Every fourth year in January, the otherwise quiet state of New Hampshire suddenly bursts onto the political scene as the site of the first presidential primary in the country, capturing front-page headlines and the attention of pundits and analysts alike. This year’s primary, which solidly picked Republican candidate Mitt Romney, was no exception.
Romney, who had lain low for much of the campaign season thus far, won New Hampshire with 39.3 percent of the vote, beating runner-up Ron Paul by 16.4 percentage points.
“[Romney] was governor of Massachusetts, and New Hampshire is in the Massachusetts media market,” Assistant Professor of Political Science Andrew Civettini said. “Anything less than winning the state would’ve been embarrassing.”
Given its timing, the New Hampshire primary is often touted as an early indicator of candidates’ viability. Sophomore Marcus McGee, however, is less certain about the primary’s ability to predict the future.
“New Hampshire is not a very good meter of the nation,” he said. “[Romney] has the potential to appeal to a variety of people if he plays his cards right, but … it’s really too early to tell.”
Still, all of the last seven U.S. presidents either came in first or second in the New Hampshire primary, and the state may be more representative of the country as a whole than it first appears.
“New Hampshire has a very high percentage of independent voters, so [it] is often seen as being the first indication of which candidates might be able to appeal to the centrists that typically decide American political elections,” Civettini said.
Even as Romney was winning in New Hampshire, however, he was also showing his first signs of weakness, according to Civettini. Romney’s now infamous line about liking to fire people, although taken out of context by the media, was atypically careless of him.
“I think that might be an indication of the increased pressure of having the entire rest of the field now attacking him,” Civettini said.
While Romney’s lead has remained solid for several weeks now, many primary contests remain between Romney and the 1,144 delegates to the Republican National Convention he will need to secure the party’s nomination.
Although Romney will likely snatch up several delegates in the upcoming South Carolina, Nevada and Florida primaries, he may face new obstacles in these states as well. Florida is a notorious swing state, and South Carolina has large concentrations of both African Americans and Evangelicals, neither of whom have been particularly supportive of Romney.
“If Romney wins South Carolina handily, it’s unlikely there’s any scenario in which he is not the nominee,” Civettini said. “If he loses in South Carolina and doesn’t perform well in Florida, then the narrative will be that he can’t do well enough in the South to hold onto his base.”
In freshman Bruce Kovanen’s view, the disunity of the Republican Party will guide Romney to the nomination regardless of his performance in upcoming primaries.
“Unless the Republicans can consolidate and decide on a single ‘not-Mitt Romney’ challenger, the nomination will surely go to Romney,” he said.
The likelihood of the GOP designating such a challenger, however, seems unlikely after New Hampshire. Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman dropped out of the race on Monday — despite campaigning more aggressively in New Hampshire than any other candidate, he finished in third place. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who only lost to Romney by eight votes in the Iowa caucus, fell to fifth place in New Hampshire, and early favorite Texas governor Rick Perry only received 1,766 votes (compared to Romney’s 97,532).
In response to Romney’s ascendancy, many other candidates have gone on the offensive, leading to an occurrence not often seen within the GOP: the questioning of Romney’s claims of having created wealth during his time as a business executive.
“What’s unusual … is that you have the Republican field asking, ‘Wealth for whom?’” Civettini said. “They’re faced with a candidate that they’re not necessarily sure what to do with in order to tear him down. He’s Republican enough, and he’s in front.”
This “Republican enough” factor, compounded by Romney’s experience in big business and balanced by his unwillingness so far to lash out concerning social issues, have created a picture for many of Romney as a candidate simply vying for the nomination, not for any specific policy.
“Mitt Romney is reaping the rewards of preparation,” Kovanen said. “He’s been preparing to win the primaries since he lost in 2008. He’s too slippery for attack ads.”
For McGee, the real question of Romney’s viability as a candidate will depend upon whether or not his tone changes if he wins the nomination.
“It’s an entirely different game, what you do in the primaries vs. what you do once you have the nomination, so I don’t think we’ll see his true colors until much later,” McGee said. “I think things are going to get a lot more interesting.”