You know who won, so here are my takeaways from what might be the beginning of the end:
1. Romney actually won big.
There is a rumor going around that Romney did not win convincingly. “Five Years Campaigning, Less Than 40 percent?,” blared Huffington Post’s quizzical election headline. Here’s a better question: Who breaks 40 percent while winning New Hampshire?
John McCain didn’t—he won with 37 percent last cycle. Neither did Granite State winners Hillary Clinton (39 percent) or John Kerry (38 percent). Romney’s 39 percent stacks up well, and he is competing in a pretty wide field. Thus while Romney’s total is close to those previous winners, his margin of victory is actually significantly larger, as Karl Rove noted on Tuesday night. A decisive Romney victory doesn’t fit the “anti-Romney” narrative, however, so these numbers have been underplayed.
In another sign of strength, Romney led among all voters when they were asked who would be a satisfactory nominee. Regardless of who they backed, 61 percent of New Hampshire voters found him satisfactory—in other words, some 20 percent of the people who voted for other candidates have already accepted the idea of Romney in the general election.
2. There’s this guy in second place named Ron Paul.
While Romney is the first non-incumbent Republican to dominate the first two contests in the modern era, Ron Paul is the only candidate besides Romney to finish strong in both states. He trailed Romney by just three points in Iowa, and came in a very solid second last night. In fact, Paul had more votes in New Hampshire than Santorum, Gingrich and Perry combined. (Imagine the media reaction if Huntsman pulled that off.)
Just as he showed breadth in appealing to evangelicals in Iowa, Paul’s constituency was quite wide in New Hampshire. He led all candidates among voters making under $50,000 (about a quarter of the electorate). He was second to Romney among the McCain wing of the party—voters who had a favorable view of the last GOP nominee (a majority of the electorate).
Yet Paul’s opponents are strong opponents, the thinking goes, so he would not be accepted by the rest of Republicans. But is that true? You’d have to ask them. The exit pollsters did, and overall, regardless of personal preference, more voters said they would be “satisfied” with a Paul nomination than Gingrich or Santorum. Now, that could reflect some ignorance about Paul’s record and ideas, but if the press is going to cover the strength of Paul’s campaign on earth, and not its hypothetical vulnerabilities, then it’s time to report the reality of his wide appeal in this race so far.
A voter tuning into the conservative coverage at Fox News on Tuesday, however, would have no idea that Paul is currently in second place. Many other outlets have not been much better—the press would love to have a two-man race, but not enough to overcome its thick distaste for Paul. The political media has been shorting his campaign, and there are few signs that any evidence will change how the press invests its coverage—a valuable commodity as time runs out. So, like Mike Huckabee or Jesse Jackson before him, Ron Paul is learning that if the press deems you “unserious,” even the voters can’t save you.
3. New Hampshire is not the GOP Base, but the base is not what you think.
Complaints about the unrepresentative nature of Iowa and New Hampshire come along like the Olympics, or like a presidential campaign. They happen every four years, is what I’m trying to say. And the complaints are true but a little misleading.
Last night, for example, Romney didn’t just win an open primary packed with independents. He also did better than every other candidate among people who describe themselves as “very conservative”—about one in five voters.
Remember the Tea Party? Romney did best among Tea Party supporters, doubling the take of their next favorite candidate. (It was Ron Paul, but shhh—this is not a two-man race!)
Romney did best among registered Republicans, too, again more than doubling the support for the next-most-popular candidate. (You get one guess on who that was.) And in the sub-slice of the electorate that most concretely reflects actual participation by The Base—Republicans who voted in previous GOP primaries—Romney dominated with a strong 43 percent. The candidate who came in second among those active, experienced Republican voters? At 20 percent it was, naturally, Ron Paul.
But if you’re a smart political junkie, you can just forget about him—let’s talk about whether Rick Perry can build on his 1 percent showing and buy ads in Florida, and did you see what Newt Gingrich said the other day?…
Photo of Ron Paul at the 2012 Iowa Caucus by Gage Skidmore.