Mitt Romney, New Hampshire And The 'Expectations Game'

A handful of new polls are out, all of which have Mitt Romney ahead in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary by varying margins.

(Click here for details on CNN/Time magazine, Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen polls.)

Romney's N.H. victory celebration four years ago was premature.  But it may not be this time.

hide captionRomney's N.H. victory celebration four years ago was premature. But it may not be this time.

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Since 1980, every Republican who won South Carolina has gone on to win the nomination. Given that, with Romney having won the Iowa caucuses (by a whopping eight-vote margin) and expected to take New Hampshire on Tuesday in lopsided fashion, the question naturally is:

Is it over?

Let's hold off on the coronation a bit longer. But here's what we do know.

With Romney winning in Iowa, the big story was probably who finished second — because the "Anybody But Romney" faction is looking to rally behind an alternative. That was Rick Santorum, who had been struggling to gain traction (and media exposure) for months. The former Pennsylvania senator was never the "frontrunner of the week," never the focus of attention in any of the debates, never pulled in any noticeable money. In fact, until late polling by CNN and the Des Moines Register showed him with momentum, I don't believe anyone gave him a second thought. While everyone — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich — was having his or her day in the sun, Santorum was under the radar, out visiting all 99 counties, getting little airtime or ink in the process. So to come within eight votes of the lead was pretty astounding.

As to what to make of Romney's caucus numbers, I'm still not sure. He got (slightly) more votes and a (slightly) lower percentage than he received in Iowa four years ago. Remember, he's been running ever since. And his total of 24.6 percent is now the lowest for any Iowa winner ever; Bob Dole had that ignominious record with a 25 percent finish in 1996.

(And, speaking of numbers, I completely expected the GOP turnout in Iowa to dwarf the participation totals from four years ago, when party morale was down in the dumps in the wake of an unpopular President Bush, a frustrating no-win war in Iraq, and a collapsing economy. But the 2012 turnout, in a year where Republicans were ecstatic at the thought of ousting President Obama, was perhaps only a thousand or two voters better than four years ago.)

Here's what did happen. Both Perry and Gingrich, who once posed the greatest threat to Romney's nomination, were beaten up in Iowa. Perry finished a miserable fifth, with 10% of the vote, and his decision to go back to Texas to reassess only confirmed that the end was near for him; South Carolina may be his Alamo.

Turning negative may remind voters of the old Gingrich.

hide captionTurning negative may remind voters of the old Gingrich.

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Gingrich's numbers were only marginally better — 13 percent, good for fourth place — but he was the target of an intense negative campaign, focusing on his personal foibles as much as anything. Even if Bachmann is gone and Perry nearly inconsequential, Gingrich now has to worry about the rise of Santorum. A unified conservative opposition to Romney, which was nowhere to be found in the caucuses and won't happen in New Hampshire, is unlikely to materialize in time for South Carolina on the 21st. This is great news for the former Massachusetts governor, who is more likely than ever to win his party's nomination but is still struggling to win over the hearts and minds of the voters.

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Nor should we forget the showing of Ron Paul, who finished a very close third, with 21 percent in Iowa. He is not going away, and why should he? His supporters are more committed than ever, and his organization has promised a full assault on other caucus states ... akin to Obama's strategy against Hillary Clinton in 2008. Four years ago, when he had far less support than he does now, he lasted as a candidate until mid-June.

By winning in Iowa and looking strong in New Hampshire, Romney has an opportunity to do what no non-incumbent Republican has ever done in presidential politics: take the first two contests of the nominating process. Reagan couldn't do it, nor could Dole, McCain or either Bush. And if the polls in South Carolina hold up, a race that some were hoping that could go all the way to the convention — or at least the latter months of spring — could be over before you know it.

