It was the rare night when the pre-New Hampshire primary polls were close to the mark.
Mitt Romney won – by a lot. The rest of the field was split between overperforming and underperforming – in some cases, by a lot.
Below are six takeaways from the New Hampshire primary.
1) Mitt Romney haters enter the final stages of grief
Yes, everyone knew he was going to win. Yes, it was his neighbor state. And yes, he still has well-documented flaws.
But Romney made history as a non-incumbent Republican who has now won both Iowa and New Hampshire, and from here on, he will be hard to stop.
Romney exceeded his own vote share from the 2008 primary, when he came in second. He also was on track to finish the night pretty close to the 38 percent of the vote that John McCain got in that race, when he won the state.
Best of all, he was poised for a margin of victory exceeding 12 points.
According to exit polls, the former Massachusetts governor did well across the ideological spectrum, making it hard to point to an area of weakness in his vote total. And Romney seemed comfortable in his speech, even addressing “rivals” over the criticism of his time at Bain Capital (a remark that’s really only a reference to Newt Gingrich) and basking in his supporters’ applause.
Having survived the evangelicals of Iowa and the famously ornery independents of New Hampshire, Romney now heads into South Carolina with momentum, making him the person undecided voters are likelier to tilt toward.
Romney backers aren’t certain he’ll fare well in the Palmetto State, where he’s facing his first crush of negative ads. It’s not clear how the spots dinging him for his tenure at Bain Capital will play in a GOP primary – as opposed to a general election (although Democrats will also be banging him from the left on that topic simultaneously, and it’s not good for Romney to have members of his own party negatively defining him on his signature credential issue).
2) Jon Huntsman’s surge was real
It may have fallen short of the second place he seemed headed for. But Huntsman went from cellar-dweller in the polls to third place in a matter of about two weeks, a rise that earns him some measure of respect.
It also justifies his decision to keep going, at least through South Carolina and, if he can depress Romney’s vote total from the center and add to a sense of chaos in the race, even into Florida.
That may be wishful thinking on the part of Huntsman’s camp, which had spent months living in New Hampshire in the hopes of getting hot, only to see it finally start happening in the final days of the race. Interestingly, it only happened once the rest of the candidates arrived in the Granite State en masse.
He wasn’t as close to Ron Paul as he would have liked to have been – he was running five points behind him – but he still had a respectable finish.
What Huntsman has lacked is resources – his campaign has been on fumes for months, and the candidate himself has expressed a public reluctance to go beyond the $2 million he seeded his effort with earlier this year.
His boosters hope that his surprising third-place finish will help bring in some more financial support, but there’s still not much evidence he has a path to the nomination.
At a minimum, his vote share gives him a bit of a cleaner slate heading into 2016, the next presidential cycle and the one that many political insiders suspect he’s already eyeing.
3) The GOP cannot ignore Ron Paul
This is the second contest in which Paul, ignored for much of the cycle until polls showed him clearly moving up, has finished north of 20 percent.
And unlike Iowa, where he finished third, Paul came in second in New Hampshire.
While he is not poised to grab a major contest – and truly rattle the establishment in the process – the Texas congressman is also not someone the party is going to be able to ignore heading toward the convention in Tampa.
What exactly the ultimate paying of respects looks like remains to be seen. Party officials are unlikely to be completely warm to the idea of giving him a prime speaking slot at the convention.
Paul’s supporters may bristle at the idea of giving in to something less than optimal. On the other hand, Paul’s son Rand – the junior senator from Kentucky – is believed to have ambitions of his own, which might come into play in any negotiations down the road.
All of this, of course, is a long way off. But it is increasingly a backdrop to the Paul phenomenon.
4) There is no clear conservative anti-Romney heading into South Carolina
Rick Santorum’s post-Iowa momentum is officially on fumes. He was tracking at just under 10 percent of the vote late into the evening.
That meant he was essentially tied with Newt Gingrich for fourth place, after the mini-primary between the two for that slot.
To head into South Carolina with any ability to argue primacy with conservatives, one of them needed to come in ahead of the other. But as of now, it’s a muddle – except for the clear fact that voters in New Hampshire largely rejected both of them.
For Santorum, that is less of an issue, theoretically – he never spent money, of which he had little, in the state.
But for Gingrich, it’s a serious blow. He was among the top finalists in the polls in the state just weeks ago – so much so that the influential Manchester Union Leader endorsed him. And while Gingrich has denounced the negative ads that were aired against him in Iowa, very little was done to him in New Hampshire by way of negative paid media, undercutting that argument a bit.
Santorum may be able to climb back in South Carolina, but for Gingrich, this is his second finish out of the top three.
All of this, of course, may work to Romney’s benefit.
5) Super PACs are more important than ever
If there is anything that will allow Gingrich to keep going past South Carolina if he fares poorly, it’s the super PAC supporting him. The same is true for Santorum and for Huntsman.
The nominally outside groups – which can’t coordinate with the campaigns but tend to hew fairly closely to their messaging – have proven influential in the final weeks of the race.
The most influential – and well-stocked – among them has been the one backing Romney, Restore Our Future, which punctured Gingrich’s poll numbers with a series of searing and effective negative spots in Iowa about the former House speaker’s record. The group has stockpiled cash and is moving in to try to cut off oxygen from Romney’s rivals with a major ad buy in Florida.
But the pro-Huntsman super PAC – reportedly funded heavily by his wealthy father – played a real role in helping him in New Hampshire, airing TV ads when his campaign couldn’t afford to.
The Santorum super PAC has also been supportive. And the pro-Gingrich version will be airing $1.4 million worth of negative ads against Romney starting Wednesday in South Carolina. It’s less than the group’s officials said they’d budgeted for, but it’s the first form of a cavalry Gingrich has seen.
The mere presence of the groups means that all three of the second-tier candidates can rationalize continuing through Florida, no matter how South Carolina goes – and possibly toward Super Tuesday – laying in wait on the chance, however unlikely, that Romney stumbles or something unexpected happens.
6) Rick Perry’s cost per vote in New Hampshire will be staggering
The Texas governor skipped town well before the votes were cast in New Hampshire.
But that effort to minimize the outcome masked how much Perry had devoted to the state in terms of resources.
The final numbers won’t be clear until his campaign filing for the final quarter of 2011 is available next week.
But Perry’s campaign, according to sources, had invested in pricey direct mail pieces and other spending in the Granite State for months, without moving the needle.
By 11 p.m., Perry had just 1,322 votes, or 0.73 percent of the vote. That’s a lot of coin per head.
The good news? At least Buddy Roemer, the former Louisiana pol who had been polling ahead of Perry in the days leading up to the primary, was trailing the Texan.