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Huntsman Withdrawal Should Aid Romney

The impending withdrawal of Jon M. Huntsman Jr. from the presidential race, as reported by my colleagues Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny, should provide a small but helpful boost to the man he plans to endorse, Mitt Romney.

Although Mr. Huntsman had relatively little support in the polls outside of New Hampshire, recent surveys suggested that the plurality of his supporters had Mr. Romney as their second choice.

The polling firm Public Policy Polling dutifully tracks second-place preferences among the voters it surveys. I compiled the results from the seven surveys that Public Policy Polling has released since Christmas: two polls each in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and one poll in North Carolina. Among these seven surveys, there were roughly 550 supporters for Mr. Huntsman, a respectable sample size.

Of these voters, 32 percent listed Mr. Romney as their second choice, more than for any other candidate.  Twenty-four percent of Mr. Huntsman’s supporters said they were undecided if they could not pick him.  Ron Paul was the second-choice of 15 percent of Mr. Huntsman’s supporters, while no other Republican candidate tallied in the double digits.

Because Mr. Huntsman had relatively little support in South Carolina — between 1 and 6 percent of the vote in recent surveys — the net effect of this might be fairly negligible in the immediate term, with Mr. Romney gaining perhaps a percentage point in the state relative to more conservative candidates like Newt Gingrich.

Still, and particularly with Mr. Huntsman primed to endorse him, this removes another obstacle from Mr. Romney’s path to the nomination.

One long-shot scenario by which Mr. Huntsman might have remained viable in the Republican race is if Mr. Romney had stumbled badly in South Carolina, leading Republican elites, who have overwhelmingly favored Mr. Romney, to cast about for an alternative. Because Mr. Huntsman has stronger credentials than some of his Republican rivals and because he might be viewed as relatively electable, he might have garnered support from some corners of the Republican establishment in the event that this occurred, despite Mr. Huntsman’s occasional deviations from conservative orthodoxy.

Now, however, the G.O.P. has no active candidates but Mr. Romney, the idiosyncratic Mr. Paul, and a set of conservatives with poor favorability ratings who might have middling appeal to independent voters. This dynamic has benefited Mr. Romney throughout the nomination race and Republican voters have one fewer alternative now.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.