All eyes are on New Hampshire today as voters in the Granite State head to the first primary in the Republican nomination contest. Unlike the maddeningly slow trickle-in of the results in the Iowa caucuses last week, we should know the winner soon after the polls close tonight. Mitt Romney has held a dominating lead in the polls all year, and though his numbers have dipped slightly over the past few days, it's unlikely that he will place anything other than first—election sage Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight puts the likelihood of Romney winning New Hampshire at a whopping 98 percent. The outstanding question is how the other candidates will do: Is Jon Huntman's momentum real or just a media fiction, and—egads!—could Buddy Roemer finish ahead of Rick Perry?
Many of the candidates—including the two Ricks and Newt Gingrich—have set their hopes on South Carolina's January 21 primary, but it's the election at the end of the month that could prove to be the most important. Florida will be the first contest in a large, delegate-rich, and diverse state—the type of electorate that an anti-Romney candidate will need to win in order to knock out the current front-runner.
Florida hasn't been polled to the same degree as the first three states in the nomination process, but according to two polls released yesterday, Romney has a commanding lead over the other candidates there. Quinnipiac's latest poll had Romney far ahead with 36 percent, trailed by Gingrich at 24 percent, Santorum at 16 percent, Ron Paul at 10 percent, Perry at 5 percent, and Huntsman at a lowly 2 percent. A poll from Survey USA showed the same rankings at roughly the same numbers, though they excluded also-rans Perry and Huntsman.
Romney's path to winning Florida became even easier yesterday when Paul's campaign announced that they would bypass Florida in order to turn its attention to the states with caucuses later in February, where the Paul camp can tap into its organizational strength.
A contest in Florida will be unlike anything many of the campaigns have so far encountered. Money doesn't stretch quite as far in Florida's expensive and numerous media markets. Time is also running out now that absentee ballots are in the mail. So far, 413,000 absentee ballots have been sent and 46,000 (or one-third of the total Iowa turnout) have been returned.
At the rate the candidates are scrambling, South Carolina and Florida might not even matter. A tie in Iowa paired with a victory today in New Hampshire will come close to locking up the nomination for Romney.