The second presidential nominating contest is under way in New Hampshire (or the first one, depending on whether you think the Iowa caucus counts), and the narrative for the next week or so will be shaped by how much the candidates meet expectations.
What will be the margin of Mitt Romney’s win? Will Jon Huntsman be right behind, or is his hype unfounded? Will Rick Santorum be in any headlines Wednesday morning?
We paired the candidates’ own expectations with some top-notch political analysis from veteran primary observer Dante Scala, a professor at the University of New Hampshire. Here’s what you need to know:
Romney is going to win the New Hampshire primary, and because everyone knows it, his narrative will be all about his margin of victory. One reason Romney is doing so well is because he’s very popular with Republicans near the state’s southern border with Massachusetts, where he was governor — the southeastern region is where Romney performed best in 2008, appealing to affluent suburbanites.
“I suspect the most likely outcome is Mitt’s going to do very well among those voters and then do OK in the rest of the state,” Scala said.
But watch for the off-chance that Newt Gingrich makes a slight comeback in the south, like in Derry, Scala warns. After all, the New Hampshire Union Leader hasn’t been shy in supporting Gingrich and bashing Romney.
The question for Romney is whether he can get above 38 percent of the vote, around which he’s been polling steadily — if so, Romney might be able to claim a narrative that his popularity is growing.
Romney himself has pretty much acknowledged he expects to win the state, but he isn’t bragging. “Fresh from that landslide in Iowa, maybe can we double that number? You know, instead of an 8-point margin, maybe 16?” he said. “I sure hope so. I want to win.”
The bad news for Gingrich is that few people expect him to do well in New Hampshire. The good news is that few people expect him to do well, setting the bar pleasantly low and easier to surpass.
“I’ll do well enough,” Gingrich told ABC News’s Jonathan Karl yesterday.
Scala says to watch for late-breaking voters who side with Gingrich, the way that Santorum nearly won in Iowa. But while Gingrich has spent the last few days ramming Romney with critiques on the ex-governor’s time at Bain Capital, Republicans in New Hampshire may not reward an attack on the pro-business candidate.
“Romney’s being attacked for being a conservative businessman. I don’t know if Gingrich benefits from that,” Scala said. “There might be Republicans who say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I’m a conservative businessman.’ ”
In that case, Scala said, look for a fifth-place finish.
A solid second place spot wouldn’t be bad for Paul. But have we seen this film before?
Paul’s reliable supporters — rural voters and high-energy college kids — are likely to show up at the polls for him, just as they did in Iowa, but it might not be enough to launch him into a strong finish. Look for a close third-place result, Scala said.
“I don’t think he gets a pop tonight,” he said. “I think he does what he’s going to do, kind of like in Iowa, but he doesn’t go through the roof.”
Paul has managed expectations by portraying the primary as a race between him and Romney. “We’re very optimistic about the way things are going,” he said. “If we just get close to him, it’s going to be a real big news story.”
Call him the Rick Santorum of New Hampshire — a bottom-tier candidate who ignored a caucus to get a head-start in a primary, and who hopes that his ground-game effort will pay off with a second-place win.
That’s a possible outcome, Scala said — but where does Huntsman go from there? The next primary, in South Carolina, will be just as tough as Iowa was for Huntsman, a moderate, Mormon Republican (not unlike Romney).
The scenario Huntsman needs is for Romney to underperform and get closer to 31 percent of the vote, worse than he did in 2008, while “weak partisans,” including those looking for a candidate more liberal than Romney, give him the edge. Unlikely, maybe, but New Hampshire can reward the hype surrounding a candidate — and don’t count out the voters who just started tuning in a week ago.
“I think he’s been the it boy of the past weekend,” Scala said. “It’s always been, ‘Yeah, Mitt’s doing well, blah blah blah, but in the last two days on the news and so forth, it’s been about Huntsman. Here’s a guy who’s moving.”
Huntsman has routinely declined to say where he expects to finish. “We have to beat market expectations,” he says.
Even Santorum doesn’t think he’s likely to get second place today. “Given we’re not running any media here and we’ve only really spent five days in the last month campaigning, second place would be a dream come true,” he said.
Santorum’s strength is among socially conservative and religious Republicans — and there aren’t many of those in New Hampshire.
Still, Scala noted that a beacon of hope for Santorum might be the one-third of Granite State Republicans who say they strongly oppose gay marriage.
“They say, ‘Well, you know, let’s give the young guy a shot,’ ” he said. ” ‘Help him out going forward, even though we don’t think he’s going to be the nominee. We want someone with our values first and foremost to go forward.’
“And that, sometimes, is what New Hampshire is about.”
Scala’s prediction: He can handle fourth place, at least ahead of Gingrich.