By now, we’ve all figured out the difference between general elections and primaries. General elections are a simple math problem. You hammer away at your opponent, hoping his voters either vote for you or don’t show up, or you talk yourself up, hoping your loyalists show up in droves.
Primary elections are a much more complicated algorithm. In a crowded field, attacking an opponent doesn’t necessarily mean voters will come to you. While going negative can help you take down an opponent, it inevitably raises your unfavorables, which may be an invitation for voters to simply pick a different candidate.
The real beauty of primaries for political dorks is that campaigns and strategy mean everything. In general elections, votes are primarily driven by external factors (“It’s the economy, stupid”), but primaries don’t contrast the incumbent party with the “change” party. It is solely up to the campaigns to tell party loyalists what flavor of standard bearer they want to pick.
With Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney playing to a virtual draw last night in Iowa, Jon Huntsman now has to pull his pencil out and start doing some calculus in New Hampshire. What’s the new strategy? Does he go after Rick Santorum, trying to pull his soft, new-found support out from under him? If he does, it could merely shift voters over to Romney, who already has a distinct geographical advantage. If an attack backfires, it could shrink his share of the vote and end up helping both Romney and Santorum.
Does Huntsman attack Romney, which could shift voters over to Santorum? Or does he simply let Newt Gingrich take the bark off Romney with Gingrich’s soon-to-be-unveiled Parade of Grievances? (Amazingly, Newt’s “Everyone is being mean to me” platform failed to inspire Iowa voters.) Gingrich and Huntsman seemed to spark a bromance at last month’s New Hampshire “Lincoln-Douglas debate” (which didn’t evoke Lincoln, Douglas, or even a debate). Perhaps Newt will do Huntsman’s bidding in New Hampshire.
Does Huntsman continue to talk himself up over the next week, hoping the voters view him as an electable conservative alternative to Romney? He’s been virtually living in the Granite State for months now, and there’s no discernible evidence of any “Hunstmentum,” especially now that Santorum will be hogging the spotlight. (In this video posted by Katie Pavlich at Townhall, Sarah Palin bitterly criticized Huntsman for skipping Iowa and insulting Republicans nationwide. Of course, the last Republican candidate to do something so arrogant and wrongheaded was … John McCain, who also skipped Iowa.)
Of course, at the same time, Romney will be unloading on Santorum to take him down. Now that Santorum is a serious candidate, he may change tactics and begin an attempt to fire at Romney with both barrels. If it ends up being a classic campaign “murder-suicide,” Huntsman could forge a path through the middle without having to spend money attacking anyone.
The best bet: Huntsman continues to push ahead, offering standard contrast with Romney and Santorum, while bolstering his foreign policy credentials by making a piñata out of Ron Paul. At the same time, Huntsman benefits from Gingrich’s “Historians Gone Wild” act and picks up a few points. Final New Hampshire tally: Romney 40 percent, Huntsman 18, Santorum 16, Paul 16, Gingrich six, and Perry four.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and a co-author of the Campaign Manager Survey.