Much like headless chickens, the stop-Romney candidates will scamper to and fro and kick up some barnyard dirt for a little while longer, but don’t be fooled. They’re already dead.
Yeah, it’s true that Mitt Romney had the home-field advantage in last night’s New Hampshire primary; he owns a vacation property in the Granite State, and he was a good neighbor when he governed Massachusetts. But there is no way to diminish his sweeping victory. Winning roughly 40 percent of the vote in a six-man field speaks for itself, but that’s just for starters.Romney finished 17 points ahead of the second-place finisher, Ron Paul (who has no realistic shot at the nomination anyway.) He finished 23 points ahead of number-three Jon Huntsman, who had banked his candidacy on a much stronger showing (he’s toast now). Perhaps most importantly, Romney got more than double the votes of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum combined. Each of those guys was hoping to become the “true conservative” alternative to Romney, but they wound up virtually tied for fourth, treated as after-thoughts by the New Hampshire electorate.Vote tallies aside, the most noteworthy statistics can be found in the exit polls. Romney was the top choice among voters who described themselves as “very conservative” (33 percent plurality), as “somewhat conservative” (48 percent plurality), as social conservatives (29 percent plurality), and as evangelicals (30 percent plurality) – all of which strongly suggests that those Republicans heretofore most suspicious of him are beginning to move his way. Why? Because, by a landslide percentage, he was viewed as the candidate most likely to beat Barack Obama.The action now shifts to South Carolina, which votes on a Saturday, 10 days from now. Gingrich allies, with big money from a casino mogul, are expected to hammer Romney on his tenure at Bain Capital. Gingrich and Santorum will seek to woo the huge pool of evangelical and tea-party conservatives by painting Romney as a closet moderate. Hapless Rick Perry is still around, and he’ll do whatever. The rhetoric may get raw and ugly, as generally happens in bare-knuckled South Carolina; lest we forget, that’s the state where George W. Bush allies circulated rumors back in 2000 that John McCain had fathered a baby of color out of wedlock, the state where infamous GOP strategist Lee Atwater told reporters off the record that a mentally depressed Democrat had once been “hooked up to jumper cables.”Surely, Romney’s rivals will be revived – and Romney will be subsumed – by 10 days of southern-fried conservatism. Right?
Wrong. South Carolina is actually the state where establishment Republican candidates get vetted for the nomination. As I wrote 16 years ago, while covering the state’s 1996 GOP primary, South Carolina is “a traditional haven for troubled GOP frontrunners.” Republican primary voters don’t reward insurgents and long-shot challengers. These voters respect hierarchy. They take their cues from the state’s party establishment – and, as I wrote at the time, the party establishment “is wired from the governor’s mansion to the grassroots.”Bob Dole broke through in South Carolina in 1996. George W. Bush did the same in 2000. John McCain did as well, in 2008. All told, South Carolina Republicans have successfully propelled their chosen candidate to the nomination in every contested primary since 1980. There is no reason to believe that the tradition will be defied this time.
Indeed, one week ago, a poll in South Carolina already showed Romney comfortably on top – and remember, this is a state where roughly 60 percent of primary voters are evangelical Christians who supposedly dislike his Mormon faith. Perhaps Newt can score by denouncing Romney’s Bain tenure – some South Carolina workers were laid off after their plants were acquired by Bain – but it’s far more likely that voters will dismiss his attacks as last-ditch acts of desperation. And with Paul, Perry, Santorum and Newt all on the ballot, the stop-Romney vote will continue to be chopped up. That benefits Romney as well.The stop-Romney candidates may dart around for a few weeks thereafter – Florida votes on Jan. 31 – if only because of the new delegate rules. The old Republican rules awarded all delegates to the victorious primary candidate (“winner take all”); the new Republican rules decree that, in all primaries and caucuses prior to April 1, delegates are awarded in proportion to the overall vote tally. Which means that runner-ups will still accrue some delegates, as happened last night in New Hampshire. Those rules may inspire some Romney rivals to stick around a bit longer.But that doesn’t mean they’re really alive. After two successive wins (no previous Republican has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire), a likely win in pivotal South Carolina, and a likely blowout in Florida (an expensive state where nobody can match the Mitt money), it’s clear already that Romney runs this farm. Sooner rather than later, his noisome foes should be suitable for carving.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1