Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney greets supporters after… (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Manchester, N.H. — No matter what happens in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, Mitt Romney should be grateful that his opponents didn’t force him to play the expectations game.
All available evidence suggests that Romney, with twice the support of his nearest rival in the latest polls, will roll to a solid victory.
But a candidate can win and still fall short of expectations, dampening enthusiasm and giving rival campaigns encouragement for the next round of voting. That’s why raising the bar for an opponent is a time-honored tactic in politics.
This time, though, there’s been little trash talk from Romney’s rivals about how well the front-runner “must” do. It's an easy case to make (“This is a home game for Mitt. He owns a house here. He governed next door in Massachusetts. He’s been running here for the last five years.”).
That (un)said, it’s worth taking a look at what Romney is up against, historically, and what the expectations might be, realistically, for his performance Tuesday.
The Republican record for a contested New Hampshire primary belongs, appropriately enough, to Ronald Reagan. In 1980, he won by 27 percentage points (over George H.W. Bush) and took half of the primary vote. If Romney does that well, it would be hard to diminish his accomplishment.
Next best was John McCain’s 18-point win over Bush’s son, W., in the 2000 primary. (Four years ago, McCain beat Romney by five points.) Third best was President George H. W. Bush’s 16-point margin over Pat Buchanan in 1992.
Heading into Tuesday's primary, Romney held a 20-point lead over his nearest competitor, Ron Paul, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average of New Hampshire polls.
If Romney maintains that 20-point edge, he will have met expectations. But reporting in New Hampshire over the last few days suggests that those poll numbers may well be a lagging indicator of voter sentiment (polls often are) and that Romney won’t achieve that landslide level when the votes are counted.
Still, if he winds up at least 15 percentage points ahead of whoever is second (Paul or Jon Huntsman Jr., in all likelihood), it will be hard to fault him. A win closer to 10 points than 15, though, will again raise questions about the intensity of Romney’s support.
If he blows more than half of his lead and wins by less than 10 points, his victory will be tarnished by fresh doubts about his skills as a campaigner and ability to give President Obama a run for his money in the fall. There will also be renewed attention to the GOP front-runner’s apparent weakness for unforced errors, like the one in Nashua, N.H. on the morning before the primary (“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” said the man whose record of laying off workers is already a big campaign issue).
And were Romney to actually lose the New Hampshire primary? Well, nobody expects that.