Romney in control
I could start by saying that the Republican nomination is now Mitt Romney's to lose, but that's been true since Iowa, or even earlier (since October, when Rick Perry's swift collapse left Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich as Romney's main rivals).
In that sense, Romney's victory in New Hampshire doesn't really change anything: he's still the front-runner, Gingrich and Rick Santorum (who fought Romney to a near draw in Iowa last week) are still fighting to consolidate the support of conservatives who are skeptical of Romney, and Ron Paul remains relevant to the extent that he'll win a fair number of votes--but not a threat to win the nomination.
The fact that the state of the race hasn't changed, though, is great news for Romney, who really only needs to ride this one out. Although he's struggled all year to poll better than the 20-30 percent range nationwide, and despite the appearance that he is many Republicans' last choice, at this point, having won two races and having managed to avoid the rise of a unifying conservative "anti-Romney" candidate, he will be practically impossible to stop.
Read on for my analysis of the challenges Romney must face, and my forecast for the general election...
For those who do wish to prevent Romney's nomination, the next two states--South Carolina and Florida--represent the last realistic chances to derail his campaign. Of the two, South Carolina, which will hold its primary on January 21, is the more difficult state for Romney, due to its high number of right-wing and evangelical Christian voters who might look askance at Romney's relatively moderate record, history of changing his positions on key issues, and Mormon faith. If he can survive the next two contests (and even if he has trouble in them), the states that vote in February shouldn't pose too much of a problem for him, given that they are all in favorable terrain: the Southwest, the Midwest, and New England.
Also working in Romney's favor is the fact that his remaining opponents--Santorum, Gingrich, Paul, and Perry (and perhaps even Jon Huntsman)--are all trying to make the case that they are the only authentic conservative in the race. If the conservative vote splits three or four ways, with Romney himself winning a portion of it, which is what happened in Iowa and New Hampshire, then none of the other candidates can hope to overcome Romney's advantages among other demographics (such as Mormons, the wealthy, and moderate voters).
Cause for concern?
If, on the other hand, one (and only one) of the candidates receives a significant boost of funding and public endorsements from key conservative figures, then the others could be pushed into irrelevance and a one-on-one race between Romney and "anti-Romney" might finally come about. This would be disastrous for Romney, who would be hard-pressed to win in such a contest unless his opponent commits a serious blunder, but it is looking less and less likely.
The other cause for concern among Romney's team is the news that Gingrich, conservative activists, and others are planning a major wave of negative advertisements focusing on Romney's history "as a predatory capitalist who destroyed jobs and communities," to quote one video. On top of that, Romney's foes have some new ammunition to use: a video of Romney claiming that he likes "being able to fire people." The Romney folks are reportedly concerned about this line of attack, which could bolster views of Romney as elitist, cold-hearted, and greedy. Furthermore, should Romney win the nomination, these attacks could damage his chances in the general election.
The other candidate
And this brings us to the other front-runner in the race, President Barack Obama, whose job approval ratings and other polling have generally placed him in the position in which his re-election is feasible but by no means assured.
Obama's team has likely been hoping for some combination of the following three scenarios: either Romney loses out to a more radical candidate, the primaries drag on for some time before a nominee emerges, and the winner is damaged by the hard-fought primaries and fails to unify his or her party. At the moment, only the third of these scenarios looks particularly likely.
This is almost exactly the situation that George Bush found himself in in 2004: the incumbent will face perhaps his toughest possible opponent (at least on paper), the once-muddled primary campaign will quickly resolve itself, and the challenger will fail to excite his base and will be vulnerable to attack. In 2004, the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, while scoring some points against the incumbent, failed to make a strong enough case for his own election, and the incumbent successfully attacked him in areas that were thought to be his strengths (particularly his military service).
In order to be successful in his re-election campaign, Obama must do the following:
- Convince voters that he successfully averted economic disaster, and that things in the U.S. are finally moving in the right direction, particularly as far as jobs are concerned. At the same time, he can't let the election focus exclusively on the economy, because there are other issues where Obama might enjoy an advantage, such as foreign affairs, Social Security, Medicare, and immigration reform.
- Paint Romney as someone unfit to serve as President, on account of his being too out-of-touch and unconcerned with regular Americans, insincere, and untrustworthy.
- Connect with voters on an emotional level as he did in 2008, in a way that Romney isn't able to do. Change (promises kept) and hope (plans for a better future) still have to factor into the message somehow.
- Rally his base by stressing his own achievements and by describing Romney as someone who is beholden to moneyed interests and to a party that wants to return to the failed policies of the past.
As far as Romney is concerned, here is what he needs to do:
- Keep the focus on the bad news--high unemployment, growing debt and deficit, international tensions, etc.
- Make a convincing argument that his background has prepared him to take on these challenges
- Pivot back to the center (which should not be too hard for him) in order to appeal to moderate voters...in a way that does not contribute towards the perception that he's an opportunistic flip-flopper (there's the rub).
- Try not to get too negative, as it would risk mobilizing the left and annoying moderates.
All things being equal, and assuming continued but gradual economic growth, I think Obama gets the win, but by a narrow margin.