But let's not leave New Hampshire just yet. Romney himself had the state all but won four years ago, but as his lead evaporated in Iowa, he found himself passed in the primary by McCain. His current lead in the N.H. polls is so large that many say he will be hard-pressed to manage expectations. And that's the big danger for him. There is no John McCain running this year, no Republican who attracts the kind of independents that could imperil Romney's lead. But there is Jon Huntsman, who bypassed Iowa and is betting the ranch on this primary, insisting that he's the kind of candidate the rugged individualists of New Hampshire want. Huntsman is trying to emulate McCain's strategy of starting out in N.H., which twice worked for the Arizonan, in 2000 and 2008. Others, of course, also tried that, notably Democrats Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman, but neither got anywhere. (Lieberman exited the race a week later.)

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Heading into New Hampshire, Santorum and the other strong social conservatives will find it a different terrain than Iowa. Both Pat Robertson, a strong second-place finisher in the 1988 caucuses, and Mike Huckabee, the 2008 winner, went into the Granite State a week or so later and got clobbered. It's a totally different electorate. At the same time, however, Pat Buchanan, no shrinking violet when it comes to social conservative politics, used a strong Iowa finish to win in New Hampshire in 1996.

Still, Santorum's past will now get put under the microscope, including the money he made since losing his 2006 Senate re-election race in Pennsylvania and some of the more incendiary and outlandish comments he's made about subjects such as homosexuality. He may in the end wish he were still the anonymous candidate he was in Iowa.

The history of New Hampshire primaries has long been filled with interpretation and spin. Both Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and Ed Muskie in 1972 won the Democratic primaries there, but both were considered "losers" because they performed worse than anticipated, and the respective second-place finishers Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern came away as "winners." Bill Clinton, who finished second to Paul Tsongas in 1992, somehow wound up as the "winner," thanks to his "Comeback Kid" spin that became conventional wisdom.

But it's going to be hard to dismiss or diminish Romney, conventional wisdom or otherwise, if he follows his Iowa win with a victory on Tuesday. And if he builds on that in a South Carolina win, then it may really be "over."

Live from New Hampshire! I'll be part of the live special broadcast of the primary coming to you from New Hampshire Public Radio, from 7-10 pm Eastern time, followed by a recap from 11-midnight. Click here for details.

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What next for Michele Bachmann? The Minnesota congresswoman dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday, the day after a 6th place finish in Iowa, with 5 percent of the vote. Now the guessing game is what she plans to do next. She could seek a fourth term in the House, where she has a somewhat comfortable Republican district north and east of the Twin Cities but one that might change due to redistricting. Either way, she is a clear Democratic target; she barely survived in both 2006 and 2008, though won more comfortably in 2010. She was turned down by House GOP leaders last year when she sought a leadership role, but as chair of the House Tea Party Caucus they might throw her a few crumbs. Her constant refrain during the caucuses that she is an Iowan — she was born in Waterloo — is certain to be brought up again by her opponents in Minnesota. Some muse that she might even be looking at a challenge to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D), but that seems quite unlikely as Klobuchar's numbers remain strong for 2012.

But she could also decide to retire, make a ton of money — a Fox News correspondent perhaps? — and then decide whether to rejoin the political fray. Aaron Blake of the Washington Post also suggests she might have designs on Al Franken's (D) Senate seat in 2014.

If she does decide to leave her House seat, one Republican whose name has been constantly mentioned as a potential successor is Tom Emmer, the party's gubernatorial nominee in 2010. But if she runs again, there's not likely to be a serious intra-party challenge.

Iowa or New Hampshire? Winning the New Hampshire primary doesn't always guarantee you the nomination. But until Bill Clinton in 1992, every person since 1952 who won the White House first won the primary in the Granite State. (Note: George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008 also lost N.H. en route to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.) Here's a look at Republican winners in competitive N.H. primaries since '52 (when the state started holding a presidential preference primary) and comparing them to Iowa GOP winners since 1980 (there were no Iowa Republican caucuses in '72, when the Democrats started, and in '76 there was no official tally for a winner.)

