The Expectations Game, New Hampshire Primary Edition

by Dan McLaughlin

New Hampshire has traditionally been a crucial state for GOP presidential nominees.  Five of the past seven contested nominees going back to 1976 have won New Hampshire, and six of the past seven have garnered at least 30 percent of the popular vote there – the lowest being Bob Dole at 26.2 percent in 1996. It’s entirely possible that nobody will match Dole’s second-place percentage this time around, and the dynamics of the current field still make it likely that, like Iowa, its role this year will likely be more about winnowing the losers, not picking the winner. Like Iowa, it awards too few delegates (20, distributed proportionally) to matter much if the race goes far enough that delegate counts matter. So the expectations game matters a lot, and it is scrambled by the fact that New Hampshire is notoriously hard to poll and that seven candidates are hotly contesting the state, six of them potentially fighting for their campaigns’ lives.

Donald Trump: Win or go home. Trump’s air of invincibility was punctured by finishing second after leading in the polls in Iowa, and he handled it poorly, but he survived. His poll lead in New Hampshire has been much larger and more durable: at this writing he leads the RCP average by 17 points, more than twice the second-place candidate, and with the exception of a few days of the Carly Fiorina surge in early October, his lead has never been out of double digits. In the least religious state in the nation, with almost certainly the largest percentage of non-Republicans in any state’s Republican primary, the state where Pat Buchanan got 37.5 percent in 1992 and won with 27.2 percent in 1996, New Hampshire should be the best possible state for Trump. If he gets beaten on the ground here, it will be hard to take his putative lead in any other poll seriously, and his campaign could collapse with astonishing speed. So Trump needs a win.

The size of that win is less important, but if Trump is held below 30 percent, he will continue to look like a factional candidate who can be beaten once the field of his opponents narrows; if he cracks 35 percent, the swagger will be back for his supporters. But ironically, the smaller Trump’s share of the vote, the less urgency there will be for other nominally viable candidates to drop out, and the greater his odds of winning primaries later with 25-33 percent.

Marco Rubio: Beat everyone but Trump and maybe Kasich, and run at least one of the Kasich/Jeb/Christie “Establishment Trio” off the road. Given that Trump is expected to win easily and Cruz doesn’t need New Hampshire, the Rubio vs Kasich/Jeb/Christie dynamic is the most closely watched showdown tonight.

The Rubio camp would love to win New Hampshire outright (possible, but not that likely), and would be happy with a second-place finish (while the polls are all over the map, both RCP and the Huffington Post poll averages have Rubio clinging narrowly to second place in the mid-teens). Either result, or a finish above 20 percent regardless of position, would give Rubio enough juice to move the conversation along from his rough handling by Chris Christie early in Saturday’s debate. The minimum that Rubio needs to avoid walking away a loser from New Hampshire is to finish third and have the only people ahead of him be Trump and Kasich (or, far less likely, Trump and Christie). He can’t afford to finish behind Jeb Bush without reviving Jeb’s ability to keep the skittish donor dollars coming. He needs at least one of Kasich/Jeb/Christie to finish in single digits and give up the ghost, starting a process that would drive all three out by early March. Also, if he beats Cruz in New Hampshire, it’s harder for Team Cruz to make a big deal of a weak Rubio showing heading into South Carolina without hanging a lantern on their own candidate.

Ted Cruz: Anything out of single digits is a win for Cruz in a state that is such a bad fit for him, and as the winner of Iowa he could sustain a wipeout in New Hampshire better than any other candidate. New Hampshire is gravy, but Cruz has nonetheless deployed significant ground resources and stumped hard there on the theory that a killer instinct in a non-must-win state is more important than an early departure for more congenial turf in South Carolina.

Of course, anything that’s bad for Rubio is good for Cruz, and that’s probably true of Trump as well, but the best outcome for Cruz may be a narrow Trump win that keeps him beatable but not yet beaten. A race without Trump would focus a lot more of the party establishment against Cruz.

