Thursday, January 5, 2012

Great expectations in New Hampshire


There’s a growing consensus among the TV analysts and commentators about the probable outcome of Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire. It’s distilled in a phrase that’s hinted at, if not said outright: “Romney’s to lose.” The prohibitive favorite to win, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has thus effectively been crowned the winner already. But he now faces expectations of a margin of performance that he may not be able to deliver. Especially since he’s not even in New Hampshire.

Romney’s expected to win in the state, and win big. So the burden of proof will be on the candidate to win by an impressive enough margin to take serious consideration of anyone else off the table. In the bizarre calculus of politics, his most ascendant challenger, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, is already the beneficiary of lower expectations. He’s not expected to win at all, so any evidence of strong upward momentum — a solid second-place finish in the mid to high twenties — would be as much a victory for Santorum, politically speaking, as first place would be for Romney.

Santorum, who arrived in New Hampshire on Wednesday, has been doubling down on the personal approach that worked for him in Iowa, and he’s been doing it in the absence of Romney, who (curiously) is nowhere to be found in the state. The Romney campaign thinking, apparently, is that with the candidate enjoying such a strong lead in his literal backyard, there’s no need to hang around to preside over a forgone conclusion. On to South Carolina! A good idea? Maybe not.

Jennifer Donahue, a veteran New Hampshire political analyst, doesn’t think so. “I think Santorum is trying to capitalize on his ability to connect on a retail level, something Romney has yet to do in New Hampshire, even though he’s been campaigning here for five years,” she said on “The Ed Show” on MSNBC. “That’s Romney’s biggest challenge. He may have all the money in the world to spend on this race, but nothing will replace that grassroots hand-holding that voters in New Hampshire are used to seeing, and expect to see.”

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The early polling in the Granite State suggests that Romney is on a glide path to victory in the nation’s first presidential primary. Romney placed first (with 43 percent) in a Suffolk University/7News poll of likely New Hampshire voters, released on Wednesday; Texas Rep. Ron Paul stands in second with 14 percent; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is at 9; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 7; and Santorum at 6.

The next day, Thursday, Suffolk/7News released a new poll that showed Romney had slipped to 41 percent, while Santorum had climbed to 8 percent. Ron Paul also climbed to 18 percent in the latest poll, while Gingrich and Huntsman had 7 percent each.

That little 2-point swing up and down for the candidates may or may not signal more shifts to come. But to go by one seasoned observer of New Hampshire politics, the state polls that the media has taken as campaign holy writ ain’t necessarily credible in the first place.

On Wednesday, James Pindell, political analyst for New Hampshire’s WMUR, told MSNBC’s “Hardball” that “polls here are very unreliable. Let’s go back to 1980. Ronald Reagan had a 47-point lead [over George H.W.] Bush. He ends up beating him by 27 points. Jimmy Carter was supposed to win by 29, heading into the last week of the [1976] primary. Wins by 10. When voters in New Hampshire make up their minds in the last couple of days — and 15 percent will always make it up in the last couple of days — this place is totally unpredictable.”

According to the Thursday Suffolk/7News poll, 17 percent of New Hampshire voters are undecided.

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Two themes are likely at work in New Hampshire, one that embodies the state’s documented maverick political tendencies, the other something as reliable and as deeply felt as the one in American political life that respects a powerhouse. It’s the one that embraces the Little Guy.

That mini-meme didn’t just start two or three days ago on Santorum’s behalf. Back in early December, Matt Schultz, the Iowa secretary of state, was first among state officials to publicly endorse Santorum in the Iowa caucuses. When Ginger Gibson of Politico asked Schultz the inevitable Why?, Schultz’s answer, in the present tense, was an accurate expression of Iowans’ sentiments two weeks in the future:

“We are in difficult times, and we need somebody who can stand up, who is a scrapper, who is willing to fight the good fight” ...

“I tend to like the underdog.”

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In ways that run counter to the sacrosancts of modern politics, Rick Santorum could be the most dangerous thing for the Romney campaign right now. Why? Among other reasons, there’s this one: because Santorum is the one candidate the Romney crew hasn’t really wargamed a strategy for. Until late last month, they didn’t think they needed to.

As the razor-thin margin in Iowa indicates, that oversight could get increasingly expensive for Team Romney. It points to a problem with a campaign’s giantism — running the risk of being slow-footed and less than nimble; a consequence of maybe, just maybe, being too big for its own good.

Never mind chaos theory; in the chaos reality of American politics, the butterfly of an insurgent campaign with the right message and the right messenger has been known to flap its wings and create a tidal wave of support that capsizes the bigger, better- funded campaign on Election Day.

Hillary Clinton can testify to that.

At this time in the 2008 race, she was the one presumptively coronated by the conventional political wisdom, the punditburo — and herself. She was the candidate with the armamentarium to defeat all comers. She was the one being hailed as unstoppable, invincible, electable ... inevitable.

We all know how that inevitably turned out.

Image credits: Romney: CNN> Santorum: The Weekly Standard. Clinton: Bbsrock, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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