In the hunt for the GOP presidential nomination, we have moved past the “first in the nation” contests — the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary — and are now headed toward two key “make or break” contests for the second and third tier candidates: South Carolina on January 21, and Florida on January 31. Over the past week we’ve seen the candidates put their best face on the results (except for Michele Bachmann, whose ticket out of Iowa took her back to Minnesota), and the punditocracy unpack the implications for the various candidates.
As the Denizens see it, the suspense regarding the eventual Republican nomination is over: Mitt Romney wins. There, we said it. What’s more interesting, and arguably far more important, is how the symbolic importance of the primary results and the discourse between the candidates (and between them and the media) will shape the near-term future of the Republican party, as well as the identity of Romney as a candidate going into the general election campaign.
New Hampshire is important not merely due to its symbolic “first in the nation” status (although that factor is significant, given the high-profile media attention the primary generates, and the traditional wisdom that winning here generates momentum for a candidate going into larger contests, especially if the win is unexpected). Perhaps the key importance of New Hampshire is that it is an open primary. Unlike most primaries and caucuses, which are low-turnout contests dominated by more committed party and ideological partisans, independents and party line-crossers can vote in a New Hampshire primary. This means that the New Hampshire electorate can actually a better gauge of a candidate’s electability in a general election. That said, one must take the media claim that New Hampshire voters have a strong “independent streak” with a grain of salt, as some New Hampshire political scientists and polling experts have debunked it, establishing that, rather than a monolithic bloc that can swing an election, independents tend to lean in partisan directions and can go in several different directions during a party primary.
However, New Hampshire primary voters do have a reputation for holding candidates to careful scrutiny (at least, that is, they think they do) and sometimes favoring unconventional candidates with strong showings (e.g., Pat Buchanan’s strong challenge of President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and his win over Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain’s win over George W. Bush in 2000). This means that a New Hampshire win can generate media attention, stronger party support and increased fundraising for a heretofore lower-tier candidate with limited resources.
So, the strategic electoral implications of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary are actually pretty easy to sum up:
Romney was always going to win New Hampshire — he governed the state next door, he owns a vacation home there, and he’s been cultivating his political organization there since the early autumn of 2006. The primary was his to lose.
The key this year, then, would be the size of his victory compared to the expectations of conventional wisdom. In 2008 Romney lost to perennial Granite State favorite John McCain with a result of nearly 32% (to McCain’s 37%). The media’s conventional wisdom thus set Romney’s bar with an expectation to exceed that result. A narrow win under 35% with a close second-place finisher would indicate that Romney’s frontrunner status is weak and vulnerable. With a 39% finish, Romney beat the closest competition by 16 points — a sizable and decisive margin, topping McCain’s 2008 result, if not definitive of Romney’s ability to lock the nomination.
The strong second place finish of GOP iconoclast Ron Paul, who took 23% of the total vote, guaranteed his place as a prominent voice in the campaign and the party moving forward. This runner-up result followed his strong third place finish in Iowa, where his 21.4% total was only 3.2 points behind Romney and 3.1 points behind Rick Santorum. This result also exceeded the disappointing finishes of John Huntsman’s 17% and the 9.4% of statistically tied Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Paul also nearly tripled his 2008 New Hampshire results (7.8%), after nearly doubling his 2008 Iowa results (10%). It seems undeniable that, while his appeal has typically been described as limited to libertarian Republicans, young voters and new voters (minority constituencies in the GOP, atypical of most GOP primary voters, which bodes poorly for his chances at the nomination), Paul is steadily building his national strength, making it impossible for the major media to continue marginalizing his campaign.
