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How '5 things to watch' turned out

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
January 19, 2012 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Voters cast their ballots Tuesday at a polling place in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Voters cast their ballots Tuesday at a polling place in Nashua, New Hampshire.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Mitt Romney's win in New Hampshire was impressive across the board
  • Jon Huntsman was a distant third, and his supporters aren't part of GOP base, he says
  • Avlon: Independents made the difference, but vote was split three ways
  • Ron Paul did well but might not do so in other less libertarian-leaning states, he says

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the new book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns."

(CNN) -- In the run-up to the New Hampshire primary, I wrote a column on the five things to look at while the votes came in. Now we've got the results, and here's how it played out:

• Romney's benchmark -- Mitt Romney hit it. His 39% exceeded John McCain's 2008 total, and he increased his popular vote total by more than 15,000 votes. More important, and more impressive, was the breadth of his support in this state that borders on his own. He won both tea partiers and evangelicals. He won moderates and conservatives. He won rural, urban and suburban voters, every educational group and even won Catholic voters despite running against two Catholics.

He'll have a hard time replicating those margins in South Carolina, but it's a clear win and evidence that Romney at least has the potential to unify his party. Significantly, the attacks on Romney's Bain Capital record by the Newt Gingrich-supporting super PAC seem to have backfired, leaving Romney appearing like the last defender of unfettered capitalism to conservative activists.

Jon Huntsman's surge was real but too little, too late. He came in a distant and disappointing third place in a state where he bet his campaign. Nonetheless, in the wake of his best debate performance Sunday, he was raising money and gaining late-breaking support from many people I spoke to on the ground.

John Avlon
John Avlon

His problems were evident in the cross tabs -- the groups he won were tea party opponents and people not dissatisfied with President Barack Obama. These voters are not representative of the Republican base. Perhaps most striking was the fact that he came in third with independent voters.

Which brings me to my next point. ...

It's all about the independents -- and this year, they made up almost 50% of total turnout. Without independents heading out to vote, Republican turnout overall would have been significantly below its 2008 totals.

Will S.C. voters rally around Romney?
Candidates tout N.H. gains in speeches
Gergen: Romney's N.H. speech memorable
Carville: GOP has lost enthusiasm

In the end, Rep. Ron Paul carried the day in the "Live Free or Die" state among libertarian independents, winning 32% of that vote. Romney came in a surprising second with independents, winning 29%, speaking to the depth and breadth of his support. Huntsman's 23% of independents was a disappointment to his campaign, showing a sizable split among centrist independents -- disaffected former Northeastern Republicans -- between Huntsman and Romney. Independents made all the difference in New Hampshire, but their bulk was split three ways.

Paul's high-water mark -- The libertarian congressman managed to triple his 2008 total in New Hampshire, winning roughly 24% of the vote. In addition to independents, he won young voters and people making under $30,000 as well as those who describe themselves as liberal on social issues. But the Ron Paul Revolution is a better fit for the "Live Free or Die" state than the Palmetto or Sunshine states. The key difference between Paul and all the other candidates is that he is running to promote ideas rather than simply to win the presidency.

His supporters have unmatched intensity, and they will help him raise enough money along the way to stay in the race and keep collecting delegates on the road to the Republican National Convention.

Gingrich vs. Santorum -- Gingrich edged out Rick Santorum in the battle for fourth place in New Hampshire, but his much ballyhooed anti-Bain Capital ad might burn bridges with the conservative activist community. Even with the post-Iowa bounce, Santorum found his social conservative views did not resonate with Granite State voters, but he'll find a better fit in South Carolina.

The fight between these two candidates -- and, for the time being, Rick Perry -- is the highest-stakes game playing out in South Carolina. If just one of them can consolidate the voters looking for that conservative alternative to Romney, they will be in good shape to play in a long primary battle to reach 1,143 delegates. But if the far-right field remains fractured, it will remain Advantage Romney.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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