In an open race for the GOP nomination, no Republican has won both Iowa and New Hampshire, as Mitt Romney has. No one has come in fourth or fifth in New Hampshire, as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum did, and become the nominee. No one has entirely skipped Iowa, as Jon Huntsman did, and won elsewhere. No one has recovered after grabbing the 1% that Rick Perry received in the Granite State. And no one became the nominee after failing to win one of the first two contests, a position in which Ron Paul finds himself.
All this means history will be made this year, no matter what happens next.
The focus Tuesday was more on the winner's margin than on the victory itself. Mr. Romney won the New Hampshire primary by an impressive 16.4 points. (The state's last five contested GOP primaries have seen an average winning margin of 10.5 points.) True to its tradition, New Hampshire paid little attention to Iowa's big story—Mr. Santorum's impressive second-place finish. He finished fifth. The candidate who camped out in New Hampshire saw that pay off, as Mr. Huntsman did 17 times as well there as he's doing in the Gallup national poll, where he's at 1%.
All six candidates have enough resources to run hard in the next contest, in South Carolina on Jan. 21. Already, five campaigns have placed over $6 million on television in the state, with Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney accounting for over $4 million of it.
It's important to understand that South Carolina is not quintessentially Southern in the way that, for example, Mississippi and Alabama are. Social conservatives in the upstate region (including Spartanburg) unfamiliar with Mr. Romney's record might be more willing to support Messrs. Gingrich and Santorum than were their New Hampshire counterparts, who had observed Mr. Romney's unwavering conservative positions on abortion and marriage when he was governor of neighboring Massachusetts.
But economic conservatives dominate South Carolina's so-called Midlands region (including Columbia, the state capital), while the coastal Low Country (including Charleston) is home to many Midwestern retirees. In 2008, Mr. Romney and John McCain ran better in the last two regions than upstate. The presence of national defense conservatives everywhere has negative implications for Mr. Paul, with his heavy emphasis of isolationism. And the state's stubbornly high unemployment rate, today at 9.9%, makes the economy the No. 1 issue.
South Carolina will be the last chance for several candidates. It will be hard to justify going on after being at the back of the pack in three contests—especially with Florida's 10 expensive media markets and four million registered Republican voters for this closed primary looming at month's end.
You wouldn't know this from listening to some Republicans' lamentations. It sounds pretty strange when the former House speaker (Mr. Gingrich), the former No. 3 in the Senate Republican leadership (Mr. Santorum), a past chairman of the Republican Governors Association (Mr. Perry), and a former vice-presidential chief of staff (William Kristol) and others warn against letting "the establishment" choose the Republican nominee. If there is a "GOP establishment," they are surely part of it.
More to the point, a small membership committee does not govern the process. No group of power brokers can pressure others into uniting behind one candidate. Millions of primary voters and caucus-goers will select the GOP's nominee. That's good enough for most of us.
There's a lesson for the front-runner, Mr. Romney, in Mr. Gingrich's complaint that negative ads in Iowa damaged his candidacy there. Because cable TV, the plethora of debates and the Internet have made the entire process so remarkably accessible to all the country, Mr. Gingrich's South Carolina support also dropped 25 points in December, according to the CNN/TIME/OCR poll, as Palmetto State voters reacted to the issue without even seeing the ads. If Mr. Romney emerges as the nominee, he could suffer the same damage when the Obama campaign runs negative ads attacking his leadership of Bain Capital, as it surely would.
His GOP rivals are already doing so. Most Republicans will likely ignore much of the criticism over Bain because they generally approve of successful businessmen. That's not going to be the case in the general election. Mr. Romney can help himself enormously if he uses the weeks ahead to forcefully confront this issue. His words in South Carolina and Florida will be heard by tens of millions of Americans.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, January 11, 2012.