In poll after poll this primary cycle, Mitt Romney has led New Hampshire, sometimes by as many as 20 to 30 points. He has courted the state, campaigning and building up a formidable organization, and has snapped up crucial endorsements from New Hampshire heavyweights such as Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former governor John Sununu. And it doesn’t hurt that he owns a home on the state’s Lake Winnipesaukee and often vacations there.
But now, armed with the New Hampshire Union Leader endorsement, Gingrich is poised to become Romney’s top rival in a state renowned for overturning conventional expectations of primary results. John McCain shot to an unexpected victory here in 2000, as did Hillary Clinton in 2008. And if the stars align, Gingrich may just be able to pull off the same stunt.
“The New Hampshire primary has long been a very rough road for a frontrunner to close here,” says Rich Killion, a New Hampshire GOP strategist who is not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns. “And historically, for a whole multitude of reasons, New Hampshire voters decide late. If you go back and look at exit polls of the last four, five cycles, you’ll probably see anywhere between a third to 40 percent of the primary electorate will actually make up its mind on this race in the final days. As we stand right now, 65 percent of the electorate hasn’t closed on their final candidate.”
“But there’s no question Romney is not only the frontrunner, he’s a very, very strong frontrunner,” Killion adds.
Two things would likely need to happen for Gingrich to win, says University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala, who describes Gingrich’s chances of winning as “plausible,” but not “probable” at this point in the race. First, Gingrich would have to win in Iowa. “If that were to happen, Gingrich would come in here with a full head of steam,” Scala remarks, noting that a Gingrich Iowa victory would set up New Hampshire to be a contest primarily between Romney and Gingrich, with Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman “being spoilers.”
“The other thing that would need to happen is that Mitt Romney would need to be brought down a peg or two in New Hampshire. Romney’s favorables have been very strong all year in all sorts of demographic groups,” Scala says.
Here again, Huntsman could play a role, nabbing enough of the moderate votes to diminish Romney’s support. Our Destiny PAC, a Super PAC supporting Huntsman that has made serious ad buys in recent weeks, could also make an impact. If the PAC decides to run a TV ad criticizing Romney, that could bruise Romney’s reputation in the state.
The other potential threat to Romney’s favorability numbers is what the Union Leader decides to do. In the last election cycle, the newspaper paired its endorsement of John McCain with a relentlessly negative series of editorials lambasting Romney. Romney has tried to woo Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid this cycle, but McQuaid told Politico to count on the newspaper upholding its “traditional approach” this cycle.
The Union Leader’s track record on endorsements is mixed — Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes are among those picked by the paper — but in 2008, there is no doubt the paper played a significant role in the primary.
Mike Dennehy, who ran McCain’s New Hampshire campaign in 2008 but is unaffiliated this time, says he gives the Union Leader “a great deal of credit for helping him recover and bring him a victory in New Hampshire.”
“I think it’s a misperception to say that it’s not important because the candidates they’ve endorsed have not won either the primary or the general election overall,” Dennehy comments. “The Union Leader brings credibility to a candidate, especially among conservative voters, which is still the base of our party.”
Already, the endorsement seems to have given Gingrich some momentum: A Rasmussen poll conducted after the endorsement showed Gingrich at 24 percent, 10 points behind Romney. The WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll released a few days before the endorsement had Gingrich at 15 percent, a whopping 27 points behind Romney.
But Jamie Burnett, Romney’s political director in New Hampshire last cycle but unaligned this time around, cautions that it’s a mistake to see the endorsement automatically making Gingrich the McCain of 2012, saying that drawing that parallel is akin to comparing “apples and hand grenades.”
“Gingrich is not where John McCain was,” argues Burnett. “Gingrich didn’t start out as the frontrunner in New Hampshire. Gingrich doesn’t have an organization in New Hampshire that comes anywhere near what John McCain started with or finished with in 2007–2008, not even close. Newt Gingrich hasn’t spent a fraction of the time that John McCain spent here. He hasn’t done a fraction of the town halls that John McCain did in 2007 and 2008, not to mention the fact that John McCain won the New Hampshire primary in 2000 by 19 points against George W. Bush.”
For Gingrich, it’s crucial that he make up for lost time by assembling a top-notch campaign organization, pronto. That difficult task will be made easier by his burgeoning momentum in the state. “There’s no better way to build an organization than when one has momentum,” observes Dennehy. “The challenge that they would have is not having enough staff to handle all of the volunteers that want to sign up and help. That is difficult for them, because they are a small operation. But with the right infrastructure — professional infrastructure — they can put in place a solid volunteer operation in six weeks’ time, absolutely.”
Right now, the Gingrich New Hampshire organization, a band of eight staffers, is concentrating on doing just that. Three offices are operating in the Granite State, and two more are slated to open soon. NewtHampshire.com (get it?) is up and running, while hundreds of volunteers have signed up to help in recent weeks. Gingrich himself will campaign in New Hampshire at least five days in December, possibly more. And the campaign is energized by the Union Leader endorsement, which Andrew Hemingway, Gingrich’s New Hampshire director, describes as “huge.”
“The Union Leader’s endorsement for us is really significant here in New Hampshire, but it also sends a message nationally, that there is a race here — that it’s not a walk-up, but there is another option besides Mitt Romney, and there’s a conservative option, and the conservative choice is New Gingrich,” he says.
Two additional factors could help Gingrich maintain his status as a top contender, instead of collapsing in the polls, as others have before him. One is his long history of visits to New Hampshire. “Newt Gingrich has been in and out of New Hampshire since 1995,” notes Dennehy. “So voters in New Hampshire, especially longtime residents, know Newt Gingrich. He had the historic town-hall meeting in New Hampshire with Bill Clinton. He has campaigned for members of Congress in New Hampshire before.”
Another factor that plays to Gingrich’s strengths is Granite State Republicans’ desire for a feisty candidate. “The mood among New Hampshire Republicans is combative,” Scala says, noting that 2002 to 2010 was a long drought for many New Hampshire Republicans who faced “loss upon loss upon loss” in elections. “In 2010, they gained it all back, or most of it back. They did so by being quite combative.”
For Gingrich, the challenge forward is seizing the moment. To Killion, that means it’s a must for Gingrich to visit the state within the next ten days.
“He has this great chance, but what he has to do up is be up here often and offer a real clear message to voters,” he says.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.