Op-Eds, Presidential Elections

Election-Night Reflections

Published in The Hill, January 1, 2012

Another New Hampshire primary, another front-runner reinforced. That appears to be the result again this year. Mitt Romney has broken with tradition to win both Iowa (albeit in a very close race) and New Hampshire. The non-surprise of the evening was Romney’s victory. Still, he does not excite voters. He only won a plurality despite running for president for five years.

His underwhelming victory in New Hampshire, a state made to order for the former Massachusetts governor, raises serious doubts about his electability. Despite being the front-runner from start to finish, Romney failed to break 40 percent. He lacks the obvious flaws of his opponents, but offers no compelling rationale for his candidacy. He faces the continuing challenge of stirring up conservatives in the primaries while appealing to independents in November.

The most frustrating outcome was Ron Paul’s second-place finish. He did well, collecting one in four votes and bringing many young people into the political process. Paul obviously has raised some important issues, such as excessive public spending and the virtue of self-reliance. Cutting out unnecessary wars also makes sense, but Paul goes to extremes, and would make it impossible to save lives even in a case like Bosnia. Moreover, the racially charged newsletters put out in his name disqualify him from the presidency. He remains accountable for them even if, as he alleges, he did not write them.

Election night was a mixed bag for Jon Huntsman. Huntsman’s finish bounces him ahead of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as Romney’s most serious challenger. Romney and Huntsman must now compete for the vote of moderate Republicans; yet third place is only third place. In South Carolina, Huntsman won’t be able to essentially live in the state while his opponents campaign elsewhere.

By any measure Huntsman, a former governor, ambassador and businessman, is the most qualified Republican contender for president. Although Huntsman paradoxically began his campaign by emphasizing his breaks with Republican orthodoxy (a breath of fresh air), he actually is the most genuine conservative. Moreover, Huntsman was willing to reach across the aisle to serve his nation, acting as ambassador to China early on in the Obama administration. And he is the most electable in November, if only he can win the nomination.

The second greatest non-surprise was the end of Newt Gingrich’s brief electoral flight. Reduced to battling Rick Santorum for fourth place, the former House Speaker failed to garner 10 percent of the vote. He has little hope in South Carolina, where his personal peccadilloes stand out. His vulnerabilities always were enormous, but he remains one of the Republican Party’s most important idea men. He still has much to offer his country. It will be unfortunate for the former Speaker and his party if Newt Gingrich, the historian, is remembered in history books as playing spoiler to Mitt Romney.

Almost as predictable was the collapse, just one week after Iowa, of Santorum’s bid to become the official conservative opposition. Despite his photo finish in Iowa he never had much chance in New Hampshire, where evangelical Christians, who care most about the social issues Santorum emphasizes, are far less numerous. Indeed, Santorum’s hostility to contraception and gays does not represent true conservative values. Most Americans just don’t believe how and with whom people have sex is the government’s business. Social conservatives remain a serious voting bloc, but they cannot deliver the nomination. Santorum may stagger on a little longer, but fifth place is a dismal send-off for South Carolina.

AWOL was Rick Perry. He skipped New Hampshire to concentrate on the Palmetto State and was rewarded with just 1 percent of the vote. Avoiding a race he was not going to win allows him to dismiss last night’s result. But last place delivers no momentum for South Carolina. Perry is not a viable candidate.

The candidates leave New Hampshire pretty much as they came, with Romney in the lead and everyone else in pursuit. While Paul may continue fighting until the convention, only Huntsman now has a long-shot chance to derail the front-runner. Soon the speculation is likely to shift to Romney’s running mate. And that person probably wasn’t on the ballot Tuesday night.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy and is an MSNBC political analyst.

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