really Win?

There are two contests on tap tonight. The first is the race to win votes in the New Hampshire primary, and with those votes earn all-important delegates.  To be sure, there are only 12 delegates at stake (New Hampshire’s total was reduced as a party penalty for moving its primary earlier in the calendar), and they are awarded proportionally, based on the candidates’ popular vote totals.  A candidate must clear the 10% threshold to win a delegate.  (By the way, if anyone is counting the New Hampshire popular vote, at this moment Mitt is leading 7 votes to 5 over Ron Paul, with Huntsman close behind at 4 votes. But I expect these totals to change as the night goes on.)

The second, and arguably more important contest, is to beat the media expectations game.   Keep in mind that there is no journalist’s manual for determining just what the benchmarks that each candidate must reach are; instead, they are apparently divined through a complicated process of consultation, group think, astrology and rooting through pig’s entrails.

It would help, therefore, if we could establish some real benchmarks by which to evaluate the media’s benchmarks.  Consider Mitt’s candidacy – what would be the proper benchmark by which to evaluate his vote totals tonight?  I’m going to use the same benchmark I proposed for Iowa: how does his total compare to past New Hampshire Republican primary winners?  If we look only at contested primaries back to 1988, the winner – on average – has received about 40% of the vote (standard deviation of about 9.3%)  Of course, one can quibble that this percentage depends in part on how many candidates there are, but in fact the number running today isn’t that different than in most past elections. So, based on past winners, I declare Romney’s success benchmark to be 40% or greater.  If he clears half a standard deviation above the average winning percentage – that is, 45% – he has had a very good night and the pundits are free to claim the race is over.  If he comes in below 45%, however, but is above 40%, he has still had a very good night – perhaps not a knockout, but pretty darn close.  Anything between 35% and 40% is fine, but it won’t convince the diehards that he’s the New Mitt.

So much for his benchmark of success. What about failure?  That’s easy.  Four years ago he won 32% of the vote.  He needs to clear that total tonight, or pundits have the right to begin writing “if Mitt can’t close the deal in his backyard” stories.

There you have it: clear benchmarks by which to evaluate the pundits’ benchmarks, and not a single pig killed in the process. Isn’t science the best?

It is traditional that I make my predictions regarding vote totals and the order in which the candidates will finish.  I will post that in a moment.

Meanwhile, keep in mind that the polls close in many New Hampshire towns at 7:30, but many others remain open until 8 p.m.  If the networks do not call this election for Romney precisely at 8 p.m., then he is in big doo-doo and you can screw the benchmarks.  Of course, the real excitement – beyond seeing if Mitt meets his benchmarks – is who finishes second – and who does not.  I’ll be live blogging tonight beginning shortly before 8.  As always, feel free to join in.

And journalists – you can thank me later for establishing your benchmark.