Why Romney Must Win New Hampshire

Over at The Washington Post, Chris Cillizza uses the recent Newt Gingrich surge to show why former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney needs a protracted primary if he’s to win the nomination:

The question for Romney…is what kind of race he and his team wake up to on Feb. 1. Has he won two of the first four states (New Hampshire and Florida)? Or just one of the four? (New Hampshire)

If the former scenario plays out, Romney remains very well positioned to win an extended slugfest against Gingrich or any other candidate. If the latter, it’s possible that all of his organization and money if for naught as the party looks to move on and rally behind Gingrich as their preferred nominee.

The unspoken assumption here is that Romney will win the New Hampshire primary with room to spare. And for now, that seems like a reasonable projection; according to the most recent Real Clear Politics average of New Hampshire primary polls, Romney is leading his nearest competitor—Gingrich—36 percent to 21.7 percent. But much of Romney’s support is soft, and there’s a chance that Gingrich could parlay an Iowa win into a close second. What’s more, Jon Huntsman is steadily winning support in New Hampshire. If he breaks the double-digits, then he could act as a spoiler to Romney, bringing down the Massachusetts governor’s numbers and creating the space for Gingrich to win. Either way, a weak Romney finish in New Hampshire is a plausible scenario.

This would be terrible for Romney’s campaign. Not only would he leave the opening primaries without a resounding victory, but a weak finish in New Hampshire—his state to lose—would serve as a fatal blow to the rationale behind his candidacy. Romney’s pitch to Republican voters is this: I might not be the most conservative candidate, but I’m competent, I hate Obama, and I’m electable. Because of its ideological diversity—and open primary—New Hampshire is supposed to serve as a test of Romney’s electability. But if he can’t dominate there, then what’s to think that he can succeed elsewhere? And if Republican voters are faced with a choice between an erstwhile moderate and an electable conservative, why wouldn’t you go with the latter?