So, we have Romney with 36% +/-, then Ron Paul, then Jon Huntsman, and then Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum neck and neck with 9-10% each, and Rick Perry with a negligable showing in New Hampshire's Republican primary which is also open to independents. Jon Huntsman attracted voters more moderate than Romney. The three traditional candidates in the race combined (Gingrich, Santorum and Perry) combined garnered just 20% of the New Hampshire vote.
The next primary is in South Carolina on January 21, which is expected to be more conservative, both by virtue of the rules of the contest and the geography of the contest, than either Iowa or New Hampshire. The most recent polls from South Carolina have had Romney in first place, and Santorum in second place. Perry's polling there has not been promising.
I think that it is safe to expect that the voters of South Carolina will not give a first place finish to either Ron Paul or Jon Huntsman, and that neither man will finish ahead of Romney in South Carolina. I would honoestly be surprised if Huntsman finished in the top three in South Carolina. I think it is safe to expect that Perry will finish so poorly in South Carolina that he will drop out of the race, and that Huntsman might very well acknowledge that he is through after that contest as well. It is far too late, with the first two contests already over, for anyone new to get into the race. I don't think that Ron Paul will drop out after South Carolina, but it is almost impossible to imagine a scenario where he could win the GOP nomination as anything other than a Vice Presidential candidate.
In other words, the only candidates with a plausible chance of making real gains in South Carolina are Gingrich and Santorum. But, it is hard to see how either man can make a credible shot at the nomination without winning a plurality, at least, in South Carolina, and certainly not without being the number two finisher in South Carolina and then consolidating the conservative vote in Florida at the end of the month. Even then, neither Gingrich nor Santorum are attractive candidates in either the primary race or the general election. They are far out of the mainstream, prone to saying things that won't resonate with the general public in a general election, short on campaign funds, lacking in national organization, not on the ballot in Virginia, and in the case of Gingrich, wasn't in the top three in either Iowa or New Hampshire. If either man won the GOP nomination, the odds of a Republican victory in November in the general election would plummet.
The GOP nomination race isn't over, but it probably will be in two or three weeks, and the odds of someone other than President Obama or Mitt Romney winning the general election in November is probably on the order of 30-1, partially because Romney is the overwhelming favorite in the GOP nomination race (his odds there are probably 9-1 or better), and partially because another nominee is much less likely to win the general election. If and when Romney wins a plurality in South Carolina and Florida, the GOP nomination race really will be over, and the odds that either Obama or Romney will win the general election surge to something like 50-1 or 100-1 (with only a premature death or catastrophic scandal leading to a political death preventing the likelihood from reaching 100%).
Implications Of A Romney Nominee
So, the bottom line is that Romney is extremely likely to be the nominee and is extremely likely to wrap up the nomination sometime in the next three weeks. What implications does a Romney nominee have for the Republican party and the general election?
1. Even if, as it likely, Romney names a strong conservative as a running mate, Romney's primary season victory will mark a major setback for the Tea Party faction of the Republican party (and no doubt calls for the reform of a system that puts open contests in two states peripheral in the Republican landscape at the start of the Presidential primary race).
2. Romney will effectively lose seven months of free media and large numbers of opportunities to hone his national organization, because the press and the public will lose interest in election contests that are foregone conclusions.
3. The Republican party will be hard pressed to make health care reform repeal a major campaign issue.
4. The activist base of the Republican party will be unexcited and reduce their contributions in time and talent to Romney's campaign.
5. Romney may not have very long coattails, since he may be hard pressed to put together a national theme for the House and Senate elections that is a good fit to his own optimal campaign strategy, and the percentage of people willing to re-elect their own Representative is at a record low.
6. The debates between Romney and Obama will be breathtakingly erudite and quite possibly among the most boring ever.
7. The Republicans will have nominated a foil who makes President Obama look profoundly charismatic by comparison.
8. The rest of the Presidential election will be scandal free.
9. Romney is unlikely to actually lose any members of the Republican base to Obama and Obama is unlikely to lose members of the Democratic base to Romney, although he could lose some of it depending on issues stances taken in the campaign and the state of the economy. Basically, Romney will be a generic Republican candidate whose fate has more to do with the progress of the economy over the next ten months than anything else.