01/09/2012 03:10 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2012

The GOP: A Party On The Edge

In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Peggy Noonan astutely noted the makeup of the Republican Party was clearly delineated by last week's caucus numbers.

"The Iowa results almost perfectly reflect the Republican Party, which, roughly speaking, is split into three parts - libertarians, social conservatives and moderate conservatives, who went for Ron Paul, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney respectively."

Where do they overlap? Slashing the deficit, and, of course, defeating Mr. Obama.

This perceived triptych generally comes with the caveat that the first two groups - libertarians and social conservatives - represent niche wings that can't gain mainstream support even in a primary as wacky as this one. It's not an unsubstantiated claim. Mr. Santorum and Mr. Paul are both struggling to burst into the mainstream. A poll released yesterday showed Santorum placing a shockingly low 5th in New Hampshire, while another poll by the Public Policy Polling Group showed an approval rating for Mr. Paul in South Carolina of only 33%. As the group bluntly editorialized in a tweet, "SC Republicans hate Ron Paul."

The support ceiling for these warring factions is perhaps the greatest reason that Mitt Romney - someone who has spent the majority of his time in second place nationally - has long been anointed front-runner and the nominee-to-be. Simply put, many argue that in such a bitterly divided Republican field, as the (relative) moderate, Mitt wins by default.

That Romney is seen as the only candidate who can galvanize support beyond his niche appeal - and even that is hotly debated - bespeaks a true crisis for the modern Republican Party. In speaking with people along the campaign trail I've observed a very serious divide; a stratification that is unparalleled in recent political party philosophy. True, in liberal politics you often encounter policy distinctions - an environmentalist liberal, a social-issues liberal - but the gulf between these views rarely indicates a true ideological schism. The Republican establishment myopically downplays this discord, but at least at the ground level here in New Hampshire, it is very real.

Rallies I attended for Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul suggested that these men were running in vastly different political primaries. Beyond the common pledge to slash deficit spending - a unifying value cited by virtually everyone across the political spectrum -- both the message and the crowd had very little in common. Paul's central focus - ending all wars and repealing the Patriot Act - would have resonated equally well in a Democratic primary four years ago. If the size and makeup of the crowd were any indication, it's a movement still very much in its nascent stages, and, in my estimation, the question isn't if, but when the Republicans will be forced to face this internal dissonance. The sooner they do, the better chance they have of salvaging populist support. Judging by his foreign policy rhetoric and tributes to personal liberties, Ron Paul and the libertarian wing could poach just as many Democrats as they could Republicans.

While the party languishes, the Romney win-by-default argument underestimates the seriousness of one remaining Republican candidate, Jon Huntsman. At a campaign event in Hampstead, New Hampshire, Huntsman arrived palpably excited - one attendee said he looked like he must have had a "meth-inated latte" to drink. Speaking at a coffee house literally overflowing with supporters, Huntsman entered through the kitchen and gave his speech standing on top of the bar, gesticulating enthusiastically.

Tellingly, Huntsman's support was politically diverse. One called him a "small "L" libertarian" (he's been given strong ratings by the Cato Institute), another, "a reasonable centrist." Virtually everyone described him as a moderate alternative to Mitt Romney. Little publicized, but cited by at least two people with whom I spoke, is Huntsman's social conservative credentials on both abortion and gun-rights - a crucial component of the social-conservative playbook currently owned by Mr. Santorum.

Furthermore, another poll released today showed that a huge chunk of support for Mr. Huntsman comes from disenfranchised Obama supporters.

In sum, if there is someone looking to undercut my thesis of Republicans divided, it's Huntsman.

Over the weekend Romney's poll numbers in New Hampshire dropped, falling as low as 33% in one poll today. Huntsman meanwhile has trickled into third place behind only Romney and Paul. Bolstered by a plethora of newspaper endorsements including the Concord Monitor and Boston Globe, Huntsman also performed well in both weekend debates.

Still, one reporter at a campaign rally can hardly gauge shifting political winds, and to be sure, a Huntsman rally at this point would constitute a statistical miracle. There is, after all, a reason Huntsman hasn't yet experienced the surge enjoyed by his counterparts -- he's not seen as conservative enough by the Republican establishment. But in the primary game of musical chairs where anyone can surge, and, indeed, literally everyone has, it's officially become his turn.

People in the Romney campaign have dismissed the threat of Huntsman, but in politics, downplaying is often the ultimate form of flattery. Just two days ago pundits were claiming that a victory by Romney of less than 20% in New Hampshire would be seen as a relative defeat for Mitt. Huntsman could certainly accomplish that.

The perception by some on the left of Huntsman as the only true moderate is untrue. His record, especially on social issues, would aggrieve many who have anointed him as liberal-friendly. What he is, based on what I saw, is unique in the breadth of support he is able to attract.

That said, tomorrow could just as easily bring a concession speech to Mr. Huntsman's campaign if he underperforms. If that happens, his failure to catch fire corroborates a dark analysis of establishment politics. The young men and women at Ron Paul's Nashua event were many things, but mainstream Republican was not one of them. While the GOP comes to grips with this they should know something else. These people aren't going anywhere.

Will Kryder has been covering politics in Washington D.C. as a researcher since 2009 and is reporting from New Hampshire as a citizen journalist. If you would like to contribute to Off the Bus, please contact us.