Most people assume that Mitt Romney has New Hampshire in the bag, but at least one influential voice in the Granite State disagrees. The Union Leader, New Hampshire’s only state-wide publication and major influence on Republican politics, has endorsed Newt Gingrich instead of Romney — despite the efforts of Romney to win the nod:
America is at a crucial crossroads. It is not going to be enough to merely replace Barack Obama next year. We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing.
He did so with the Contract with America. He did it in bringing in the first Republican House in 40 years and by forging balanced budgets and even a surplus despite the political challenge of dealing with a Democratic President. A lot of candidates say they’re going to improve Washington. Newt Gingrich has actually done that, and in this race he offers the best shot of doing it again. …
We don’t have to agree with them on every issue. We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear.
Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate. But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running. In this incredibly important election, that candidate is Newt Gingrich. He has the experience, the leadership qualities and the vision to lead this country in these trying times. He is worthy of your support on January 10.
Had Romney won the endorsement, it would have amounted to a dog-bites-man story, given the amount of time and effort Romney has put into New Hampshire. According to NBC, Romney spent a considerable amount of energy in winning this endorsement, too. It apparently didn’t impress publisher Joseph McQuaid:
The Union Leader’s Gingrich endorsement comes after significant courting by Mitt Romney, who has been campaigning in the state for several years. This is the second time that the Union Leader has chosen not to endorse Romney. In 2008, it notably backed John McCain who eventually went on to win the New Hampshire primary following a major comeback from a near-dead campaign the summer and fall before the primary. The paper’s editorial team also took several significant swipes at Romney in the process, undoubtedly hurting his chances in New Hampshire.
McQuaid appears to reference Romney in this paragraph of his endorsement of Gingrich:
Readers of the Union Leader and Sunday News know that we don’t back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers. We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job.
How influential is this endorsement? It hasn’t exactly been a perfect predictive indicator of who will win the primary. Reagan won in 1980, but no one remembers the Pete DuPont victory in New Hampshire in 1988, because George H. W. Bush beat him without it; in fact, DuPont didn’t even come in second or third in New Hampshire that year. Likewise, Steve Forbes got the endorsement in 2000 but came in third behind John McCain and George W. Bush. However, in 1992, the Union-Leader endorsement lifted Pat Buchanan’s campaign into a near-victory in the primary over the incumbent elder Bush, and Buchanan won the 1996 primary outright with the Union-Leader’s boost.
The counterintuitive nature of the endorsement, coupled with the failed effort by Romney, is what makes this newsworthy. Romney has a substantial lead in New Hampshire in most polling, so the electoral impact of the Union-Leader’s choice may be limited — or it may convince primary voters to take a second look at Gingrich. If Romney has to start sweating out his prospects in New Hampshire, he will have less time to work on other early primary states, and his inability to close the deal with the Union Leader might have some voters in other states rethinking his inevitability, too.