New Hampshire and beyond: Did the nation’s first primary change the game?

New Hampshire and beyond: Did the nation’s first primary change the game?

The only noteworthy thing about the election results was that there was nothing particularly noteworthy about them. It will be left to Nevada, South Carolina, and Super Tuesday to shake up the game and winnow the field.

On Tuesday, voters in the Granite State headed to the polls to vote for their choices for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. Unlike Iowa, the polling was a bit closer to the end result, with outsider candidates Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders emerging victorious in their respective primary races.

The big question now is whether the New Hampshire primary changed the game for candidates as it has in the past? A few candidates are likely to get far more attention (and scrutiny) now following their successful showing, but will it shuffle the deck in any meaningful way?

Judging by the idiosyncratic nature of the New Hampshire electorate, it is unlikely that the results on the Democratic side changed the dynamic of the race. Despite Senator Sanders’ significant advantage over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, there was every expectation that he would handily win this state both due to demographic elements that are more amenable to his message (though are not necessarily shared throughout the American electorate or even the Democratic electorate) as well as greater name recognition. Although the “home state” advantage of Senator Sanders representing the neighboring state of Vermont is probably overstated, this definitely helped to create sufficient name recognition and familiarity to get his campaign running.

On the Republican side, given the number of candidates, the situation is hazier. Although Governor Chris Christie bowed out of the race given his poor showing, the fundamental dynamics — a divided “establishment” bloc without a clear frontrunner, 30-40% strength of Donald Trump, and the staying power of Senator Ted Cruz — have not shifted in any demonstrable way.

Looking at the “establishment” field in particular, the New Hampshire primary essentially balanced the scales; it elevated candidates that appeared likeliest to withdraw from the race if they had had a poor performance (Governor Kasich and former Governor Bush) while it dragged down the candidates that could have seized momentum to change the race in upcoming primaries (Senator Rubio).

Republicans: A look ahead

Before looking at what happened in the Republican New Hampshire primary, it may be helpful to first explore what didn’t happen. First, a significant winnowing of the “establishment” field did not occur; one of the potential outcomes of the New Hampshire primary was that one establishment candidate (the definition of “establishment” is inherently ambiguous, though many commentators have included Senator Rubio, former Governor Bush, and Governor Kasich in that bracket) would do sufficiently well to brush aside competitors in the “establishment” lane and provide a larger opening against the “outsider” candidacies of Donald Trump and Senator Cruz.

Governor Kasich’s strong showing in second placed him in greater contention, though Senator Rubio’s poor showing effectively staunched his momentum from a strong third place finish in Iowa. One casualty is Governor Christie; after a disappointing 6th place finish the governor announced he was dropping out of the race. But even with this withdrawal, the “establishment” lane is nowhere near consolidated.

Second, Donald Trump didn’t fade. After his surprise 2nd place showing in Iowa after all polls and commentators were certain of his victory, many indicated that perhaps Mr. Trump’s candidacy was a flash in the pan and a poor performance in New Hampshire could be waiting for him. However, he performed either at or above expectations, garnering more than double the second place finisher (Kasich). Mr. Trump is now fully in the lead in the Republican primary race, particularly given the scattered situation for the “establishment” candidates.

The next two major races before the March 1 primaries, South Carolina (February 20) and Nevada (February 23), represent wholly different demographic groups for the Republican candidates. It appears unlikely that any of the “establishment” candidates will be successful in securing significant support in South Carolina, a bastion of conservatism and a deeply religious state. Nevada could represent a different story for several of the candidates (the state is far more moderate, and far less conservative socially), though Mr. Trump has led numerous polls in the state. However, given that Nevada operates on the caucus system (much like Iowa), he may face a similar problem that he encountered in Iowa: lots of support but not as many people actually showing up to vote.

It would not be surprising if a few candidates dropped out within the next few weeks. Fundraising will become increasingly difficult as a result of poor polling and election results, which will blunt messaging and get-out-the-vote endeavors.

Democrats: A look ahead

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton performed poorly in New Hampshire, securing less than 40% of the Democratic vote as a resurgent Senator Bernie Sanders garnered 60% of the vote and won every age group as well as both the male and female vote. Secretary Clinton’s loss has clearly put her on defense in the race, and as commentators have noted, the Clinton campaign has traditionally overreacted to surprising negative developments, though many have also indicated that Secretary Clinton performs at her best when she is the underdog.

The Nevada (February 23) and South Carolina (February 27) races will represent a significant test for the Clinton campaign. Much of her campaign’s commentary regarding the Sanders campaign has been that his policies are not reasonable to expect in a divided Washington and that his appeal is limited to a few demographic groups (youth voters and white liberals, in particular) which, while necessary in the formation of a winning Democratic candidacy, are not in themselves sufficient. This appeal to these particular groups has been used to explain, in part, why he performed strongly in New Hampshire and Iowa, both of which share significant liberal populations and are some of the least ethnically heterogeneous states in the country.

The Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary will represent the first opportunity for significant populations of minority voters, notably Hispanics and African Americans (and also sizeable Asian-American populations), to have a say in whom they would like to secure the Democratic nomination. Secretary Clinton has enjoyed strong support from these groups, though the nature of the caucus system in Nevada (as well as same-day registration for Democrats) could blunt her success there.

Should Secretary Clinton emerge victorious with strong, double-digit victories in Nevada and South Carolina, this could help allay concerns that her weak showing in New Hampshire represented broader issues with her campaign, rather than an election blip. Any weak showing in either state, however, could spell significant concern in both the Clinton campaign and among the Democratic class that has largely coalesced around her candidacy.

March 1: The big shakeup

Although the South Carolina and Nevada races could provide a degree of clarity for both the parties’ races (particularly on the Democratic side, though it could help on the Republican side if any candidates opt to drop out at that point), the big moment for candidates in both parties will be the March 1 primaries and caucuses.

Referred to as Super Tuesday, the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia as well as American Samoa will vote in the Democratic and Republican primaries (Alaska’s Democratic primary is on March 26). Collectively, these states represent over one-quarter of all the Electoral College Votes in the United States, 865 of the Democratic delegates to the Democratic convention, and 653 of Republican delegates to the Republican convention. This date will be the biggest test for any candidate, as the wide scope of states (geographically as well as demographically and politically) will require the presidential aspirants to appeal to a wide diversity of interests and voting populations. In addition, covering a dozen states with paid television advertising, logistics for volunteers and phone bankers, and registration drives will require huge expenditures of resources.

Looking to Super Tuesday, a few developments appear possible, if not likely, in both camps depending on how the delegates end up being distributed. A poor showing by any “establishment” Republican candidate across the board could lead to a bowing out, and a further consolidation of forces around an alternative to Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz.

At this point, though, that alternative has remained elusive as all the potential candidates for that slot have a negative or two that has overwhelmed any potential benefits of consolidating moderate forces (Governor Bush has the legacy of his family name as well as lackluster debate performances, Senator Rubio has had to contest with charges of inexperience and Governor Kasich may continue to struggle to establish name recognition).

“Establishment” forces aside, Senator Cruz has set up a serious ground game in the Super Tuesday states to compete with Mr. Trump (particularly in his home state of Texas), and Mr. Trump has significant support heading in to both the early states and the Super Tuesday states. Without a consolidation of “establishment” forces, the Republican primary could become an effectively 2-man race as the alternatives play a game of divide and conquer(ed).

On the Democratic side, Senator Sanders being thrust into the limelight following his New Hampshire victory will almost certainly lead to much greater scrutiny over his proposals to establish universal healthcare and free education. Particular attention will be paid to both the feasibility of such an endeavor in a divided Congress — claims of a “political revolution” will receive significant pushback beyond the Clinton campaign — as well as the mechanics of these systems. For example: exactly what kind of universal healthcare system is he advocating? And, among other technical questions, will physicians be paid by the government and what kind of pay caps would there subsequently be?

His response to these questions, as well as how voters respond to these messages, will be key heading into the Super Tuesday primaries. Secretary Clinton has a powerful state-level infrastructure to support her candidacy, and Senator Sanders will have to play significant catch-up in the coming weeks to ensure he remains competitive. Although his insurgent candidacy has been compared to then-Senator Obama’s campaign in 2008, the Obama campaign created one of the most powerful, data-driven campaign infrastructures either party had ever seen.

Although Senator Sanders has indicated he will contest the election “to the convention”, a poor showing in the Super Tuesday states following South Carolina and Nevada could effectively end his campaign if fundraising peters off and delegates become increasingly hard to come by.

A final look at New Hampshire

Despite the fall of Governor Christie from presidential contention, there are few indications that the first-in-the-nation primary will be viewed retrospectively as being a decisive turning point for candidates in either party.

Unlike Iowa, which featured surprises for both parties, the election results in New Hampshire largely hewed with what polling had indicated in the weeks preceding the vote. If anything, the only noteworthy thing about the election results were that there was nothing particularly noteworthy about them.

Several commentators had indicated that many New Hampshire voters decide at the last minute, that polls are fickle, that Donald Trump would burn out because he failed to provide sufficient attention to the state, and a litany of other prognostications that New Hampshire could change the race. Rather than change the race, if anything, it froze both parties’ campaigns for the next 2 weeks because the results matched expectation.

Everyone is aware of Mr. Trump’s popularity advantages in the upcoming primaries, Senator Cruz’s appeal to evangelical voters, Senator Rubio’s penchant for choking at key moments, and Senator Sanders’ appeal to young voters. None of those factors changed because of New Hampshire. Perhaps it will be left to Nevada or South Carolina — or more likely Super Tuesday –– to shake up the game and significantly winnow the field.

Categories: North America, Politics

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