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Why Jon Huntsman's New Hampshire Performance Matters

[Guest post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]

Yesterday in this space, Alec MacGillis argued the GOP field is such a pitiful morass of second bananas, we should scrap the primaries altogether. He makes a compelling point: Herman Cain is on the brink of implosion and Rick Perry is back in the gutter after Oopsgate. Republican voters will soon have cycled through a full third of the field in search of a viable non-Romney, only to witness each candidate flame out. Well, what about Jon Huntsman, deemed Obama’s most worthy opponent by the paper of record? Out of desperation, prominent conservative blogger Erick Erickson is considering it. In New Hampshire, where Huntsman has staked his campaign, former GOP state chair Fergus Cullen makes the “last man standing” case that the ex-Utah governor’s moderate appeal and persistent ground game give him the best shot to finish second behind Romney.

Even if Huntsman only winds up runner-up in New Hampshire, the implications would be significant: No presidential nominee has ever finished worse than second there since the Iowa-to-New Hampshire sequence was adopted in 1972. In other words, a Huntsman comeback would likely push out the competition entirely and mint Romney’s nomination on January 10th. There’s a delightful irony in the prospect of Huntsman helplessly securing his nemesis’s victory alongside his own second-place triumph. Less likely, though not inconceivable is that a strong second-place finish could revive Huntsman’s prospects in South Carolina and Florida, setting off a Mormon a Mormon showdown between the two distant cousins, and a full-blown crisis among an already marginalized evangelical electorate.

At first blush, a second-place Granite State showing seems feasible. Huntsman relocated his headquarters to Manchester in late September and hasn’t strayed far from diners and wood frames since. For his labors, he recently garnered his first state senate endorsement, and appears to have a much-need cash transfusion coming his way: Renee Riedel-Plummer, a well-known Portsmouth businesswoman and political gadfly, told me she’s rounded up about thirty local “bankers, attorneys” and other rich folk to begin donating to his indebted campaign. What’s more, he’s ramped up his months-old assault on Romney, the candidate from whom he’s most likely to poach support: In the past two weeks, Huntsman has chronicled Mitt’s mercurial disposition in three online spots and actually launched a website that chastises Romney for avoiding the press,

But despite polling five or six points better in New Hampshire than elsewhere, there’s one very good reason to cast doubt on Huntsman’s chances. Most of those untethered ‘Live Free or Die’ independents on whom Huntsman is relying are in fact predictably partisan, and won’t abandon Romney or Ron Paul for a more moderate candidate.

Independents make up forty percent of the New Hampshire electorate. According to University of New Hampshire political scientist and lead pollster Andy Smith, however, most of them vote along party lines—about forty percent for Democrats and thirty percent for Republicans. The remaining thirty percent tends not to vote in primaries at all. “That’s why they’re truly independent,” Smith told me. “Because they don’t follow politics.” Barring a stampede of unlikely left-leaning Huntsman independents to GOP polling stations (UNH’s latest poll finds only 57 percent of independents are likely to vote anyways), Huntsman’s independent vote won’t net him enough to make a difference.

Two New Hampshire case studies help drive home the point: Republican Lamar Alexander in 1996 and Democrat Joe Lieberman in 2004. As in 2012, each of those campaigns featured only one primary, so Alexander and Lieberman banked on swaying those who in another election year might be voting in the other party’s primary. The strategy failed. Third-place finisher Alexander garnered only 27 percent of the self-identified “Independent/Democrat” quotient, and 27 percent of the miniscule “liberal” vote. Likewise, only eleven percent of independents and 23 percent of the small portion of “conservatives” voted for Lieberman, who famously finished in a "three-way split decision for third place." For each candidate, the problem was twofold: Independent non-base voters not only turned out in low numbers, but scattered their votes at about the same rates Republicans did.

Some more bad news for Huntsman: His net favorability doesn’t necessarily back up his reputation as a good retail politician. Sitting at -2, according UNH’s October poll of likely GOP primary voters, he appears to be in decent shape behind Romney, Cain and Ron Paul. Two caveats: His favorability has not improved since he entered the race (Gingrich, by contrast, increased his favorability by 25 points in September), and registered Republicans rate him by far the lowest (-9) in the field, suggesting he’s got an irreparable problem with the voter base. Favorability ratings are “the best harbingers of potential future growth,” UNH political scientist Dante Scala told me. “I look at Huntsman’s polling, I don’t see a lot of upside potential.”

No matter the final results, the New Hampshire primary will acid-test the conventional wisdom that the state favors only fiercely independent-minded candidates who spend months shaking hands, taking questions and so forth. Jon Huntsman fits the bill on both counts, more so than his opponents. As of now, it’s not paying off, as he’s mired with Gingrich in fourth or fifth place. 

Yet given the enduring putridity of the GOP field and Huntsman’s potential to dominate TV time in the next two months (only Paul and Perry have thus far aired ads in New Hampshire), he is by no means out of the running for second place. Still, any discussion of an upset in “Romney Country” should be dismissed out of hand—Mitt has been plotting victory since the day he walked into the Massachusetts state house in January 2003.