While only time will tell if the perennial media framing of Paul as a quixotic “agenda candidate” with no real chance of winning will alter, one procedural change made by the Republican Party for the 2012 season makes Paul’s strong showings important. Primaries and caucuses held before April 1st must award delegates to the national convention proportionately, based on the number of votes received (rather than a “winner-take-all” approach historically favored by Republicans). Continued strong showings by Paul mean that, even if the post-March contests eliminate his chances to win quickly, he will have racked up enough delegates to make it embarrassing for Romney should they be declared out loud in the roll call of state delegations that will nominate him. The GOP, as do the Democrats, ideally want to display to the nation a strong and unified party coalescing around a consensus candidate. So, in order for Paul to release his delegates to Romney (assuming he even will, itself a fascinating question), the nominee and the party will likely need to make concessions to the Paul camp on various areas of the party policy platform, grant Paul a prominent position on the convention dais to speak, grant money to help retire Paul’s campaign debt, and/or take Paul’s recommendations for administrative appointees seriously. The quirky, cranky iconoclast with the weird ideas about isolationism and the Federal Reserve has now become a major player.
Jon Huntsman rolled the dice and lost. A moderate Republican who served as Ambassador to China in the Obama administration, Huntsman likely concluded that he would be a hard sell for social conservatives and Tea Party supporters in Iowa. He gambled that ignoring the Iowa caucuses to concentrate time and attention on the New Hampshire primary (as John McCain did in 2008 for the most part) would enable him to replicate McCain’s results and gain a bounce from a strong-second place finish in the Granite State — which would give him the media attention and momentum he would need to fundraise and build an organization for the Florida primary (rather than South Carolina, a state he will likely lose big to Romney and the social conservatives). However, where the Huntsman team miscalculated was on the accelerated early campaign calendar, combined with the chronological reality that Iowa comes first and the political reality that media exposure matters.
Huntsman tended to assume (thanks to media and public organizations who planned them) a marginal stage placement and minimal speaking time in pre-Iowa debates, which presented the voting public with a frame of the GOP field that marginalized Huntsman as a contender. Indeed, some free media opportunities evaporated, as Huntsman skipped (or “boycotted”) debates in order to avoid being excluded in Nevada on October 18th and Iowa on December 10, 2011 due to his low opinion poll numbers. In each case Huntsman attempted to make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear with a public “protest” against each debate due to the early scheduling of the Iowa and Nevada caucuses — which encroached on New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” status.
So here’s the problem: when your campaign is third-tier in organizational strength and financing, and you can’t make large media buys to introduce yourself and engage your opponents with advertising, the availability of free media in the form of television (and, now, blogosphere) news coverage becomes all the more important in order to insert yourself into the public campaign frame. Iowa, as always, comes first, and so media attention to the Iowa campaign is a proportionately huge chunk of the political news agenda. This year seems particularly saturated, not merely by national newspaper and television news organizations, but by loads of bloggers and online reporters as well. There are political media covering the contests in New Hampshire and elsewhere at the same time, of course, but the immediate present, as-it-happens frame of contemporary news means that the agenda features what’s happening now far more so than what’s happening next, or down the line.
So when Jon Huntsman ignored Iowa, he made himself irrelevant to the national political news media that was framing the GOP field. Once Iowa was over, New Hampshire — and Huntsman and his big plans and self-imposed high expectations for a surprisingly strong finish to challenge Romney — became relevant. But the primary took place just one week after Iowa. So New Hampshire voters, while familiar with Huntsman due to the attention he paid to them, had been exposed for quite some time to a national media frame in which Huntsman was depicted (when he appeared at all) as a long-shot at best. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that an electorate especially interested in electability might not throw their support to a guy who’s never on TV — after all, how can he win? He’s not even on TV!
Huntsman’s response? While he declared in his New Hampshire election night speech that he was moving on to South Carolina, he’s not genuinely competing there. Evidence for this? First, some observers have already noted that Huntsman lost a big opportunity by not spending more time with South Carolinians building support while everyone else was in Iowa. Second, a poll released yesterday shows that Huntsman trails the pack with 4% of voters… even fewer than the 5% who would support the “candidacy” of Comedy Central personality Stephen Colbert. Third, his primary strategy seems to be to focus instead on Florida, where he’s betting that more moderate, less socially conservative GOP voters will support him as a sensible, electable alternative to Romney. Huntsman was declaring as early as June 2011 that “Florida is where this race is going to be won for the Huntsman campaign.” Two problems here. First, a meaningful New Hampshire finish might have made the case for such a vote more compelling, and Huntsman failed to deliver. Second, a virtual bypass of South Carolina to focus on Florida is Iowa all over again. The media agenda — and the frame of “the GOP field” — will focus intensely on South Carolina until that primary is over… and once again, Huntsman will relegate himself to irrelevance in the national media. It is unlikely that Florida voters won’t notice.
