If you’ve suspected that Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are all a bit too small, too quirky, and too demographically unrepresentative to offer a perfect proving ground for a Republican presidential candidate . . . this cycle is confirming a lot of your fears.
Poor Rick Santorum has taken a win — albeit shamefully delayed — in Iowa and turned it into#…#just about nothing. Ten percent in New Hampshire. Seventeen percent — and no delegates — in South Carolina. About 13 percent — and no delegates — in Florida. Traditionally, candidates pour their time and energy and financial resources into one of the first two states, believing that a win or near-win there generates momentum. After the experiences of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, it is unclear if an Iowa win generates any real momentum anywhere else.
New Hampshire offers a very different electorate from Iowa, but it ultimately offers a primary electorate in which only 49 percent of voters identify themselves as Republicans. An astounding 45 percent of the state’s voters are registered independents.
If Newt Gingrich designed his perfect state, it would probably look like South Carolina: older, deeply conservative, filled with evangelical Christians, and eager to send a message to both “the media” and “the establishment.” If CPAC were a state, it would be South Carolina. But the worries of those voters are not, it seems, quite as dominant among Republicans as a whole.
Florida is diverse — Latinos, entrepreneurs, rural, urban, suburban, military families, retirees — and huge, with 4 million registered Republicans and about 2 million voters in this year’s primary. On this much larger playing field, Romney cleaned up. He won every age group, every education level, both marital statuses, both genders (women by a lot), every income level, and every ideological group except for those who consider themselves to be “very conservative” — winning 30 percent to Gingrich’s 42 percent.
The early primaries are like preseason football, offering such a different format of competition that it doesn’t, ultimately, offer a good glimpse of each competitor’s skill, drive, and tenacity in the higher-stakes contests to come.