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New Hampshire Vote Reveals Romney Challenges

[Acknowledgements:  The data for this analysis was made available by NBC News, where I was an exit poll analyst on primary night.]

Mitt Romney pulled off something no non-incumbent presidential candidate has done before:  won both Iowa and New Hampshire.  Victories in South Carolina and, more importantly, Florida could pretty much set the seal on this year’s GOP contest.

However, the New Hampshire exit poll indicates some potential challenges that lie ahead if Romney does indeed emerge as President Barack Obama’s opponent.

The first challenge is rallying the base behind him.  The good news:  two-thirds (66%) of New Hampshire GOP voters said they were satisfied with their choice of candidates.  Back in 1996, when Republicans were preparing to take on President Bill Clinton, fewer – 54% – said they were satisfied with the field.

The bad news:  6-in-10 Republican primary participants voted for someone other than Romney.  And as reported on MSNBC last night, 55% of those voters said they would be dissatisfied if Romney ended up the nominee.  [As a side note, many more Romney supporters would be upset if their guy lost the nomination to Rick Santorum (60%), Newt Gingrich (64%), or Ron Paul (72%).]

This is not particularly unusual since the competition is still active.  Partisans tend to get behind their nominee after the dust settles.  The real issue is whether less resolute Republicans – i.e. libertarian-minded voters – will do the same.  According to the exit poll, the problem may not be winning over supporters of Gingrich, Santorum & co – these voters are about evenly divided on whether they would be happy with a Romney nomination.  The bigger challenge would be convincing Paul voters, 68% of whom who would be dissatisfied if Romney was the Republican standard bearer.  The threat of a libertarian third party candidate poses real trouble.

One positive sign for Romney is that he did well among independent voters in New Hampshire.  This group was larger than in past contests.  A whopping 44% of voters on Tuesday said they were registered independent – or undeclared as it is called in New Hampshire.  In 2008, this group’s share of the Republican primary vote was lower at 34%.  And before anyone claims that this is because many independents voted in the Democratic primary last time around, note that undeclared voters made up just 27% of the New Hampshire GOP primary electorate in 1996 when the Democratic primary was uncontested.

It’s important to remember that independents who vote in a Republican primary – no matter how large a group they may be – are not representative of independent voters in a general election.  It is still good news for Romney, though, that he did well among these non-partisans – getting 32% of their vote to 30% for Paul.  In Iowa, Paul won the self-identified independent vote outright at 43%.

There are some other intriguing tea leaves in the New Hampshire exit poll results.  Republican primary voters said they want the next president to focus more on cutting the federal deficit even if it hampers job growth (60%) than work to create jobs if it widens the budget gap (40%).  That priority is not too surprising.  The Granite State has a 5.2% unemployment rate, the fourth lowest in the nation.

Independent voters elsewhere, especially in a general election, will be more concerned about jobs.  And Mitt Romney did well among New Hampshire voters who prioritized jobs over the deficit, winning 44% of this group.

One dark cloud, though, is that Romney is about to get hit hard on job creation.  A Super PAC supporting Gingrich has released a documentary about Romney’s career at Bain Capital – focusing on the jobs lost when Bain acquired and disposed of a number of other companies. They plan to use this in attack ads in South Carolina, which is up next on the primary schedule.

As NBC’s Chuck Todd observed, if you had asked six months ago whether Romney’s GOP opponents would be attacking the Massachusetts health care plan or his time as a corporate investor…  Well, you get the picture.

That means that Romney’s biggest problem now could be that his fellow Republicans are doing the Obama campaign’s work for them.