Most of the polls close at 7 p.m. ET but a handful across the state will close at 8, so sit tight for returns. Three questions tonight. One, obviously: Will Romney underperform? There’s no shortage of benchmarks to choose from. The spin from the rest of the field will be that anything less than 40 percent is failure. The spin from the media will probably be that anything less than 37 percent, which is what McCain took when he won the state four years ago, is lackluster. The further he dips below that and the closer he gets to his 2008 take of 32 percent, the more we’ll hear tomorrow about Romney having struggled to grow his base since the last time he ran.
Two: Which candidate who won’t end up being nominated will claim second place? Paul and Huntsman have been neck and neck in the last few polls, but unlike JH’s campaign, Paul’s actually has a big-picture strategy. He’s going to soldier on, pile up delegates, and try to be a force at the convention. Huntsman’s strategy is more of an “underpants gnome” deal:
Step one: Second place in New Hampshire
Step two: ??????
Step three: Nominee!
As Jazz noted earlier, in the crucial state of South Carolina, this guy’s polling behind … Stephen Colbert. The best chance he had against Romney was to somehow maneuver him into a two-man race (or three-man race, including Paul) and then let the Not Romney crowd reluctantly carry him to victory. Too late for that now, so the back-up plan, I take it, is to do surprisingly well tonight at Romney’s expense and then let his donors and media sweethearts go to work for him in SC. (According to BuzzFeed, Huntsman’s mega-wealthy father also could probably be convinced to keep the campaign going if JH finishes above, say, 13 percent.) There is, I suppose, some slim chance of a close five-way race there between Romney, Huntsman, Paul, Gingrich, and Santorum in which the winner finishes in the low 20s, but for that to happen, Huntsman needs a strong showing in NH to convince tepid moderate Romney fans down south to peel off and back him instead. Likely to happen? Er, no.
Three: Did Gingrich’s last-ditch attacks on Romney’s Bain career do anything to change the polling at the eleventh hour? Mitt was up four points in today’s final Suffolk poll, leading one of his top advisors to crow that the strategy had backfired. Could be, but if Romney ends up doing worse than expected, Democratic hopes will soar at the thought that their class-warfare strategy in November might be a winner even on the right. Can’t wait for the exit polling.
Below you’ll find the trusty Hot Air/Townhall Twitter widget for livetweeting. I’ll be updating this post, needless to say, and Jazz will be talking live about the primary on the RINO Hour of Power at 8 p.m. You can follow the returns at Townhall or via the nifty Google NH results map. While we wait, have a look at this mind-boggling graphic at Politico summarizing the astounding amateurishness of the field this year. It was Philip Klein, I think, who said Romney’s likely to be the nominee simply because he’s the only one who showed up to this job interview wearing a suit. That graphic is some of the best evidence of that theory that you’ll ever see. Also, read Dan McLaughlin’s incisive post at Red State about the real peril to conservatism in nominating Romney:
The other point I would make about integrity is that it goes close to the core of why a Romney nomination worries me so much: because we would all have to make so many compromises to defend him that at the end of the day we may not even recognize ourselves. Romney has, in a career in public office of just four years (plus about 8 years’ worth of campaigning), changed his position on just about every major issue you can think of, and his signature accomplishment in office was to be wrong on the largest policy issue of this campaign… There were spots of solid ground on which to plant ourselves with McCain, and he had a history of digging himself in on those and fighting for things he believed in. But Mitt Romney’s record is just one endless sheet of thin ice as far as the eye can see – there’s no way to have any kind of confidence that we can tell people he stands for something today without being made fools of tomorrow. We who have laughed along with Jim Geraghty’s prescient point that every Obama promise comes with an expiration date will be the ones laughed at, and worse yet we will know the critics are right. Every time I try to talk myself into thinking we can live with him, I run into this problem. It’s one that particularly bedeviled Republicans during the Nixon years – many partisan Republicans loved Nixon because he made the right enemies and fought them without cease or mercy, but the man’s actual policies compromised so many of our principles that the party was crippled in the process even before Watergate. We can stand for Romney, but we’ll find soon enough that that’s all we stand for.
As McLaughlin himself pointed out on Twitter today, we’re already seeing this happen.
Stand by for updates. Exit question: Is Rick Perry really not going to qualify for CNN’s South Carolina debate?
Update: An early trickle of exit poll data points to a good night for Romney: “The early exit polls show 44 percent of the New Hampshire electorate so far is independent. The biggest winner among them? Mitt Romney with 30 percent. Ron Paul is second, Jon Huntsman is third.”
Update: A really good night for Romney, maybe. From the Times’s Brian Stelter: “Network execs privately say they expect to be able to call NH for Romney at 8pm sharp. The race for 2nd will take longer.”
Update: Suddenly, 40 percent doesn’t sound so unlikely.
“About a third of voters are saying they’re most interested in electability – the candidate who has the best chance to defeat Obama,” ABC News’ Gary Langer, of Langer Research Associates writes. “Just over a quarter are looking for the most experienced candidate and about a quarter say they care most about strong moral character. Far fewer – about one in seven voters – say they’re looking mainly for a true conservative, a contrast from last week when a quarter of Iowa caucus-goers said so.
Romney also leads the field when voters were asked whether they’d be satisfied with a given candidate as nominee.
Update: According to the exit polls, fully 46 percent said they made their minds up today or in the last few days. If they Bain attacks worked — or backfired — we should some evidence of it in the final numbers.
Update: It’s 8 p.m. and only 10 percent of precincts have reported, but the Foxies have seen enough: They’ve called it for Romney. Interestingly, as I write this, Paul is only a little more than 10 points behind Mitt (35.5% to 25%). If it held up, that’d be a bit closer than everyone expected. One other interesting exit-poll data point from Fox: Romney won a plurality of late deciders with 29%. Huntsman was second at 22%. I guess Bain didn’t hurt him so badly after all. Yet.
Old tea-party goal: Stop Romney from winning the nomination. New tea-party goal: Stop Romney from winning all 50 primaries. Heart-ache.
Update: Fox has also called second place for Paul promptly at 8. Is that the end for Huntsman, then? Finish a distant second to Romney is one thing but what’s his rationale for continuing when he can’t pull enough independents even to top Paul?
The official exit poll results via Political Wire: “Romney 36%, Paul 23%, Huntsman 18%, Santorum 10%, Gingrich 10% and Perry 1%.”
Update: As grassroots righties mourn the Romney victory, BuzzFeed wonders: Why can’t conservatives get their act together in primaries?
“Conservatism in 1980 knew what it stood for,” said Craig Shirley, a movement veteran and Reagan biographer whose firm is working with Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. The movement is going through a bit of an identity crisis. This is the residue of 8 years of George Bush.”…
Others blame the candidates, not the movement.
“A dominant conservative candidate has not been able to emerge in recent years. There have been a series of flops,” said Jeffrey Bell, a movement veteran who is policy director at the American Principles Project in Washington. “And this year we didn’t have soup-to-nuts, fully funded presidential candidate. All of them lacked money except for Perry, and Perry wasn’t ready to run for president.”
Update: Huntsman tells NBC he won’t quit. Of course, Bachmann said that on caucus night too only to change her mind the next day. Good news if true, though, for Romney-haters: He’ll peel a few moderate votes away from Mitt in South Carolina, albeit not as many as he would have if he had finished a strong second tonight.
Update: The exit-poll coup de grace: “Romney wins among those who say they’re strong supporters of the tea parties.”