Mitt Romney: Unstoppable in New Hampshire?
By Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake, Published: October 27 | Updated: Friday, October 28, 6:30 AM
New Hampshire is at the center of the 2012 Republican presidential race today, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry travels to the state to formally file as a candidate for the first-in-the-nation primary and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul also make campaign stops in the state.
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses a crowd outside the statehouse after filing the paperwork necessary to be on the New Hampshire primary ballot. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
But unlike Iowa, where voters seem genuinely undecided about picking a favorite, New Hampshire Republicans have installed Romney as the clear frontrunner in their primary — raising the question of just how competitive the Granite State race will be in 2012.
“Romney is still the 800-pound gorilla,” said Mike Dennehy, a Republican consultant who ran Arizona Sen. John McCain’s successful 2000 and 2008 New Hampshire primary campaigns. But, he added: “No candidate in New Hampshire is untouchable in a state that has rarely, if ever, rewarded the frontrunner candidate with a victory.”
While Romney may not be unbeatable, the path to an upset is steep — as made clear by two new independent polls that reveal the level of Romney’s current dominance.
In a CNN survey of New Hampshire Republicans, Romney leads at 40 percent, with businessman Herman Cain (13 percent) and Paul (12 percent) trailing behind. Perry received just 4 percent in that poll.
And an NBC/Marist poll of likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters produced similar results, with Romney at 44 percent to 13 percent each for Cain and Paul.
Not only is Romney’s support more than triple that of his next serious competitor, it’s also steady. A look at the Real Clear Politics average of polling in the Granite State shows that Romney has been consistently ahead of the rest of the field for months.
While Romney’s advantages in New Hampshire are well-known — he served as governor of neighboring Massachusetts for four years, he has a home on Lake Winnipesaukee, and he has lavished time on the state (today will mark his 16th town hall) — he is also clearly benefiting from the fact that none of his rivals seems to a) be making much of a push in the state or b) gaining any traction.
“Romney is far from untouchable here, but only if someone gets serious and challenges him,” said John DiStaso, a longtime New Hampshire political reporter for the Union Leader. “The question is: Have the other campaigns bought into the polls and ceded the state?”
At the start of the year, it appeared as though former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty would be Romney’s main competition in New Hampshire, as he put together a well-respected campaign team and visited the state regularly.
But Pawlenty dropped from the race in August following a disappointing performance in the Ames (Iowa) Straw Poll and, in the intervening two months, no candidate has stepped in to fill the void he left.
Perry’s money — $15 million on hand at the end of September — makes him a potential player in New Hampshire. But the state has generally been resistant to Southerners (George W. Bush lost the New Hampshire badly in 2000, and Mike Huckabee came nowhere close to winning in 2008), and Perry is further behind Romney in the Granite State than in almost any other state that votes early in the process.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is on a “New Hampshire or bust” campaign and has many of the advisers that helped shepherd McCain’s victorious campaigns in the state. But, despite spending lots of time in New Hampshire, Huntsman remains mired mid-pack.
Both Cain and Paul have pockets of support but face major questions. For Cain, it’s whether he can put together a New Hampshire organization to capi*tal*ize on the national excitement for his candidacy. For Paul, it’s whether he can grow his support beyond his loyal but ultimately not-large-enough support base.
Former New Hampshire senator John E. Sununu, whose father — former Gov. John H. Sununu endorsed Romney earlier this week — said that the other candidates might not have to upset the former Massachusetts governor to see some political gain.
“Because of its size and the high level of voter interest, New Hampshire is still the best opportunity for candidates to break out of the pack,” the younger Sununu said. “The good news is that they don’t have to beat Romney in New Hampshire to get attention.”
And despite Romney’s lead, many New Hampshire voters have yet to be completely convinced.
“Granite Staters are also very late deciders and our last WMUR Granite State Poll, 89 percent of likely Republican primary voters said they had no idea who they are voting for,” said James Pindell of WMUR-TV, a local New Hampshire television station. “Candidates like Huntsman or Perry still have time to catch fire and, if they do, things will get very interesting, very quickly.”
The Mormon issue, revisited: We’ve said before on this blog that, while many may bristle at the idea, there is a significant portion of the American population that has a problem with Romney’s religion.
And its effect on his standing in early polls may actually be understated.
A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that only 42 percent of people can correctly identify Romney as a Mormon.
In other words, more than half of people — regardless of their views on Mormonism — aren’t yet factoring that into their voting equation.
The question is, once they get to know Romney and they do factor in his religion, do they say no to Romney?
Polling has shown about 20 to 25 percent of people express at least some hesi*ta*tion about voting for a Mormon.
For more, see our post from a couple weeks ago, which makes arguments both that this is a problem for Romney and that it may not be as much of a problem as it was four years ago.