Sabato's Crystal Ball

Ten Days to Stop Romney

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, U.Va. Center for Politics January 12th, 2012

Is Mitt Romney unstoppable? Will South Carolina risk its perfect primary record to back someone else? And will Ron Paul go all the way to the convention? Get our take — and answers to your Twitter questions — in our latest Crystal Ball video. Analysis of New Hampshire and a look ahead to South Carolina continues below:

Could Mitt Romney have scripted a better opening to campaign 2012?

First, he squeaked to victory by eight votes in Iowa — or so the preliminary tally would suggest. Then he managed to meet expectations in New Hampshire with 39.3% and secured his preferred second place finisher, Ron Paul (23%). His main challenger in Iowa, Rick Santorum, finished far back at 9.4%. Most pleasing to Romney was the relatively weak third place showing of Jon Huntsman (17%), whose relations with Romney have been increasingly frosty.

The Huntsman result was perhaps the most surprising, because the news media had covered him extensively and declared him to be the hot candidate with momentum. But in the end, it turned out that he mainly attracted independents and some Democrats. Remarkably, among actual Republicans voting in the Granite State, Huntsman finished in last place among the major candidates (minus Rick Perry, who was a rounding error in New Hampshire). Just 10% of GOP voters picked Huntsman, according to exit polls. Romney, on the other hand, won nearly half (49%) of the self-identified Republicans. Full-fledged Republicans made up only 49% of voters; 47% called themselves independents and 4% said they were Democrats. In 2008, New Hampshire was the site of a more Republican-heavy primary — 61% self-identified as Republicans, while only 37% called themselves independents. The more ideologically diverse electorate was helpful to Ron Paul and, to a lesser extent, Huntsman.

Rick Santorum in Iowa showed that a candidate can effectively run to be governor of an early state and get some traction; so, to a point, did Huntsman in New Hampshire. But you can’t run for governor of 48 other states, so what do they do now? Santorum might have some appeal in South Carolina, but Huntsman most likely does not. (One pre-New Hampshire poll in the Palmetto State, by Public Policy Polling, showed Huntsman trailing joke-candidate Stephen Colbert, a South Carolina native.)

In Iowa, resistance to Mitt Romney was much greater because about three in five voters were evangelical Christians, and Romney lost badly among those voters four years ago. Ironically, Romney received almost precisely the same number of Iowa votes in 2012 as he received in 2008 but he had a different set of opponents, and conservatives were never able to coalesce around one of them. In New Hampshire, by contrast, Romney was much better known and liked, having been governor of neighboring Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. More importantly, evangelical Christians only made up about one in five of the Granite State primary voters, so the electorate was more suitable for a candidate of Romney’s profile. And not all evangelicals are created equal; Romney managed to win New Hampshire evangelicals with 31%. The next closest finisher for this segment of voters was, unsurprisingly, Rick Santorum, at 23%.

Also surprising was Ron Paul’s larger-than-expected percentage. He drew a large group of young people, independents and even some Democrats to his banner, and proved once again that he’s a force that cannot be ignored in the GOP. The Texas congressman has no intention of disappearing during the primary process. In the long run, he may get several hundred delegates to the Republican National Convention. One of the main challenges for Republicans will be to keep Paul supporters in the tent and motivate them to support the GOP ticket in November. Without that unity, it may be very difficult for the Republicans to prevail.

Paul also served notice that his support is not necessarily confined to the very young. According to exit polls, the percentage of voters in the GOP primary under age 40 actually declined from 2008, from 29% last time to 22% this time. Paul won the under-40 demographic on Tuesday, and even got 24% amongst 40-somethings, who also made up 22% of the voters. Meanwhile, Romney ran up the score among the high-turnout, over-40 crowd. That the New Hampshire electorate was older in 2012 than in 2008 this time is a tribute to Romney’s sophisticated turnout machine, which identified Romney’s older, affluent voters and got them to the polls. Overall turnout was approximately 248,000, higher than the 241,000 that voted in the Republican primary last time but a little below the prediction of Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who expected 250,000 to vote in the primary. (Turnout in both Iowa and New Hampshire was up slightly from 2008 levels, suggesting clear interest but not necessarily enthusiasm among GOP voters.)

