Why New Hampshire is Worth Watching

by Brendan Monaghan

With less than 48 hours until the much-hyped first in the nation primary, much of the suspense appears to have vanished in the crisp winter air. As long as the world keeps on spinning in this year of the Mayan apocalypse, Governor Mitt Romney will not only win the Granite State, but win big. He need only mail in the score from South Carolina (where much of the field has begun to congregate anyway). Much of the media attention in New Hampshire has focused on Romney’s remarkably smooth ride, seeing as he governed a neighboring state and owns a house there too. So one can’t help but wonder why non-junkies should bother watching or paying attention on Tuesday.

Simply put, the race for New Hampshire’s twelve proportionally-allocated delegates is for second place. Romney may be heavily-favored (by as many as three touchdowns in some polls), but he’s not polling much above 40%. That means the majority of the state’s delegates will likely be dispersed among a plethora of other candidates. As in Iowa, a strong showing for certain candidates may fan some life back in to their smoldering campaigns. Likewise, others could be snuffed out by underperforming their expectations. Iowa claimed Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and it should have claimed Perry after an embarrassing 15% combined vote share between the two. Ron Paul also underperformed, coming in a distant third when he might realistically have won.

One need look no further here than Jon Huntsman. The former Ambassador has bet the embassy on a third-place finish on Tuesday, pledging to drop out otherwise. Good news for him that statistician and prognosticator Nate Silver had Huntsman polling second as late as Sunday night. Even distant to Romney, even photo flash finish proximity to Paul would more than justify continuing on and hoping for a conduit through Nevada. Fourth place and he drops out to endorse Mitt the next day. There’s little doubt that a near permanent residence in the Granite State, combined with two solid debates have helped fuel this mini-surge.

Congressman Paul appears to have a window here as well, even if he doesn’t finish much better, percentage-wise, than he did in Iowa. Depending on Huntsman, Paul has been the main beneficiary of Newt Gingrich’s stunning post-surge decline, mirroring what the Speaker did in the Hawkeye State and across the country. Ron Paul racked in 8% of the vote four years ago, and supporters are hoping that nearly-tripling that result might finally force the media and Republican naysayers to take him seriously. Even with the remainder of the field taking off for the Palmetto State shortly after Sunday morning’s “Meet the Candidates,” New Hampshire’s delegates are still there for the taking. Thus, a second place finish- or even a strong third- would deliver invaluable propaganda to the maverick candidate and his devoted, vocal fan base.

By contrast, the unstated concession of New Hampshire to Romney by Gingrich, Perry, and especially Iowa’s surprise second Senator Santorum will not do them any service. Perry had shuttered his New Hampshire headquarters, apparently employing a similar “bet it all on Maroon and Black” strategy to Ambassador Huntsman. Why he bothered showing up for what could have been a disastrous debate twin-killing Saturday night and Sunday morning is somewhat of a mystery. Likewise, Gingrich’s decision to cut and run won’t help the image of a candidate desperately trying to convince voters he can still come back, again, and snatch the nomination from a much better-funded, more-prepared, well-supported Romney. Ordinarily, a dismal showing in such a traditionally pivotal state would doom a trio such as this- but the team appears to have benched their starters and looked ahead.

Senator Santorum also had the opportunity to build momentum from his entirely unexpected second place (really, near-miss) finish in Iowa. Instead, he appears to have done everything wrong this week, picking as many fights with undecided voters as converting and turning out supporters. A strong third or even distant second would not have been impossible- it still isn’t- and would have gone a long way to finally convincing disaffected conservatives that he, the former Senator, was their knight in shining armor to save them from the Massachusetts Moderate. By giving away New Hampshire (and according to a series of new polls, allowing Romney to pull ahead of and away from the field), time appears to be running out for those intending to stop Mitt.

Brendan is a graduate student at Portland State University, where he hosts the KPSU “Right Jab” radio program, and a regular contributor at Oregon Catalyst. Brendan is studying political science, and graduated from The Ohio State University in 2007, with a degree in political science.