Since 1976, the best predictor for winning the Republican presidential nomination has been losing first.
Mitt Romney, defeated by John McCain in 2008, is positioned to be next with his 16-point victory in New Hampshire as he heads to South Carolina, where the last eight Republican primary winners have wound up as the party’s nominee.
In five of the last six presidential elections, Republicans have chosen candidates they had rejected before -- Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and McCain. The exception was George W. Bush in 2000, the son of the former president well-known to party insiders.
“We like our Doles and our Bushes and our McCains,” said Pat Griffin, a Republican consultant in Manchester, New Hampshire, not aligned with a candidate. “Mitt is the Republican brand this time, and it’s his turn.”
This time is different because the party base has become more conservative on both fiscal and social issues and Romney has yet to win their backing.
And he has been barely able to increase his percentage of the vote in either Iowa or New Hampshire from his run in 2008, a pattern he will need to break in South Carolina where he received 15 percent of the vote in 2008 and finished fourth.
“This is really a different Republican electorate than we have seen in the past, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center in Washington. “Our typology study shows that this is one doctrinaire political landscape and they represent the nucleus of the party. They are angry and they want change.”
“If a candidate had been in this field who could have tapped into this new element in the Republican Party, this pattern wouldn’t have persisted,” Kohut said.
Those candidates who have attracted the support of the more conservative elements of the party, Texas Representative Ron Paul, who more than doubled his vote from 2008, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, together won about 4 in 10 votes cast.
All have vowed to continue campaigning in South Carolina, as has Texas Governor Rick Perry, a scenario that aids Romney as the more conservative vote is splintered.
Paul, 76, the oldest candidate in the race, did the best among younger voters in New Hampshire as he finished second, winning 46 percent of the vote among those age 18 to 29, according to CNN exit polls.
Huntsman to Continue
The third-place showing by former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who didn’t compete in Iowa, gave him a rationale to continue along with an urgent need for more campaign funds, though his showing wasn’t good enough to claim the mantle of “Comeback Kid” of Bill Clinton’s surprising second-place showing in 1992.
A Huntsman campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the candidate will run aggressively in South Carolina not so much with the hopes of winning as slowing Romney’s momentum.
That won’t be easy. Romney has prevailed in two states with different political profiles, and even those Republicans who haven’t embraced him are likely to if he goes on to win the nomination.
Intrade, the online prediction market where one can wager on the outcome, has the odds of Romney winning the nomination at 86 percent.
Marriage, Not Dating
“Maybe Republicans just don’t have that deep reservoir of passion,” said John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “Republicans are looking for somebody to marry and not somebody to date.”
Romney’s percentage of the vote almost equaled McCain’s in 2008 and George H.W. Bush’s in 1988 even though Romney was the governor of neighboring Massachusetts, owns a home in New Hampshire and has visited the state frequently. He matched the showing of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a former senator from Massachusetts, in 1964, when he had 36 percent of the vote, defeating Barry Goldwater, the eventual nominee, by 14 percentage points.
He also has made history as the first non-incumbent to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, signaling that he can run well elsewhere.
“The polling that I have seen is that if he gets through the primaries and he is the nominee, they are going to come to his side,” Kohut said. “No question about that. The issue is whether it will reduce the enthusiasm gap. Republicans have been much more politically charged. And will a candidate not quite what was hoped for reduce some of that intensity?”
Running and losing has some advantages. “Romney is a better candidate than he was four years ago,” Pitney said. “Two, you get a better sense of what the party is about. John McCain was a more conservative candidate than John McCain in 2000. Mitt Romney already moved to the right in 2008 and tried to solidify his conservative credentials.”
And while Romney may still have to make the case to his party’s base, there is one powerful force he can rely on.
“Conservatives still have their intense dislike of Barack Obama,” Kohut said.