As for Santorum, New Hampshire was never likely to be receptive to his socially conservative message. After all, this is a state whose slogan is “Live Free or Die.” Whatever Santorum gained from his Iowa performance dissipated very quickly. He may have been better off going straight to South Carolina, though that strategy may have had its downsides, too. Santorum wanted to take a chance that his Hawkeye momentum would produce a surprise in New Hampshire, fueling his South Carolina chances. It just didn’t happen.

Taking the last six weeks as a whole, no candidate has taken a bigger nosedive than Newt Gingrich. Both Romney and Paul targeted millions of dollars of negative TV and Internet ads at Gingrich, and he went from soaring frontrunner to also-ran. Never one to take slights lightly, the former speaker became increasingly angry at both Romney and Paul, lashed out at them in recent debates, and seems determined to make both, especially Romney, pay a price. Now that he has received $5 million from a Las Vegas financier for his Super PAC, Gingrich has the wherewithal to follow through on his intentions in South Carolina.

The campaign parade has already moved to the Palmetto State for the Saturday, Jan. 21 primary. Mitt Romney has been enormously fortunate that the only two candidates with substantial money and national backing — Gingrich and Perry — have faded to the point where his strongest remaining challengers may be Santorum and Paul, neither of whom is likely to expand much beyond a limited base. Moreover, all of the conservative candidates (save Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain) have survived to compete in South Carolina. This guarantees a continuing split of the anti-Romney vote, while only Huntsman might shave a few points off Romney’s total. Unless conservative leaders can manage to rally the troops around one anti-Romney candidate in the 10 days before South Carolina, Romney could achieve the same feat as John McCain four years ago. McCain won a mere 33% in South Carolina, defeating Mike Huckabee by three points, because Fred Thompson remained in the race long enough to split conservatives. The gathering conventional wisdom that Romney is very likely going to be the nominee also helps the frontrunner. South Carolina is proud of having picked the eventual GOP nominee every year since 1980, and the more obvious it is that Romney will carry the party’s standard, the more likely it may be that South Carolina voters will vote Romney to preserve their record.

Nonetheless, we acknowledge that South Carolina presents Romney with his most difficult environment of the first three states to vote. All of the candidates have enough money and troops to compete in South Carolina and there is no incentive for anyone to drop out. The fire will be trained mainly on Romney — and the heat isn’t generated just by money. The Palmetto State has a well earned reputation for dirty campaigning going back generations. Almost no statewide or presidential campaign has been immune from the scurrilous rumors that are floated about candidates. One of the most famous scandals was the utterly fictitious rumors about John McCain’s alleged black baby in 2000. News media organizations have mentioned South Carolina’s sordid campaign history in almost every account, perhaps hopefully. It will be a surprise if the contest is clean.

Dirty campaigning in South Carolina may be the last stimulant in a surprisingly short campaign season. Should Romney win South Carolina, it will be extraordinarily difficult to beat him in Florida, where a decent campaign costs $7 million to $9 million at a minimum. Not many candidates can compete with Romney, and even Ron Paul is hinting that he may save his money for other states. Romney is also, apparently, the only contender to have banked thousands of absentee votes in the Sunshine State before South Carolina’s contest. If all goes well for Romney and he wins all the January contests, his opponents will not be able to argue convincingly that they have a credible path to the nomination.

At the same time, it is extremely rare for a non-incumbent to skate through the early contests without at least one bump in the road. No Republican has done it since Richard Nixon. If there is such an event for Mitt Romney, the bump might come in South Carolina.

We’ve all discovered in this strange presidential cycle that 10 days — the time between New Hampshire and South Carolina — is more than enough time for a candidate to rise or crater. No one interested in politics should take his or her eyes off the prize for a moment. We doubt the super-organized Romney forces are making that mistake, which is why their candidate has a real chance to end the effective battle for the nomination quickly.