Can Mitt Romney Really Win New Hampshire?

Much of the narrative around presidential elections — and really, politics in general — is about exceeding or falling short of expectations. Could Obama marshal enough votes for health care reform? Will Scott Brown, having beat Martha Coakley in 2010, raise enough money to beat Elizabeth Warren? How fast or slow will the economy improve?

This year, the narrative has been all about Mitt Romney: He’s run a disciplined, well-funded campaign, but has also inspired a strong anti-Romney movement in the GOP. In Iowa, he narrowly edged out Rick Santorum (Mr. Social Conservative) and Ron Paul (Mr. Libertarian) in what was essentially a three-way tie. His respectable performance in Iowa, in many ways, was gravy to Romney: He wasn’t expecting to win the socially conservative state.

New Hampshire, on the other hand, was where his campaign would start in earnest. Romney owns a home there (okay, a $10 million home) and was a longtime resident and former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. And while New Hampshire is whiter, older, wealthier, and more rural than most other American states, it’s not nearly as socially conservative. Regardless of what happened in Iowa, the plan was for Romney to take New Hampshire, then roll through the rest of the states with thousands of volunteers and TV spending.

And that’s what seemed to be happening, until the latest polls came out, showing Paul surging and Santorum and Jon Huntsman on the rise. New Hampshire is famous for not following Iowa’s lead: Since 1980, the two states have voted for different GOP nominees in every contested election. If Romney pulls it off, he’ll be the first.

Even if Romney wins — and barring some unforeseen craziness, he will — the immediate question will be: By how much? Was it a dominant performance or a repeat of Iowa? Did he totally crush Santorum and Huntsman’s hopes? How long will Paul stick around for? In short: Will he meet the expectations set out for him? Finally: When will he finally unite the GOP to take on Obama?