This entire New Hampshire primary cycle was about Mitt Romney and his ability to define the race as much as himself. It’s why he finally got his elusive gold medal and put himself in the driver’s seat for the Republican nomination.
Like a number of candidates benefitting from the second go around, Romney entered the race as a very strong frontrunner with the best name identification, favorability ratings, most formidable organization and strong personal ties to New Hampshire’s Republican leaders.
Before this race even kicked off, Romney and his team wisely, carefully and respectfully tended to the fertile soil of New Hampshire during the four-year period between the 2008 race and 2012. It started with an emotional and physical commitment to the state that was maintained right up to the end.
Continuous, careful and thoughtful outreach to key Granite State activists and political leaders was maintained. Local, county and state Republican candidates were helped with resources and Romney’s presence. First-term Sen. Kelly Ayotte is just one prominent example of it. The campaign’s greatest achievement is how it essentially exerted its will on the primary race and dictated its tone, rhythm, pace and pattern.
In 2008, Romney was a fresh-faced candidate trying to put together a coalition with less name ID than titans like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. This cycle, though, he entered the contest as the frontrunner. His campaign wisely slowed the pace of the race and shrunk the opportunities for opponents to engage Romney by keeping a constant focus on President Obama. Unlike the assertive stream of communications and issue papers of 2008, Romney drove an economic message that contrasted perfectly with Obama and subtly ignored his opponents.
Moreover, the constant connection to New Hampshire was not only a subtle reminder of a much-needed change of focus by making the first-in-the-nation primary the top priority of the campaign, but it also subconsciously helped the campaign overcome the burden of being the frontrunner.
New Hampshire is the graveyard of past frontrunners. Granite State voters are notoriously late deciders with as much as 40 percent of the electorate making their final selection in the last days before the primary. Frontrunners are strung along for months only to find the heavy weight of inertia and opposition attacks drag them to defeat.
Rather than sit on a sizeable lead, the Romney camp continued a constant stream of grassroots events that slowly wore down New Hampshire voters. It provided a narrative of “always around and always available,” without a hint of the fear, anticipation or remoteness frontrunners often carry here down the stretch.
In the early hours after his 17-point primary victory, exit polls showed that Romney pulled support from the state’s late deciding voters in amounts greater than any of his competitors. It's rare for a frontrunner to pull a greater number of late deciders from insurgents.
Finally, no non-incumbent Republican has ever won the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire in the same cycle. It’s often due to different issue sets deliberated in these states, to campaigns cherry-picking one or the other as a launching pad or, due to New Hampshire’s voters not wanting to rubber-stamp Iowa’s choice.
Romney came into New Hampshire with none of those challenges in hand. In fact, the touch of momentum from Iowa helped him keep his foot on the gas and run as if he was chasing the frontrunner.
Rich Killion is the managing director of Elevare Communications, a strategic communications and public affairs firm based in Concord, New Hampshire. Killion was New Hampshire strategist to Mitt Romney’s 2008 and Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 presidential campaigns.