Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Meh" Is for Mitt

cross-posted from Dagblog

So, Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire primary last night with 39% of the vote. The media is counting it as a big win, which is fair enough. 39% is a perfectly good win in New Hampshire, and very much in line with what many past winners have received. But there are two things that should worry the Mittster.

1) Voter turnout was basically flat from 2008, even though there wasn't a contested Deomcratic primary this time.

That's significant because in New Hampshire, Independents can vote in either primary. In 2008, the Democrats had a barn-burner of a contest with a record voter turnout. This year they had a perfunctory vote for an unopposed incumbent President, which dropped their turnout by about two hundred thousand. That should have freed up many tens of thousands of Independent voters to participate in this year's Republican race, but participation on the Republican side didn't really budge. That suggests either a problem with Republican enthusiasm, a lack of appeal to swing voters, or both.

2) 39% in New Hampshire isn't really that good for a politician from Massachusetts. I'm not saying that it shouldn't count as a win. But it does suggest that Romney's not really breaking through to the voters.

For someone who's held statewide office in Massachusetts, New Hampshire in basically a home game. Almost everyone in New Hampshire gets their TV, and their TV news, from Boston. Most of the state's population lives near the Massachusetts border, many voters are originally from Massachusetts, and a large number go to Massachusetts every day for work. (I used to wake up in New Hampshire and go to high school in Massachusetts. This isn't unusual.) So anyone who's held major office in Massachusetts is someone that New Hampshire voters already know pretty well.

Let me put this in perspective:

- Massachusetts candidates have now won New Hampshire in four of the last seven primaries (1988, 1992, 2004 and now 2012).

-Only two Massachusetts candidates have ever lost New Hampshire: Ted Kennedy in 1980, who was challenging an incumbent President of his own party, and, well, Mitt Romney last time around.

-Every one of those Massachusetts candidates over the last thirty years, winners and losers, have polled somewhere in the 30s on election night. Mitt Romney now has the distinction of having the highest and lowest vote percentage from that group, 39% last night and 31% four years ago. But he's not much ahead of previous high-score holder John Kerry at 38%. Even Ted Kennedy got 37% when he lost.

Last night's win puts Mitt in the august company of John Kerry, Mike Dukakis, and Paul Tsongas. You'll notice something about these men: none of them became President of the United States. They were perfectly plausible nominees. On the other hand, they were not great campaigners. Dukakis and Kerry, who actually won the nomination in years when they had a very legitimate shot, managed to fall short in part because they were not terribly effective on the trail. You couldn't call either of them electrifying.

By contrast, the last Massachusetts politician to win the Presidency, John F. Kennedy, won New Hampshire with an eye-popping 85% of the vote. That win isn't directly comparable to results from the last thirty years. The primary system as we know it was still evolving in 1960, and New Hampshire was not contested in anything like the way it is now. Still, 85% is a long way from 39%.

Romney should feel pleased by his victory. But he was Governor of Massachusetts for four years, he has quite literally moved to New Hampshire, and even with that state's voters knowing him as well as they know their own elected officials, he couldn't break 40% of the vote in his own party. That isn't exactly an overwhelming rush of love. 39% is great, but John Kerry could get 38% and Mike Dukakis could get between 36 and 37%. Paul Tsongas, who was like Dukakis's more sedate cousin, could break 33%. Ted Kennedy could get 37% of the vote in that state after Chappaquiddick. 39% is nobody's landslide.

Mitt Romney has an increasingly secure hold on the nomination. Mitt Romney also has a problem on the campaign trail. And it's probably him.

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