So a lot of people have been looking past the New Hampshire primary, to the South Carolina cage fight that’s expected to follow. It’s easy to see why: Thanks in part to his semi-home field advantage as the former governor of the Granite State’s next door neighbor, Mitt Romney’s held a double-digit poll lead in every survey this cycle. Some people won’t even bother to take a look at the exit polls heading our way within the next two hours, because they think they know everything they need to about this race. They’ll dump the data-tracking to follow the "Storage Wars" marathon instead.
Those people will be missing out. Here’s why: No matter who comes out on top tonight (and at this point, I haven’t taken a peek at any numbers you haven’t, so trust me: I’m not giving anything away here), there are some unanswered questions heading into the next stage of the race that can’t be answered by the vote count alone. Questions like:
–Where do the late deciders land? Do they flock to the front-runner – or break for an underdog? That could be a clue where the momentum lies as the race heads south.
–Mitt Romney couldn’t seal the deal with middle-class voters in Iowa. And he’s coming off days of attacks designed to put him squarely on the wrong side of the Wall Street-Main Street divide to attract their support. Where will they land tonight? (In other words: does Romney have a Bain problem?)
–Independents are in the mix again today. And they’re essential to Ron Paul’s long game strategy. Can he match his strong Iowa showing among unaffiliated voters – the sort of support he’ll need to sustain to stick around past the first month or two of voting?
Of course, these numbers aren’t infallible. The same entrance/exit poll caveats we gave before Iowa still apply here:
Think of them as a giant focus group: They can give us a partial snapshot of who showed up today in one small part of the country, and what drove their vote. They can show which candidate had the most momentum, by letting us know who late deciders broke for, and some of the factors that may have driven their decision. They can give us our first real clue as to the candidates’ relative strength (or weakness) with key GOP voting blocs like evangelicals and tea party supporters; important demographic blocs like women and seniors; and highly-prized independent voters. And they can give us an initial glimpse of how enthusiastic a candidate’s supporters are – a key ingredient in any successful general election campaign.
First polls close at 7 p.m. ET. Put your guesses for top four finishers in the comments…if you’re right, you’ll get a Twitter shout-out. Also, my profound respect. And the satisfaction that comes with knowing you’ve got a bizarrely deep read on the New England psyche.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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