In 2008, Rudy Giuliani (the pre-primary frontrunner who nonetheless floundered to irrelevance and defeat) conceded Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina without a struggle, banking on his mainstream Republican identity and previously high media profile to carry the day in large big-state, multi-state primaries after a Florida victory. However, this meant that Giuliani was a non-player in the national media horse race focused on the early races. Losses in national polls (driven by the national media frame of the horse race) led to losses in Florida polls, a distant third place primary finish, and ultimately Giuliani’s withdrawal. You can’t win if you don’t play — even if you are a big name — when campaigns are driven by national horse race media. If Rudy Giuliani couldn’t do it in 2008, Jon Huntsman likely won’t this year.
The social conservative vote is split, which Romney has to love. Rick Santorum’s razor-thin second place finish (and symbolic win) in Iowa was followed by a statistical tie with Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire, both with 9.4% of the vote (although the latest primary vote tally actually reveals that Santorum beat Gingrich by 117 votes). The difference here is that, while Santorum did not compete in New Hampshire (indeed, not even with any TV advertising), saving his financial and media resources and his time for Iowa-style retail politicking in South Carolina, Gingrich wanted New Hampshire badly, and worked hard for it from the onset of his campaign. Securing the endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader was Gingrich’s biggest victory in New Hampshire, but that cap-feather couldn’t outweigh the negative momentum from a barrage of attack advertising from his rivals and a distant fourth-place finish in Iowa… not to mention a campaign organization that experienced troubling turnover early in 2011, and campaigned in New Hampshire without consultants or internal polling, and little money for advertising.
This means that Santorum, supported by Christian evangelical conservatives, and Gingrich, the former Georgia Congressman (as well as Rick Perry, making what looks like a last, desperate stand) will compete for the social conservative vote in South Carolina. Currently the two are jockeying for the public opinion poll lead — Santorum beating Gingrich 24% to 18% in a January 5 Rasmussen poll (Romney led with 27%), Gingrich beating Santorum 21% to 14% (Romney with 23%) in an Insider Advantage poll released yesterday. The problem for the social conservatives? If they had one strong candidate to rally around, carrying 30 to 40% in these polls, they could defeat Romney in the Palmetto state and provide a strong challenge in the large state contests ahead. Even that scenario isn’t guaranteed; in 2008, the sole social conservative Mike Huckabee lost to John McCain’s superior organization and cash by more than 3 points. The case in 2012: the social conservative vote will split, and with weak support for Paul and Huntsman, Romney will win with a decent plurality of the vote.
To survive past South Carolina, candidates will get ugly. That’s already happened in Iowa and New Hampshire, with a surging Gingrich in November met by torrents of attack advertising from his opponents and “independent organizations” supporting those opponents. Gingrich abandoned his pledge for a positive campaign and struck back in New Hampshire, blasting Romney. The day before the New Hampshire primary, the New York Times reported:
[Gingrich] called the all-positive phase of his campaign an ‘experiment.’ Now the terms have changed. ‘We proved in Iowa you can’t survive just by being positive,’ he said, but then immediately added, ‘That doesn’t mean you have to be negative.’
So the stage is set for a no-holds-barred fight in South Carolina. And historically South Carolina is a hotbed of nasty campaigning, from whisper campaigns to sharp attack ads. The fight will be out in the open, ubiquitous, and to a large degree “independent” of the candidate’s official campaigns. This is due to the heightened presence of potentially unlimited advertising by super PACs, who can raise and spend as much as they want on campaign advocacy ads thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission and the federal appellate decision in SpeechNow.org vs. Federal Election Commission.
These are the strategic lessons of New Hampshire. As we move forward, what are the implications of Iowa and New Hampshire for the subsequent campaign discourse, and the way it will (re-)constitute the identities of Romney and the Republican Party? To be continued, loyal readers, coming soon.