Happiness in politics is a divided opposition.
That’s what Confucius would say if he were around to analyze the race for the Republican nomination. Jon Huntsman is probably saying it in Chinese.
By that standard, the happiest person around is Mitt Romney. He’s coasting to the Republican nomination on the strength of a divided opposition. In the Gallup tracking poll, only 30 percent of Republicans nationwide say Romney’s their choice. But look at the rest of the field: Newt Gingrich 18 percent, Rick Santorum 17 percent, Ron Paul 12 percent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Huntsman in single digits.
The New Hampshire campaign was a race between Romney and a candidate called “expected.” Would Romney do better than expected, worse than expected or about as well as expected? Answer: At 39 percent, he did better than expected. Enough to sustain his position as front-runner and presumptive nominee.
The other candidates are all factional contenders.
Santorum is the champion of the religious right. Perry is trying to wrest that title away from Santorum in South Carolina.
What about the Tea Party, which looked so formidable in 2010? Here’s another great truth: You can’t win a horse race without a horse. For a while, Gingrich looked like the tea party’s horse. But then, with the help of Romney’s super PAC, tea party voters got a closer look at Gingrich and decided he was pretty lame.
Think of it this way: A majority of New Hampshire GOP primary voters called themselves tea party supporters. If the tea party had united behind any one candidate, that candidate would have won a sweeping victory. In the end, however, tea party Republicans went 40 percent for Romney, 22 percent for Paul, 14 percent for Santorum and 13 percent for Gingrich. Many tea party activists express contempt for Romney because he has not been a reliable conservative. But look at how their followers voted.
Paul is the hero of libertarians. But many Republicans see the Paul vote — second in New Hampshire! — as an alien invasion. They are correct. Paul carried independents and those who had never voted in a Republican primary before.
And talk about an alien invasion: Huntsman carried Democrats. Wait a minute. Were there Democrats voting in the Republican primary? Yes. Four percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters said they were Democrats. Many registered as independents or Republicans to vote for Huntsman.
What drives the Romney vote isn’t issues or ideology. It’s pragmatism. Precisely the quality the tea party loathes. A solid majority of New Hampshire Republican primary voters (56 percent) said Romney is the candidate most likely to defeat President Barack Obama. No one else came close.
The New Hampshire campaign also exposed Romney’s principal liability — his business record. Romney’s rivals called him a greedy, ruthless corporate predator. The pro-Gingrich PAC is running a 27-minute video attacking Romney’s business practices. Romney’s defenders call it an un-Republican attack on free-market capitalism.
The American public does value free enterprise and capitalism. Butit doesn’t admire the cutthroat behavior that makes the system work. The same way it cherishes democracy but hates politics.
The attacks on Romney’s business practices seem to have had an impact. Romney’s vote dropped off sharply among the nearly half of all primary voters who decided how they would vote in the last few days of the campaign — when the fiercest attacks came out.
Romney’s core constituency looks like Richie Rich. He took 51 percent of the vote among the highest-income primary voters ($200,000 a year or more). But only 31 percent among the lowest-income voters ($30,000 or less).
The South Carolina primary on Jan. 21 will be the key contest. It always is. In 2000, South Carolina stopped Sen. John McCain. In 2008, South Carolina crowned McCain the nominee. If Romney, a Mormon from Massachusetts, can win a southern state where 60 percent of Republican voters are evangelicals, he may be unstoppable.
But that doesn’t mean his rivals will drop out. Santorum may come back to life in South Carolina and become the conservatives’ stop-Romney candidate. For Gingrich — it’s now personal. He’s going to sink his teeth into Romney’s ankle and not let go until the cash infusions he’s getting from a Las Vegas casino magnate run out.
New Hampshire has clearly energized the Paul movement. He will stay in until the bitter end. Maybe longer if he doesn’t get what he wants — a prime-time speaking role at the Republican convention, a say in the party platform, maybe even a place on the ticket. If the Republican establishment shuts Paul out, he may run as a third-party candidate. He did that before, in 1988.
That would make Obama a happy man. Because then he would face a divided opposition.
Bill Schneider is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.