Five things to watch out for in the New Hampshire primary

Analysis: A free-spirited state makes it extremely difficult to predict an outcome

The Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire is a famous stop for prospective US presidential candidates who visit to meet the electorate and sample the cuisine. Video: Simon Carswell


Voters cast their ballots in the first primary election in the US presidential race in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

Coming eight days after the inaugural nominating contest at the Iowa caucuses, today’s vote is a straight ballot, in contrast to the horse-trading forum that is Iowa’s Democratic caucuses.

In New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die” state, independent voters who are not aligned with any party can chose to participate in either party’s election.

The number of independents in this free-spirited state, estimated at about 40 per cent of the electorate in New Hampshire, means that this critical ballot is extremely difficult to predict an outcome.

Here are five things to watch for in New Hampshire:

1) The Sanders revolution

This is a state where democratic socialist Bernie Sanders enjoys something of a home-ground advantage, representing neighbouring Vermont in the US Senate. Sanders has led Hillary Clinton in every poll in the New England state for almost a month. The latest tracking survey by news channels CNN and New Hampshire’s WMUR gave Sanders a whopping 26-point lead yesterday.

A close runner-up finish from Hillary Clinton, or even a surprise upset by the former US secretary of state, could be a shock, leaving Sanders supporters feeling less of the “Bern”.

A Sanders win would quickly turn the upcoming battles in the Nevada caucuses on February 20th and the South Carolina primary, the “First in the South” - on February 27th, into closely watched tests. Eyes would be on Sanders to see if he can gather momentum from his close second-place in Iowa and victory in New Hampshire in states where Clinton is strong.

Reported unease in the Clinton camp, rubbished from within the campaign, may fester further if Sanders scores an even better-than-expected victory. Losing to a 74-year-old senator after supposedly learning the lessons of her loss to Barack Obama eight years ago may force a deep rethink on her strategy in the states ahead.

Updates from Simon Carswell

2) Trump appeal

Another insurgent candidate, the billionaire businessman Donald Trump has led more than 70 polls in New Hampshire since July. Recently he has been averaging about 31 per cent. Trump was receiving close to this level of support in Iowa but ended up at 24 per cent in the state, slipping up to a network slickly organised by the people around conservative Texas senator Ted Cruz who finished three points ahead.

So will New Hampshire, unlike Iowa, show that The Donald can convert a consistent poll performance and the masses at the big rallies into his first Election Day victory in the presidential race?

Even if he equalled his Iowa tally, Trump could still win in New Hampshire given that Cruz and the “governor” candidates are all polling in or around the same level. Second place or worse would see Trump dismissed as a celebrity with plenty of bark but no bite politically.

3) Rubio on repeat

Florida senator Marco Rubio (44), the youngest candidate in the field, will be hoping the wind will still be at his back from his better-than-expected third place finish in Iowa when he finished just one percentage point behind Trump who had sucked up most publicity.

A top-three finish in New Hampshire, a repeat of Iowa, would undoubtedly continue the Rubio surge onto the southern states. It would show that New Hampshirites forgave his poor performance in last Saturday’s debate as a one-off slip into a scripted robo-candidate when he leaned on stump talking points to tide him through a debate.

If he finishes down the field, voters may think that he has more fundamental problems. Particularly after bizarrely repeating another segment of his campaign speech at an eve-of-primary rally last night.

4) A comeback kid?

Ohio governor John Kasich could repeat the trick first performed by Bill Clinton in 1992 when the Arkansas governor waded through a scandal-swamped campaign to take second place in New Hampshire. That performance gave him the name the Comeback Kid. It also gave the media an against-the-odds candidate that had to be monitored, setting him on a course that led to the White House.

Kasich’s gamble of putting everything on New Hampshire is paying off as voters warm to him at his 100 plus up-close-and-personal town hall meetings and his constructive pragmatism and positivity.

The polls have Kasich in third place behind Rubio, but the two are bunched together with former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz.

The second-term Ohio governor, the most moderate of the Republicans on offer, could benefit from occasional Democratic-voting independents looking to use a protest vote to hurt Trump today.

5) Battle of the governors

Much is riding on the Granite State for the “governor” candidates: Kasich, Bush and New Jersey’s Chris Christie. Each has a similar strategy: win the so-called establishment heat and qualify for an eventual three-runner final with Trump and Cruz for the nomination.

While Christie’s dissecting of Rubio’s mechanical stump loop may have weakened the Florida politician’s chances, it hasn’t helped the New Jersey man. New Hampshirites appear to dislike Christie’s go-for-the-jugular ‘Sopranos’ brand of politics; he has remained rooted on mid-single digit figures for about a month.

If Bush delivers another poor showing in New Hampshire, his donors may decide to take their money elsewhere. He is better in town hall meetings than on televised debate stages, and has improved on both throughout the campaign. His performance in last weekend’s debate was his best of the eight. This may explain why his poll numbers in New Hampshire are four times the vote he received in Iowa last week.

A fourth place finish might keep Bush in the race but he would need to do better than that to breathe life into his campaign in order to be considered a serious contender.