New Hampshire for Dummies: Why the First Primary Is Important

The first polls are now opening in New Hampshire, one week after Mitt Romney's eight-vote win in the Iowa caucuses.

Will Mitt Romney win big? Can Jon Huntsman become the Granite State's Rick Santorum? And, more importantly, what happens in New Hampshire and why is it important?

With its early vote, the Granite State has a chance to adjust expectations and momentum in the Republican presidential race, before the candidates move onto South Carolina and Florida. And it has a decent track record, slightly better than Iowa's, of predicting eventual GOP nominees.

Heading into primary day, Mitt Romney figures to run away with the primary vote, but the contest for second place is in full swing. Romney (41 percent) holds a big lead in the latest major poll, conducted Jan. 5 - 8 by WMUR/UNH, trailed successively by Ron Paul (17 percent), Huntsman (11 percent), Santorum (11 percent) and Newt Gingrich (8 percent).

Romney's big lead is nothing new. The former governor has led by double digits in all but one major New Hampshire poll since April. Huntsman, meanwhile, skipped Iowa and has dedicated the early part of his campaign to New Hampshire. If Huntsman shows well today, New Hampshire could do for him what Iowa did for Santorum, supplying a new wave of media attention, money and raised standing. If not, his campaign will likely struggle to gain traction going forward.

What Happens in New Hampshire

New Hampshire is drawing a lot of attention from candidates in 2012, but not as much as it did in 2008.

Like in Iowa, where spending on TV ads fell 85 percent from 2008, spending by candidates and independent groups is also way down in New Hampshire this year, according to a source who tracks ad buys in the state.

New Hampshire's primary works quite differently from Iowa's caucuses, where Republicans last week gathered in auditoriums and handed in paper ballots - in some cases, blank pieces of paper - with proceedings opened and closed by the gavels of precinct-caucus chairs. The New Hampshire primary is administered by New Hampshire's Secretary of State, just like a regular election. The first polls open at 6 a.m. ET, and the last polls will close at 8 p.m. ET.

Independents can vote in today's primary by re-registering as Republicans at polling places. (Democrats can't re-register as Republicans on primary day.) If independents turn out in force, they could prove beneficial to Paul, in particular, whose support typically falls outside mainstream Republican bounds. New Hampshire has far more independents than Republicans: Of its 767,383 voters, 312,621 (41 percent) are registered as "undeclared," while 231,611 (30 percent) are registered as Republicans.

New Hampshire has a decent track record of projecting the eventual Republican nominee. Since 1979, a state law has required New Hampshire Republicans to schedule their primary before any other state's, and in years without an incumbent since 1980, New Hampshire has gone three for five (60 percent) in picking the eventual Republican nominee, the exceptions being John McCain's 2000 victory over George W. Bush and Pat Buchanan's win in 1996.

Iowa, by contrast, has gone two for five (40 percent) since 1980, picking only Bob Dole in 1996 and Bush in 2000.

See a list of past winners of the Iowa caucuses .

If Iowa deserves the criticism it has taken over un-representational demographics, as the nation's first vote, then so does New Hampshire. Racially, New Hampshire has a larger proportional white population (94 percent) than the nation as a whole (72 percent) and a smaller Hispanic/Latino population (3 percent) than the nation (16 percent), according to 2010 Census data.

What's at Stake?

To secure the GOP nomination, candidates will need to win delegates, and there aren't many delegates to be won in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire will send 12 delegates to the Republican National Convention, out of 2,286 total, after losing half its delegates under a Republican National Committee (RNC) penalty for holding its primary before the approved February date range. The RNC adopted new rules in August to push back the start of the 2012 GOP race, but after Florida jumped the line, New Hampshire moved its date earlier along with Iowa and South Carolina.

That's fewer delegates than Iowa will send (28), but the Hawkeye State's delegates are "unbound," free to support any candidate they choose, regardless of Romney's narrow win. In that regard, New Hampshire is more important to the delegate race than its immediate predecessor on the primary-caucus calendar.

The Granite State will award its delegates proportionally, depending on how each candidate performs in the statewide vote. Every candidate who wins 10 percent of the vote will win one delegate, plus another delegate for each additional 10 percent won. It's likely that not every candidate will meet the 10-percent threshold, and the remaining delegates will be awarded to the statewide winner. For instance, if Huntsman wins with 20 percent of the vote, he'll collect two delegates, plus the remaining delegates not awarded to any candidate.

So while New Hampshire is important because of its timing, the momentum it can bestow and the attention it receives from candidates and media, if the GOP's 2012 contest becomes a drawn-out battle for delegates, the first-in-the-nation primary won't weigh as heavily on the outcome.