Who Really Won New Hampshire, and Why

The on-site comments* to my post yesterday for the U.S. News “debate club” remind me that perhaps the biggest story coming out of the New Hampshire primary was not Romney’s decisive win – it was Ron Paul’s unexpectedly strong second-place showing.  You will recall – and undoubtedly remind me in months to come – that I had Paul coming in a very close third, just behind Huntsman, with about 18% of the vote.  Although I nailed Huntsman’s vote totals, Paul did better than I projected, winning 23% of the vote to finish a strong second.

And yet despite his strong finish, very few if any commentators bothered analyzing why Paul did so well in New Hampshire.  That oversight is consistent with the more general media view that Paul is no threat to win this nomination, and that he has committed but relatively small support consisting of a core group of “Paulistas” who contribute to Paul’s moneybombs and lurk on every website, but who don’t constitute much more than 10-15% of likely Republican voters.

I think that characterization, while not completely inaccurate, fit Paul better in 2008 than it does this time around.  In fact, the New Hampshire exit polls suggest Paul has expanded his base of support beyond his libertarian core by attracting conservatives and Tea Partiers who are worried about the deficit and who want to reign in government spending.   Let’s take a closer look.

By now, it is clear that Paul does well among younger voters.  Interestingly, that support is not just among the very young; he edged Romney, 11%-10%, among all voters 44 years or younger who voted in New Hampshire’s Republican primary (based on exit polls).  Romney racked up his winning margin by relying heavily on the much larger 45 year and older vote.

But the most intriguing findings come when we look at the breakdown of the vote by income.  As the table below shows, Paul’s share of support in each income category drops in linear fashion as you climb up the income scale, while Romney’s is the mirror opposite – his support climbs as you go up the income ladder:

Income Paul 2012 Romney 2012
Under $30k (11%) 35% 31%
$30-50k (15%) 28% 31%
$50-100k (37%) 22% 35%
$100-200k (27%) 20% 47%
$200k or more (10%) 12% 52%

In the aggregate, Paul ties Romney at 31% support among wage earners below $50,000, but Romney trounces him, 41-20%, among those earning over $50,000.   If we look back at 2008, however, we see a slightly different pattern of support by income for Paul:

Income Paul 2008 Change In Share of Income Category from 2008 to 2012
Under $30k (10%) 8.4% +26.6%
$30-50k (14%) 8% +20%
$50-100k (39%) 6.5% +15.5%
$100-200k (29%) 6.4% +13.6%
$200k or more (7%) 7% +5%

 

Although Paul shows gains across the board from 2008 to 2012 in each income category, the gains are larger in the lower income brackets.  His coalition now has a distinct economic skew in a way that it did not four years ago. Much of Paul’s New Hampshire support in 2008 came among voters who strongly disapproved of the Iraq War, who thought the economy was doing very poorly and who were self-identified liberals.  This year he again drew heavily on self-identified liberals and moderates who formed a slightly higher (47% to 45%) proportion of the voting pool than they did in 2008.  But he increased his support among independents, winning 31% of that category, compared to in 2008 when he won only 13%, even as the percentage of independents voting in the Republican primary climbed 10% from 37% to 47% in four years.

Note that Paul’s overall support does not correlate very well with opinions regarding the Tea Party movement; among New Hampshire Tea Party sympathizers; he wins 22% of those who support the movement, 27% who are neutral, and 19% who oppose.  (Interestingly, Huntsman won the most – 41% – among the 17% of voters who opposed the Tea Party.)  What this suggests then, is that Paul was able to draw on a subset of Tea Party voters: those most concerned – particular lower and middle-income voters – with government spending and the deficit.  These are the economic populist voters that Santorum appeared to make some inroads with in Iowa.  My guess is that Santorum’s social views, particularly toward gay marriage, made him anathema to New Hampshire voters who might otherwise have backed him for his economic policies.

What does this mean as we head into South Carolina?  I think Paul is unlikely to fully replicate the success he had in New Hampshire, with its favorable mix of libertarian, middle and low-income fiscally-minded voters. But he could still do well – if the trio of Gingrich, Perry and Santorum let him.  There is an opening, I think, for someone who can reclaim the economic populist portion of the Tea Party vote and still appeal to social conservatives.  So far, Paul doesn’t seem to attracting much support among social conservatives, and his foreign policy views may play less well among South Carolina’s more traditional Republican voters.

The degree to which Paul can replicate his New Hampshire success, then, depends in part on whether someone contests his claim on the economic populist vote.  At this point, I think Gingrich is best positioned to do so. If he is to win back these voters, however, he needs to have a much better answer to the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac lobbying connection than he has given so far.  If he can provide one, and if he hones his Romney-as-job-destroyer campaign theme without appearing overly negative, he is going to give Mitt a run for his money in South Carolina.  The key to attracting the grass-roots Tea Partiers is for Gingrich to successfully paint Romney as part of the Wall St. banking crowd that benefitted from government bailouts and engaged in “predatory capitalism”.  Even then, however, Gingrich won’t beat Romney if Perry, Santorum and even Paul effectively appeal to the same Tea Party faction.

*The Paulistas were none too happy with my U.S. News piece because I dismissed Paul’s chances of winning the nomination.  Here’s a representative comment:

“Stopped reading this article after bracketed sentence in first paragraph. Author, you are an unpatriotic American, someone who will say anything as long as you can collect money for doing so. You have the integrity of Newt Gingrich.”

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