Photo: Melina Mara/Washington Post
Romney's victory in New Hampshire was not a surprise but it will be no less satisfying to him for that. It was a very convincing win: his share of the vote was at the upper end of expectations. Even more importantly, none of his rivals come out looking stronger than they did before they went in. Ron Paul, whose support has a natural ceiling on it anyway, came a creditable second. Huntsman failed to surge past Paul, the only way he could have made news and gained momentum. Gingrich and Santorum languished in third and fourth; Perry barely scraped his way to 1%. The voting season is proving to be a lot more predictable and less crazy than the pre-season.
Now, the race moves to South Carolina, whose primary takes place on January 21. This may well be the decisive contest; certainly, if Romney wins, it will be. At the moment, that is looking likely.
The best hope of the other candidates is to be the last man standing, but for Romney. This is why, despite Romney leading the pack, there have been relatively few attacks on him so far (although Gingrich is throwing a few bombs). Everyone knows the party isn't in love with him. So the second-tier candidates are locked into a fight with each other, betting, against very long odds, that if and when it comes down to Romney and one other guy, the voters will think again. However this is about as likely to happen as Rick Perry finishing a book.
Finally, an ominous sign for the Republicans: turnout was down on 2008. Think about that for a second: in 2008, Republican voters were demoralised after the Bush years and few thought their side could win. This year, they are meant to be far more fired up: they have endured a Democratic president for three years. By all measures, they have a much better chance of winning the White House this time around. You'd expect turnout to be way up. That it is down suggests that the party has simply failed to produce candidates that meet the aspirations of its own electorate. Somewhere, David Plouffe is smiling. But without letting anyone see.