1952:

New Hampshire winnerDwight Eisenhower (2nd: Robert Taft)

Nominee -- Eisenhower

1964:

New Hampshire winner -- Henry Cabot Lodge (2nd: Barry Goldwater)

Nominee — Goldwater

1968:

New Hampshire winner — Richard Nixon (2nd: Nelson Rockefeller)

Nominee — Nixon

1972:

New Hampshire winner — Richard Nixon (2nd: Pete McCloskey)

Nominee -- Nixon

1976:

New Hampshire winner — Gerald Ford (2nd: Ronald Reagan)

Nominee -- Ford

1980:

New Hampshire winner — Ronald Reagan (2nd: George H.W. Bush)

Iowa winner — George H.W. Bush (2nd: Ronald Reagan)

Nominee — Reagan

1988:

New Hampshire winner — George H.W. Bush (2nd: Bob Dole)

Iowa winner — Bob Dole (2nd: Pat Robertson)

Nominee — Bush

1992:

New Hampshire winner — George H.W. Bush (2nd: Pat Buchanan)

Iowa winner — Bush (unopposed)

Nominee — Bush

1996:

New Hampshire winner — Pat Buchanan (2nd: Bob Dole)

Iowa winner — Bob Dole (2nd: Pat Buchanan)

Nominee — Dole

2000:

New Hampshire winner — John McCain (2nd: George W. Bush)

Iowa winner — George W. Bush (2nd: Steve Forbes)

Nominee — Bush

2008:

New Hampshire winner — John McCain (2nd: Mitt Romney)

Iowa winner — Mike Huckabee (2nd: Mitt Romney)

Nominee — McCain

Gallegly to retire. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), in Congress since 1987, announces he will not seek re-election. Gallegly is the victim of a new redistricting map that threw him in with a fellow Southern California Republican, Rep. Buck McKeon, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. He decided not to challenge McKeon in the primary nor run in a new district that has a slight Democratic advantage but one in which 2010 GOP gov candidate Meg Whitman and Senate nominee Carly Fiorina carried, albeit slightly. In this new seat, state Sen. Tony Strickland (R) is already running. We're also watching to see what two other California House Republicans decide to do in the wake of unfavorable redistricting: David Dreier and Jerry Lewis.

Arpaio won't. Marcicopa County (Phoenix, AZ) Sheriff Joe Arpaio says he will seek a sixth term this year. Arpaio, who is 79 and has been campaigning for Rick Perry in the Texas governor's bid for the GOP presidential nomination, will face Scottsdale Police Dept. Lt. Mike Stauffer.

Deaths. Former Rep. Ed Jenkins, 78, an 8-term Democrat from Georgia who served on the Ways & Means Cmte and retired after 1992, on Jan. 1. ... Gatewood Galbraith, a perennial candidate for governor in Kentucky dating back to 1991, died Jan. 3 at age 64. ... Tony Blankley, the conservative commentator who served as the press secretary to Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) before and after he became speaker after the 1994 elections, died Sunday at age 63.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Meanwhile, here's some mail from my in-box:

Q: So many have said that Mitt Romney is the favorite to be president but he is not pulling away in the polls against his fellow Republican contenders. Why is that so? — Ben Balan, Singapore

A: All year long the race for the Republican nomination has been a clash between Romney, the choice of the party establishment, and the more conservative, evangelical wing of the GOP that feels Romney is not sufficiently conservative. That's why there have been so many other "frontrunners" throughout the pre-primary season — Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, to mention some. They were the "Anybody But Mitt" candidates. And all the while Romney seemed stuck on attracting the support of about 25% in the polls.

Part of the problem is that the party has yet to make the decision as to what really drives them in 2012: beating President Obama, which polls and the Romney camp argue is the basis for Romney's candidacy, and staying true to conservative positions.

