Barring a dead body showing up in one of his many backyards or a surreptitious harem that would make Tiger Woods blush, Mitt Romney became the Republican nominee for President of the United States Tuesday night in New Hampshire.
Conservatives may not love his Massachusetts healthcare mandate. Tea Partiers certainly can’t like his history of political maneuvering. But this much is true, Republican voters realize that Romney is their best shot at beating Barack Obama. And in this game, electability is the stuff of winners.
Give early primary and caucus-goers credit – they have their staunchly conservative poster children, but the votes are going to the only elephant who can sway an independent voter in a general election (save Jon Huntsman, who, despite his truly presidential platform, lacks partisan primary chops. Example A: He is trailing comedian Stephen Colbert in South Carolina opinion polls.).
As you’ve probably heard by now, Romney
is the first non-incumbent Republican candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire did very well, but nothing historic (way to count votes, Iowa). Pundits, and the remaining candidates in the field, feel confident that South Carolina will be Romney’s bump in the road. However, the exit poll data from the Granite State suggests that it will instead be the fatal blow to the Santorums and Gingriches and every other remaining Republican hopeful.
Exit polling for CNN saw Romney capture every ideological faction of the GOP electorate in New Hampshire. He dominated among moderate and somewhat conservative voters, capturing almost half of those blocs. Against public perception, Romney even was the candidate of choice among the “very conservative” (33%), beating out Rick Santorum (26%). And while Santorum did fairly well among the rightest of the right, he received single-digit support from the remaining 79% of primary voters.
Further, Romney was the leading vote-getter among the Tea Party faithful by a significant margin (15 – 24 points, depending on the poll question used) over Santorum and libertarian Ron Paul.
It must be mentioned that these same trends were not apparent in Iowa, where Santorum outperformed Romney in most of the above categories. And the argument certainly would hold that Iowa voters reflect on the Republican base more accurately than New Hampshire. Still, the impact of Romney’s dominance on the perceptions of voters still to cast their ballots must be considered.
Early polls in South Carolina show Romney retaking the lead by as many as 18 points over Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul. Romney had not polled first in the Palmetto State since November – trailing just about every other candidate (even Herman Cain) at some point during that span.
Should these sentiments hold a few more days, the Republican primary could be settled very early. Already, conservative stalwarts like Rush Limbaugh are beginning to back off their criticisms of Romney, turning their turrets to Gingrich – the most aggressive of the remaining challengers in his criticisms of the frontrunner.
The sooner a party can decide its nominee, the more time the party has to coalesce and the better that nominee’s chances of victory in a general election. If Republicans stay the course with Romney, they’ll have the majority of 2012 to focus entirely on beating Obama. Mitt may not be the guy conservatives want in the White House, but he’s sitting on a golden opportunity to remove the guy they want even less.