Mitt Romney at the Pinkerton School, NH. Saturday, January 7, 2012. Photo (c) Jeremiah Robinson for the Boston Phoenix.
Just before the 2004 New Hampshire Democratic primary, I was on Greater Boston along with the late, great David Nyhan. We were both asked to predict the outcome. Polls had shown that to that point, Howard Dean's loss in Iowa, his "scream" moment, and his staff shake-up had taken a steep and continuing toll, not only far behind John Kerry but in danger of being surpassed by Wes Clark, John Edwards, and perhaps even "Joementum" Lieberman. I predicted a third-place finish for Dean, which I thought would effectively end his campaign. But Nyhan correctly predicted that cantankerous Granite Staters, annoyed by the national media's premature reporting of Dean's demise, would give him a late bounce and a solid second-place finish.
As Nyhan knew far better than I, this second wavelet is not uncommon in New Hampshire, usually either to rescue a candidate on national media death watch, or to stall the media coronation of a frontrunner. The beneficiary is almost always someone with an existing base of goodwill in the state. Hillary Clinton in 2008 was a clear example. When the media was ready to proclaim George W. Bush the nominee after his 2000 Iowa win, John McCain had been Straight Talking New Hampshire for a year; Pat Buchanan had goodwill from his 1992 campaign when he became the thorn to stick in Bob Dole's side in 1996.
So, will we see something like that this year? So far, post-Iowa, polls suggest that Mitt Romney's numbers have trickled down slowly but noticeably; Ron Paul has stayed in the high teens or low 20s; Rick Santorum rose from negligible to around 10% and then stalled; Jon Huntsman seems to have the more recent movement, and is now in double-digits; and Newt Gingrich is maybe as high as 10%, but with no apparent traction.
As for my observations from some time in New Hampshire, I'm not sensing a whole lot of enthusiasm in any direction. The big attendance and energy is with Paul, but that's because his voters are more likely to attend his events (including many from outside the state) -- I don't think it means he's winning over many new people. Huntsman is getting a good look from people, and I get the sense that the pretty large number of moderates in the state (most of whom have not been following the race all that closely until just recently) are figuring out that, if they dislike Romney, Huntsman is pretty much all they have to go with.
The quickly-coalescing conventional wisdom is that Huntsman will continue to gain, either surpassing Paul for second or finishing a close third. And everybody in the media is discussing the importance of Romney's number on Tuesday. They seem to have decided that if he gets over 40% he's fine. Below 40% will be a disappointment and allow everyone to go to South Carolina and Florida. And if he gets below 35%, that would show that, just as in Iowa, he could only get the same vote that he got in the same state four years ago (when he finished second in NH with 31.6%), and thus still has a problem proving that he can win the nomination.
Meanwhile, if Huntsman finishes behind either Santorum or Gingrich now, it will be seen as a fatal shock to his campaign -- and a big boost for them.
All of this expectation-setting is based on the trend lines of the polling I mentioned before -- and, like my punditry in 2004, could be foiled by one of those Nyhan Rule second-wavelet counter-surges. Will it apply, and if so, how?
One could argue that it is happening, to Romney -- that Romney, like the Dole and W, is being talked about as the inevitable nominee, and New Hampshire will stick someone in his path. There may be something to that, but I just don't see any of the current candidates having the kind of underlying goodwill in the state. Gingrich is the only one who has previously polled significantly higher than he is now, and I find that there really is a lot of fondness and respect for him in the state (which he has frequented for years). But I don't sense any inkling of a Gingrich resurgence. Huntsman could be in the McCain 2000 position, but... well, he's no McCain.
I think it's actually more likely that Romney will be the beneficiary of a late wavelet -- a small but meaningful reaction to the media warnings that Romney is disappointing in New Hampshire, and to the overt ganging-up by the other candidates against him. Also, I think a lot of the current undecideds will really turn out to be Romney voters once the voting day forces them to concede that there isn't a candidate they're going to fall in love with. Plus, Romney's field operation appears to be light years above and beyond the others'.
So, I would not be at all surprised to see Romney easily clear 40%, or 45% -- which, given declining expectations, could be a big moment for him.