By Mary Kate Cary |
Don't crown former Gov. Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee quite yet. Yes, he won a decisive victory in New Hampshire's primary Tuesday night, outdistancing the second-place finisher, Rep. Ron Paul (who will not win this nomination), by a comfortable 39-23 percent margin. But although Mitt gained 7 percent over his last race here in 2008, this was still not a knockout blow. His win total in a state that is in his own backyard is only about average by historical standards for the New Hampshire primary. Moreover, he won less than half of the Republican vote last night—not a good sign heading into more traditionally conservative states beginning with South Carolina. This follows a rather lackluster performance last week in the Iowa caucus in which he received fewer votes there than he did four years ago.
But who can beat him? The answer is that several candidates—former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Gov. Rick Perry, and possibly even Sen. Rick Santorum can—but not if they all stay in the race. And that's the dilemma that the anti-Mitt candidates and their supporters face. It is the classic collective action problem—all would prefer one of these three over Mitt, but none is willing to step aside to make this happen. If voters continue to split the anti-Romney conservative vote, Mitt will take the nomination, even with minority support among Republicans. To prevent that outcome, the Republican field needs to be winnowed. That's where South Carolina may play a key role. Both Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich have essentially staked their candidacies on the outcome there, with Gingrich conceding that he needs a victory or a close second to stay in this race. Although South Carolina is not as conservative as some pundits proclaim—its coastal area is home to a large bloc of moderate voters who are likely to support Mitt—it does pose a bigger hurdle for Romney to clear, particularly in the more conservative northwest portion that went solidly for Mike Huckabee four years ago.
Ultimately, however, this is a race for delegates. Under the new proportional allocation system adopted by the Republican Party for its early races, it will be harder for a front-runner to put the competition away as quickly as Sen, John McCain did four years ago under the winner-take-all system then in use. But unless the Republican field is winnowed, giving voters the opportunity to coalesce behind a Gingrich or Perry, Romney is going to win the Republican nomination.
About Matthew Dickinson Professor at Middlebury College
Rob Collins Former Chief of Staff for Majority Leader Eric Cantor
Ron Bonjean Former Chief of Staff for the Senate Republican Conference