John Kasich: Beat everyone but Trump and Cruz and beat Rubio by a significant margin. Only a first-place showing and crushing Rubio would really change the dynamics for Kasich to the point where you’d have to reconsider his viability, but he’s well-positioned to win enough independent voters to give him an excuse to stay in the race for a few more weeks. Unfortunately for Kasich, he has very little money in the bank and very few states between now and Michigan on March 8 when he might be competitive – Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, possibly Virginia, maybe Minnesota (although the caucus format is likely to work against him there).

Jeb Bush: Jeb probably needs to finish in double digits and within about 5-6 points of Rubio in order to signal that Rubio is weak and Jeb is viable, so as to restart his fundraising engines, and of course actually beating Rubio in New Hampshire would be a critical blow to Rubio. As in Iowa, it is more important to Jeb that Rubio fail than that Jeb succeed, and to that end it may be good for Jeb’s purposes to keep Kasich and Christie in the game. But at some point, he does need to get a few voters to go with his big pile of cash. Also the cash is not endless: and at his current burn rate, his campaign is likely to be broke by the time he hits Florida on March 15, which would leave nothing but a rapidly dwindling anti-Rubio SuperPAC with no campaign to support. It remains unclear how little support it would take for Jeb to finally admit defeat.

Chris Christie: Double digits or bust. It’s hard to see more upside than about 12 percent for Christie, and harder still to see where he might match that again any time soon, and unlike Jeb his campaign is nearly broke. So New Hampshire is either the end of the line for Christie or an excuse to soldier on a little longer just for the opportunity to hit Rubio in another TV debate. Like Kasich, and unlike Jeb, Fiorina, and Carson, Christie has a day job, and at some point that exerts a little more pressure to stop running when there is no path forward. Kasich at least can point to Ohio and other Midwestern states in mid-March; Christie’s home base in the Northeast doesn’t really kick in until the end of April, and New Jersey votes on June 7, the last day of the primaries. My guess is that Christie, like Rand Paul in Iowa, is mostly looking for a respectable way to exit the race on something besides a complete down note.

Carly Fiorina: Fiorina has already fallen off the main debate stage, and with no real  geographic or ideological home base and a campaign that was geared from the outset to showcase her as a VP contender, it’s hard to see how she accomplishes anything by staying in the race after New Hampshire. It would take a very big surprise for Fiorina to get a share of the vote significant enough to affect her plans.

Ben Carson: The only one of the eight remaining non-Gilmore candidates who hasn’t made a real effort in New Hampshire, Carson seems to be conserving his remaining resources to make what will effectively be a last stand in South Carolina. What New Hampshire does will not affect him.

Jim Gilmore: Get more than the 12 votes he got in Iowa so he can claim forward momentum. Gilmore is a serious guy who deserves a better epitaph to his career than being a punchline, but after his failed 2008 presidential and Senate runs, he’s doing nothing in this campaign besides sustain the Google ranking of his Wikipedia page.

The Republican party: Even assuming the party as an institution is agnostic as to which candidate wins the nomination (or at least which non-Trump candidate), it should be rooting for three goals tonight. First, a bigger Bernie Sanders win on the Democratic side than Trump’s, so the morning’s headline is “New Hampshire voters go crazy with populists,” not “Republicans go crazy with Trump” and so the Democrats face a protracted primary battle of their own. Second, at least three candidates dropping out, so there are fewer complaints about the debate stage and better odds of selecting a nominee who gets a majority of delegates without a convention fight. And third, high turnout, especially for the candidates other than Trump and Kasich, as those are the voters most likely to vote Republican in November regardless of the nominee.

I can’t make a prediction with much confidence, but if forced to guess, I’d project tonight’s result as Trump 26, Kasich 17, Rubio 16, Cruz 14, Jeb 11, Christie 8, Fiorina 4, Carson 4. If you’re keeping score at home, that would be counted as a “meets expectations” showing for each of the first five finishers. It’s still a long road to Cleveland.

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