A distant, distant, distant, distant second, but still second. Just think: There’s still a slim chance that instead of Romney we’ll nominate a guy who dreams of the day that the GOP will once again be “sane.”
Two questions for you about the big vote tomorrow night. One: For strategic reasons, shouldn’t the Romney-haters be rooting for Huntsman to do well? JH is the candidate best positioned to pull moderates away from Romney in South Carolina and Florida. The longer he’s in the race, the weaker Mitt is and thus the easier it’ll be for one of the Not Romneys to surprise him down south. On the other hand, if Huntsman flames out tomorrow night and quits, that’s a new pool of moderates up for grabs in South Carolina and beyond — not a big pool, but maybe big enough to give Romney a narrow win when he needs one. The problem for Huntsman (and the rest of the field) is that Romney’s surely benefiting from the perception that he’s the most electable Republican in the field. Check out this data point from the new CBS poll:
Note the trend after Gingrich’s collapse in Iowa. That perception of electability is fragile, but I’ll bet it’s worth its weight in gold to Romney among undecideds. If you’re on the fence in New Hampshire, who would you rather waste a vote on: The guy who a near-majority of Republicans thinks will give The One his toughest race or the guy who’s almost polling an asterisk? Maybe that’ll change as the Bain attacks start circulating and begin to make Romney suddenly look very vulnerable indeed in the general, but it’s probably too late to affect the vote in NH. And if he wins NH, as expected, that’ll give him some extra momentum with which to fight the Bain wars down south.
Second question, then: What would constitute a poor performance for Romney tomorrow? His numbers have slipped the past few days — the new/final ARG poll shows him down three points in just two days — but he’s still leading by 15-25 points consistently. An upset looks impossible but a slimmer-than-expected win could very easily happen. What’s “slimmer than expected,” i.e. slim enough that the big takeaway on Wednesday will be “Romney underperforms” rather than “Romney romps”? A 15-point win? 10 points? Gingrich, understandably, is arguing that anything under 40 percent is a moral defeat for Romney; Rich Lowry thinks 30 percent should be the yardstick. In nearly two years of polling New Hampshire, Romney’s only finished below 30 percent three times, so yeah — if he can’t get there tomorrow, it’s big, big news. He’ll almost certainly get there, though, so what’s the real cut-off? 35 percent? Double-digit margin? Better than expected showing by Gingrich or Santorum? Lay down those benchmarks now!