A crowded field is once again Mitt Romney’s best friend.
Though Romney can boast of a 14-point margin of victory in the New Hampshire primary, his overall percentage of the vote was just under 40 percent. In other words, more than 60 percent of Republican voters in New Hampshire — the state that he basically calls home — voted for someone other than Romney. But, the best news for Romney is that the guys who came in second and third place — Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman — are two of his weakest opponents in the upcoming South Carolina primary.
The most recent polling showed Paul in fourth place behind Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Huntsman’s moderate profile is going to be a tough sell in deeply conservative South Carolina.
Paul is also a very polarizing figure, even within the Republican electorate. In a new ABC/Washington Post poll, just 40 percent of Republicans view Paul favorably, while 39 percent view him unfavorably. Among all voters, Paul is seen more unfavorably than favorably — 38 percent to 31 percent.
Paul has got a very committed — but finite — base that supports him. As other candidates drop out, his electoral ceiling will become apparent.
Meanwhile, the only two candidates who could give Romney a run for South Carolina, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, just lost a bunch of momentum tonight. They are currently in a battle for a distant fourth place in New Hampshire. With all of these candidates pledging to move onto to South Carolina, it’s more than likely that they will once again divide the “not-Romney” vote, allowing Romney to win with a plurality.
Meanwhile, Romney will get a boost from the New Hampshire win that he can take with him to South Carolina. Despite its reputation as a conservative state that differs markedly from Iowa and New Hampshire, voters in South Carolina take their cues from the results of those early contests.
South Carolina voters like to be on the side of a winner, and at this point, Romney is the guy who looks like the winner.
History is also on Romney’s side. Since 1980, no candidate who has lost Iowa and New Hampshire has gone on to win South Carolina.