Politics

New Hampshire should answer a lot of key questions

An election worker hands out stickers to voters afer casting their ballots in Belmont, New Hampshire. AFP/Getty Images

Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu once said that “Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks presidents.’’

This year, New Hampshire may not live up to the billing — but it should nonetheless play a big role.

If the polls are anywhere near right Tuesday, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders will win the state, perhaps in landslides. Yet neither seems especially likely to win the nomination.

This is not to diminish the appeal of Sanders or Trump. In the summer, few could have predicted that they would be leading in every New Hampshire poll by at least 7 percentage points during the final week of the race.

Nor should it diminish the importance of New Hampshire this year. Although you might wonder whether the state matters at all, given that it’s about to hand victories to candidates who will remain significant underdogs, it could have big consequences for the Republican race. Who takes second won’t just be a big Wednesday morning story; the New Hampshire primary could easily wind up deciding the GOP nomination. At the very least, the results will help clarify some of the most important questions of the contest.

Can Rubio Clear the Field?

For all of the strength of Trump and Ted Cruz, the biggest challenge to the traditional mainstream of the Republican Party has been the splitting of votes of the four establishment candidates. The presence of Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie has made it very difficult for any one of them to break out. The polls show them all tightly packed — each could finish in second, or fifth.

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The four candidates have weakened one another with millions of dollars in attack ads. Not only have they split moderate voters, donors and other politicians, but they have also kept countless other donors and backers on the sideline. Nearly everyone is waiting to see which candidate proves strongest.

New Hampshire begins that winnowing process. If Rubio takes a strong second place and clearly distinguishes himself, Christie and Kasich, with little potential to build as broad a coalition throughout the Republican electorate, will almost certainly be forced to leave the race. A strong second by Rubio would also put considerable pressure on Bush to exit.

After Rubio’s robotic performance in the last debate, there’s reason to wonder whether he’ll do well enough to clear the field. The upside for him is that his weak performance has probably lowered expectations: Even a modest second-place showing in the upper teens might now be a sign of resilience and strength.

The downside, of course, is that he really might underperform. He could finish behind Kasich — or perhaps even lower.

But falling behind Kasich might not be as bad as it seems. Kasich has fairly limited appeal; it’s hard to see him surviving a very conservative caucus in Nevada or a Southern state like South Carolina. Falling behind Bush would be much more dangerous for Rubio.

Trump’s Number

Trump will win in New Hampshire if the polls are anywhere near right. He’s had a double-digit lead in every poll this year.

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The number to watch is 31. That’s Trump’s share of the vote in the last New Hampshire polls.

If he finishes well beneath that mark, it will raise some pretty serious questions about just how legitimate his support is nationwide — whether it’s because late deciders keep moving against him or because his mediocre field operation is failing to mobilize infrequent voters.

In Iowa, Trump underperformed his final tally in the polls by a surprising 7 percentage points. It was the biggest underperformance in Iowa or New Hampshire since at least 2004.

If you want another number, try 27.2 percent: Pat Buchanan’s share of the vote when he won New Hampshire in 1996. Trump outpaced Buchanan’s 1996 showing in Iowa by 1 point, 24.3 to 23.3.

Can Cruz Outpace Past Iowa Winners?

Cruz hasn’t focused much on New Hampshire, and it’s not hard to see why.

It’s essentially the worst imaginable state for him. His appeal is narrowly concentrated among very conservative voters, and they are underrepresented in New Hampshire. To the extent he does respectably among less conservative voters, it’s among evangelicals, who are also underrepresented in the state.

The last two winners of Iowa — Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — faced a similar problem. They ultimately won just 11 and 9 percent in New Hampshire. Both lost the nomination.

New Hampshire is Cruz’s first opportunity to demonstrate that he has broader appeal than past Iowa winners. He doesn’t need to win, but if he takes only around 12 percent of the vote, as current polls suggest, or he can’t break out of the single digits among moderates, it’s a telling indicator of the limits of his appeal.

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Can Sanders Win in a Blowout?

Sanders clearly has built-in strength in the state. He’s from neighboring Vermont; two of New Hampshire’s 10 counties are in the Burlington, Vermont, media market, where Sanders has been a fixture as a mayor, a member of Congress and a senator for a total of 30 years.

He has been doing well in New Hampshire from the start. He was routinely breaking double digits in polling in New Hampshire in March or April before he even announced his candidacy — even in polls that also included a big favorite of the left, Elizabeth Warren.

The polls have been so good for Sanders that the expectations might be unbeatably high. He has occasionally led by more than 30 points, and those polls have received a lot more attention than the handful showing a single-digit race. On average, Sanders leads by 15 points — but even a 10- or 12-point victory could be taken (unfairly, in my view) as a fairly disappointing showing.

The race may have tightened since the last debate. The five polls released after the debate last week showed Clinton faring 7 points better, on average, than a prior batch of polls. On the other hand, those prior polls showed her behind by an average of 15 points, so there may be some “reversion to the mean’’ at play — it might be that the five previous polls were unrealistically good for Sanders, not that Clinton actually gained.

It would be tough to dismiss a huge Sanders victory simply by saying he’s well known in Vermont. That’s certainly true compared with the rest of the country, but it seems like a stretch to argue that the average New Hampshire voter should be extremely predisposed toward Sanders.

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Ninety percent of the New Hampshire Democratic electorate isn’t in the Burlington, Vermont, media market, and the state’s most populous area — the southeastern section — is also the area farthest from Vermont. It was also Clinton’s strongest area in 2008. Whether Sanders can beat her there, or at least do better than Barack Obama did in 2008, could offer real insight into the extent of Sanders’ appeal.

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