But, as my analysis at the top of this posting indicates, Romney's escape from Iowa with a win, combined with an expected romp on Tuesday in New Hampshire, puts him in a most envious position among those hoping to get the nomination. Let's see if the polls move as he approaches the primaries in South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31).

Q: Your Wednesday segment on TOTN is my favorite NPR event of the week. But please resolve this weekly mystery for me. What is the ever-so-brief sound byte between "Lipstick" [Sarah Palin] and "But I'm The Decider" [George W. Bush] in your intro sequence of juicy political audio tidbits? — Steve Chall, Chapel Hill, N.C.

A: It's the newest addition to the Political Junkie montage. It's Rick Perry's immortal "oops," during the Nov. 9 GOP debate in Rochester, Mich., in which he couldn't remember the name of the third Cabinet department he would eliminate.

Q: I'm coming to the sad conclusion that Hillary Clinton is not going to run for president again, in 2016 or ever. And so now I'm starting to think about Chelsea Clinton as a potential candidate. Do you think she runs for office? Has the daughter of a president ever run for office before? — Carol London, New York, N.Y.

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A: Right now Chelsea Clinton's main task should be to turn around those awful reviews she got as a correspondent on Brian Williams' "Rock Center" program for NBC News. That she would join the media after having spent much of her life avoiding the media surprised many people.

But with her mother leaving the administration after this year, there may be a desire for Clinton fans to get Chelsea in the public eye. She has been mentioned as a potential successor for Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who represents the Clintons' Westchester home of Chappaqua. (Lowey is likely to run for a 13th term this year.)

One daughter of a president has run for office before. In 1982, Maureen Reagan sought the GOP nomination for the Senate in California but came in a weak fifth in the primary won by San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. Last week's show came to you from the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, and it was a special two-hour program, focusing on the candidates as they move from Iowa into New Hampshire. The first segment had special guests Linda Fowler, a professor from Dartmouth; Josh Rogers, political reporter for NHPR; Congressman Charlie Bass, representing the Romney campaign; and state Sen. Andy Sanborn, representing the Paul campaign. You can listen to the entire segment right here:

Jan. 4 Junkie segment on TOTN

And the second segment talked about the "other" candidates who ran back in the pack, and their chances following the results in Iowa. Also on the show was Matt Bai, the political correspondent for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. And that segment can be heard here:

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can be found in this spot every week. A randomly-selected winner will be announced each week during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. It's not too late to enter last week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt!

Note: Starting this week, ScuttleButton will appear each Monday, the same day as the Political Junkie column. Same rules apply.

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner-in-crime, Ron Elving, and me. Last week's segment had the two of us in Manchester, N.H., analyzing the Iowa results. You can listen to the latest episode here:

Last week's podcast from N.H.

ON THE CALENDAR:

Jan. 10 — NEW HAMPSHIRE PRIMARY.

Jan. 16 — GOP debate, Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Fox, 9 pm ET).

Jan. 19 — GOP debate, Charleston, S.C. (CNN).

Jan. 21 — SOUTH CAROLINA PRIMARY.

Jan. 23 — GOP debate, Tampa, Fla. (NBC).

Jan. 24 — President Obama's State of the Union address to Congress.

Jan. 25 — Talk of the Nation/Political Junkie from Orlando, Fla.

Jan. 26 — GOP debate, Jacksonville, Fla. (CNN).

Jan. 31 — FLORIDA PRIMARY.

Jan. 31 — Special congressional election in Oregon's 1st CD to succeed former Rep. David Wu (D), who resigned amid a sex scandal. Candidates: Suzanne Bonamici (D) and Rob Cornilles (R).

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

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This day in campaign history: Julian Bond, a black state representative from Georgia who two times before was denied his seat because of his statements expressing opposition to the Vietnam War, is sworn into office. Bond was twice elected to his seat but the Georgia House refused to seat him. The Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that barring him was a violation of Bond's right to free speech (Jan. 9, 1967).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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