Romney Leads In N.H. Ahead Of Primary
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
As soon as we get past the new year, Republicans will be voting for their nominee to challenge President Obama. Iowa's caucuses come on January 3. The first full-blown presidential primary comes in New Hampshire one week later, January 10. And that will be the fourth New Hampshire primary witnessed by Andrew Smith, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
Let me just ask about the way that the candidates have been approaching the primary this year. How is their campaigning, if at all, different from previous New Hampshire primaries that you've seen?
ANDREW SMITH: Well, this is a lot slower start this year, and I think that's largely because all of the other candidates have somewhat conceded New Hampshire to Mitt Romney. And they haven't had the money to really mount a media campaign, which would make the rest of the state think that there's an actual contest going on. Just now is it starting to heat up with Gingrich's recent rise.
INSKEEP: Romney's popularity just comes from proximity? He was governor of Massachusetts, and a lot of people in New Hampshire are from Massachusetts?
SMITH: I there's three factors with Romney's popularity. First is he's the candidate that people know the best here. He was governor of Massachusetts. I think more importantly though is that as a political figure in New England he's been largely a moderate Northeastern Republican. That's been his reputation over the years he's been in politics, and that fits in very well with the New Hampshire Republican electorate. It's by-and-large moderate Republicans, business Republicans. Social issues are not important.
SMITH: One of the things to know about New Hampshire is that according to a study by Gallup, it's the second least religious state in the country. Likely Republican primary voters here are more pro-choice than the country is as a whole. And even other divisive social issues, such as gay marriage, is something which Republicans are very divided on. So it's just not a state where social conservatives do very well, and I think that's the second reason that Romney's so comfortable ahead here.
The third thing is that Republicans really have a tendency to go through the chairs. Romney finished second in New Hampshire and arguably was the second strongest candidate in the 2008 nomination process among Republicans, so he's the lead candidate this time around.
INSKEEP: Well, now, I'm really interested in the thing that you said about New Hampshire being a politically moderate state, particularly on social issues, because Romney has been repeatedly hammered by social conservatives. He's insisted I'm very conservative, and some have said we suspect you, we doubt you, you've flip-flopped, you've changed your positions. Does that reputation that may harm him elsewhere actually help Mitt Romney in a place like New Hampshire?
SMITH: Well, it certainly doesn't hurt him here. We often have turnout in our presidential primary that's higher than some states have in their general election for president. That means it's not activists who are the ones who are determining who wins or loses here, it's regular voters, people who don't pay that much attention to politics and who are far less ideological. So I would say it helps him. It actually - I think the other way of looking at it is other candidates who run more dogmatically on social issues are hurt in New Hampshire.
INSKEEP: Do you think the nationally televised debates, because there have been so many, because they've drawn such interest, because so many strange things have happened in them, will prove to be more important than the early primaries this election cycle?
SMITH: I don't think they'll be more important than the early primaries themselves, but I think they are more important in the overall election. Because we haven't had the television coverage in this state and because Romney actually hasn't been campaigning that that much here, largely because he doesn't have to - the voters in New Hampshire aren't being exposed to the kind of traditional campaigns that they've seen in the past, so they're getting their information about the candidates the same places that the rest of the country does, and that has been largely through debates this year, because we've had so many of them.
In the next month or so is when voters will really start to pay attention to what's going on on the ground.
INSKEEP: Do you feel, given everything you've said, that Romney is the overwhelming favorite in New Hampshire or do you think it's a little more open than it seems?
SMITH: I would say he's not the overwhelming favorite. He certainly has a lot of things going for him. One is that if you ask Republican voters who they think is going to win the New Hampshire primary, 75 percent in our most recent poll said that Romney is the guy who's going to win the primary. And there's quite a bit of evidence that that question is actually more predictive of the winner of an election than asking people who they actually are going to vote for.
The other thing that Romney has going for him in the state is that there's a perception that he's the most electable Republican in an election against Barack Obama. And New Hampshire will be a swing state, so I think that electability issue is something that weighs on the minds of voters because when it all comes down to it, you want to nominate a candidate that can beat the other side.
INSKEEP: Andrew Smith is a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. Thanks very much.
SMITH: Thank you.
INSKEEP: We're tracking the presidential race right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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