As Mitt Romney can attest, being the frontrunner in a crowded presidential field isn’t always a walk in the park.
To begin with, the frontrunner is a walking bulls-eye. The other candidates scramble for recognition by attacking the party favorite for alleged ideological impurity, while most get a pass when it comes to their own political compromises.
Yet, throughout the campaign season, Romney has weathered such attacks with fortitude and gravitas, making him look, well, presidential.
Perhaps more difficult to overcome is the burden of high expectations. As frontrunner, Romney is damned if he wins and damned if he doesn’t. If he loses a primary or caucus, the media will declare his political demise. But even when he wins, critics will construe anything other than a landslide victory as failure.
Consider Romney’s come-from-behind win in the Iowa caucuses last week. Despite his national frontrunner status, Romney’s support was always weaker in the Hawkeye State. Indeed, throughout the campaign Romney trailed no fewer than five different candidates in Iowa, four of whom (at various times) held significant double-digit leads.
Romney spent little time in Iowa, choosing instead to focus on New Hampshire, where his prospects of a first-place finish were better. By contrast, Rick Santorum (the strong second-place finisher) moved his entire family to Iowa and spent the better part of a year making public appearances in all 99 counties.
The fact that Romney pulled off even an eight-vote win, without a significant investment of time or resources in Iowa, is a great political victory — a testament to Romney’s strength as a candidate.
Yet the conventional wisdom (proselytized by Romney opponents from Newt Gingrich to Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz) is that Romney’s razor-thin Iowa win is a sign of vulnerability.
The same burden of high expectations will dog Romney in New Hampshire tomorrow.
As a virtual native son, Romney is favored to win the Granite State. But like the talk radio experts and sports fans who attacked the Pats after their decisive [49-21] win against Buffalo, Romney critics will claim that a win with anything less than a 10 percent margin demonstrates a “lack of enthusiasm” for the GOP frontrunner.
Such spin ignores the political significance of Iowa and New Hampshire.
History tells us that if a candidate cannot win one of the first two early contests, he is unlikely to capture his party’s nomination.
These early contests are screening devices that measure a candidate’s viability. They test a candidate’s capacity to craft a compelling case for his candidacy, assemble an effective team and get out the vote.
A victory in either state generates momentum — renewed enthusiasm for the candidate (as well as increased donations).
Which is why since 1976 only one candidate (Bill Clinton) has secured his party’s nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire.
Of course, history is not dispositive — such patterns are only relevant until they are broken. (Back in 1988, the media constantly handicapped George H.W. Bush’s chances of beating Michael Dukakis with the refrain that no sitting vice president had won the presidency since Martin Van Buren. Well, we all know how that ended.)
Nevertheless, odds are that in 2012 the eventual Republican nominee will have won either Iowa or New Hampshire.
After tomorrow, Mitt Romney is likely to have won both. And he will be the first Republican candidate other than an incumbent president to have done so. That, regardless of the spin, is an impressive political feat that should have Barack Obama supporters lowering their own expectations of a second term.