Despite being a bastion for libertarian-minded independents, New Hampshire voters will probably choose Mitt Romney in Tuesday’s primary. It’s possible that Ron Paul or Jon Huntsman could pull a Santorum-like surprise, but not very likely.
Of course, anything is possible this primary season. Even Rick Santorum is polling better in New Hampshire after his strong Iowa showing. Santorum’s boost in the Granite State is a sign of Romney’s weakness. Voters are scrambling to find whichever anti-Romney candidate will do – even a socially conservative populist like Santorum.
Santorum has had a little help from his friends, of course, as all the candidates turn their ire on Romney. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is out for blood, accusing Romney’s former company Bain Capital of “looting” workers. “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money?” Newt asked, turning his own populist rhetoric up another notch.
The Gingrich of the past has been very clear about his capitalist credentials. Certainly his talk of the current president’s ‘secular-socialist machine’ has been a far cry from the populism of his current campaign. Then again it’s no surprise that the mercurial former speaker is turning to populism. His tenure as the leader of the opposition in the House was defined by his anti-Clinton populism.
Meanwhile, Santorum is running as the Pat Buchanan candidate, minus Buchanan’s foreign policy views. Economically populist, socially conservative, it’s striking that in the Tea Party infused GOP Santorum is holding such sway with voters. Then again, it’s somewhat baffling that Romney or Santorum would make inroads with New Hampshire voters.
This is home to the Free State Project after all – a movement aimed at getting as many libertarian-minded people to move to New Hampshire as possible and create a sort of libertarian safe-haven there. New Hampshire voters are more socially liberal than other conservative states but they’re very fiscally conservative. This is essentially the antithesis of Rick Santorum. Romney isn’t much better.
The lesson is simple: never underestimate the culture wars. The Tea Party, it turns out, was just a clever facade. The conservative movement has never truly shifted gears from social to fiscal conservatism. Tea Party austerity politics are simply a manifestation of the recession – the confluence of a liberal in the White House and high unemployment. Social conservatism is still very much en vogue. Peel back the fiscal conservatism and underneath the Tea Party veneer you’ll find the culture wars very much alive and kicking.
New Hampshire may be a better fit for Jon Huntsman or Ron Paul than it is for Romney or Santorum. And Huntsman does appear to be surging after a tireless on the ground campaign there. But it’s too little too late for the former Utah governor whose socially moderate views and fiscally conservative record place him more inline with New Hampshire voters than either Romney or Santorum.
Ron Paul has a steady show of support in the state as well but probably not enough for the win. He may be the Tea Party dream candidate, but in 2012 the Tea Party may be going out of style – if it ever was truly in style to begin with.
As strange as it is for the independent, deeply libertarian state of New Hampshire to elect a big government conservative like Romney when they have perfectly acceptable candidates in both Paul and in Jon Huntsman, smart money is still on Romney for the win.
Beyond New Hampshire, unless Santorum can pull another magic trick after South Carolina, the nomination is Romney’s to lose. Santorum doesn’t have the financial base to pull off a nation-wide Iowa surprise. Paul does but it’s hard to see him getting enough delegates nationally to topple Romney (Paul may not be running to win, of course, but more on that later.)
In any case, after the surprise in Iowa, today’s New Hampshire primary should be interesting. But “Live Free Or Die” will prove about as true a motto as it was in 2008 when New Hampshire went to that other neoconservative big-government candidate, John McCain.