Well, the first votes have been cast in the 2016 New Hampshire Primaries. In the first three votes cast (the above stated Dixville, Millsfield, and Hart’s Location), the results are:
Trump 9 Sanders 17
Cruz 9 Clinton 9
So Sanders is the winner and the Republicans have a three way tie. Everyone can go home, right?
There have been many stories of late pointing out the blatantly obvious: winning New Hampshire is not, and has never been, a perfect predictor of who will be the nominee. As with Iowa, the questions are 1) Who has the best ground game and 2) Who managed expectations the best?
Consider 1992’s race. George H. W. Bush and Paul Tsongas won the Republican and Democratic nominations respectively. The news cycle coming out the election was all about Pat Buchanan and Bill Clinton, the runners up. Why? Because they did much better than expected. There was never any doubt who was going to win. Bush was the sitting President, Tsongas a longtime Massachusetts US Senator. But because Buchanan won over 1/3 of the Republican primary votes, Bush’s margin of victory was small than normal for a sitting Commander in Chief.
On the Democrats’ side, because Tsongas only won by about 9%, Bill Clinton was the story. Indeed, it was the New Hampshire result that earned Clinton the sobriquet of “The Comeback Kid”.
[Quick Aside: Real Clear Politic’s Carl Cannon this morning has a good story on how New Hampshire became so important in the election cycle]
So what does that mean for 2016?
For Democrats, Sanders goes into the voting with a 13 point lead according to RCP polling tracker. A week ago it had been 17 points; a month ago it was 5 points. If Sanders wins by double digits, no amount of spin by the Clinton campaign is going to convince people that Hillary “won” the expectations game, especially after winning by a head (or was it tails?) in Iowa. A single digit victory by Sanders allow Clinton to claim momentum has peaked.
Of course the problem for Sanders is he has probably peaked. The South and West are not favorable territory. Even if he was to achieve a blow-out victory (say 20+ points), it would not create a groundswell of support for Sanders. More likely, the Democrats would see Clinton as being mortally wounded and incapable of leading the party to victory. It would create pressure for Biden or John Kerry (or even Al Gore) to jump into the race, though they don’t really have time to gain ballot access to enough states to win outright, and it would force the Democrats to have brokered convention.
For the Republicans the picture is slightly more muddled. Yes, it appears Trump will win. But, like Sanders, the closer the margin of victory, the worse it is for Trump. RCP has Trump with a 17 point lead going into today. How solid that is remains unclear. The UMass and ARG polls have margins of error of 5 points. They have Trump leading by 21 and 16 points. The Gravis poll has a margin of error of 3.7 points and it shows Trump leading only by 11. It’s still double digits, but a lead of 11 is not as impressive as a lead of 17. If Trumps wins by 17, then he remains a serious player and the focus will be on who comes in second and third. But, if Trump wins by 11 or less, and especially if the margin of victory is only single digits, than the story becomes Trump’s fade.
As for the rest of the pack, barring an unforeseen miracle, this is the end of the road for Carson and Fiorina. The good doctor’s third place finish in Iowa killed anything even remotely resembling momentum. And whether Cruz planted stories of Carson dropping out after Iowa are true, the claim made by the Carson campaign that he was just going to home to get some shirts was unconvincing. As for Fiorina, she had the one good debate and that was it.
Christie and Jeb Bush should probably pack it in after tonight. Jeb though, has the money to push on and maybe try to fight until the Florida primary. He could make until Super Tuesday. As with Sanders, the election calendar doesn’t really favor Chris Christie. South Carolina and Nevada are not natural Chris Christie territory and he will continue to fade. Of course, dropping out now means he has to spend more time in New Jersey, something the governor of that state seems loathed to do.
John Kasich is just behind Rubio. If Kasich comes in second, he could become the Washington Republican establishment’s candidate of choice. With that backing, he would have enough momentum to last until Super Tuesday when his home state of Ohio holds its primary. Kasich, under those scenarios, probably couldn’t win the nomination outright, but he would have enough delegates to affect the outcome. If somehow Kasich won New Hampshire, all bets are off.
Marco Rubio seems to be running a 3-2-1 campaign, to wit: Third in Iowa, Second in New Hampshire, First in South Carolina. A second place finish in New Hampshire would show that he has the momentum going forward. A lot of the aforementioned establishment types would then back Rubio.
For Cruz, a second or third place finish would be sufficient to keep him in the conversation. If he falls to fourth, the spin will be that he wasn’t a natural fit for New England Republicans. It would slow his progress, but it wouldn’t be fatal. Anything lower than that and Iowa becomes a mirage. A second place showing and he becomes the co-front runner with Trump. If he was to win, Cruz becomes the one to beat.
The biggest problem in handicapping the race is the lack of data as to how this is playing in the next battlegrounds of South Carolina and Nevada. The last South Carolinian poll was January 23,2016 and Nevada December 2015. Whereas there was polling in New Hampshire simultaneous to the Iowa polling, you could get a sense of how events were playing out in both places. With no information as to how the upcoming states are reacting to the changing political landscape, it is difficult to gauge exactly what tonight’s outcome will mean for the top 3 or 4 candidates. The campaign will grind on until Super Tuesday. By then we will know if the party is coalescing around a candidate (or two) or if the chances of a brokered GOP convention are increasing.
Finally, if Jim Gilmore wins a single delegate, he should declare victory and go home. If he gets none, he should send a letter to the editor of the Manchester Union Leader announcing he’s going home to get a change of shirts and then just stay there.
[Update: I have corrected my misspellings of John Kasich’s name. I don’t know why I keep misspelling it]