New Hampshire primary result harder than ever to call

Polls suggest Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are safe bets but all is still to play for

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich  in the spin room after the Republican candidates’ debate in New Hampshire. Photograph: Reuters/Rick Wilking

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich in the spin room after the Republican candidates’ debate in New Hampshire. Photograph: Reuters/Rick Wilking

 

Some New Hampshirites have stopped answering their phones. The calls come several times a day from pollsters asking how they will vote in Tuesday’s “first-in-the-nation” primary to pick presidential nominees.

“I don’t put a ton of faith in the polls right now because I’m 43 and my wife and I have three kids,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party (and son of Irish parents).

“The reason that is relevant is it means we still have a landline at home. We get surveyed literally three or four times a day. It is a small, concentrated state. Even I am just handing the phone to my five-year-old, ‘You take it.’ I can’t be the only one.”

The Granite State is notoriously difficult to predict because many voters remain undecided until the days before the primary and because of the number of independents in the state. Undeclared voters, who are not registered with any party, can vote in either party primary.

In the famous Clinton versus Obama 2008 Democratic primary almost half of the voters made up their mind in the last week.

In the Republican race, the large field this year is making the result even tougher to call. A poll by news channels CNN and New Hampshire’s WMUR-TV last week found that just 41 per cent of Republican voters had made up their minds on their chosen candidate. These undecided voters will likely determine the outcome on Tuesday.

Independent thinking

Iowa

In some years, the state has picked the eventual nominee: John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2012. In others, it has chosen insurgents: Pat Buchanan in 1996 and John McCain in 2000.

At yet other times, New Hampshire has chosen to halt the march of a candidate who has done well in Iowa to assert their independence, such as when Hillary Clinton turned it around to beat Barack Obama in 2008 after she finished third behind him in their first contest in Iowa.

“Sometimes they step on the gas pedal, sometimes they step on the brake for candidates coming out of Iowa,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in the west of the state.

“Iowa creates momentum for candidates so if somebody does well in Iowa, people in New Hampshire may look more closely at them than if they get wiped out in Iowa. That happened to governor Howard Dean in 2004 and John Kerry picked up the pieces here in New Hampshire.”

This is turning out to be the year of the maverick in New Hampshire: Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist senator from neighbouring Vermont, is leading Clinton by 61 per cent to 30 per cent, according to the CNN/WMUR poll. He has home-field advantage given how New Hampshire likes to pick one of their own from New England. Some say this brings a 15-point edge.

In the same poll, billionaire Donald Trump has an 11-point lead among Republicans, confirming the widely-held expectation that he will win on Tuesday. He has 28 per cent support followed by Florida senator Marco Rubio with 17 per cent, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Ohio governor John Kasich each on 13 per cent, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush on 9 per cent.

Outsider message

Mike Dennehy

Mainstream Republicans fare better here than in Iowa where conservatives and evangelicals hold sway.

Cruz, a conservative favourite and the Republican winner in Iowa last week, is unlikely to perform as well in New Hampshire, America’s second most secular state (after Vermont), with his overtly faith-based message.

The state is more concerned about fiscal conservatism than social conservatism and there is a streak of liberarianism in the state whose motto is “Live Free or Die”. The bandwagon effect that comes into election politics does not have as strong an effect in New Hampshire.

For that reason, Kasich, on paper, should figure strongly. He is the least ideological and his signature issue has been balancing budgets.

The Ohio governor’s ground game here may also benefit him. He has bet the house on New Hampshire, spending nearly all of his time in the state and hoping his folksy brand of retail politics will help him. On Friday he appeared at his 100th town-hall meeting, a forum people in New Hampshire love – more than any other candidate.

“After New Hampshire, it is going to come down to three or four candidates,” said Cullen, who is backing Kasich in his home state.

Mainstream

Fowler believes New Hampshire is going to “step on the brakes” for Trump but it is unclear which Republican will “get a little gas”.

“The question in my mind is that it would be either Kasich or Rubio or there could be a three-way tie between Kasich, Rubio and Bush, which would be the worst case for the Republican Party,” she said.

“They really need to get clarity in this field because there are too many candidates for the voters to sort out. As long as there are so many, then Trump has an advantage because of his celebrity.”

The other national front-runner in the election, Clinton, has come out fighting after Iowa and her seat-of-the-pants victory over Sanders. There was a new aggressive Clinton in last week’s final debate before the primary where she lashed her rival, accusing him of an “artful smear” for suggesting she is beholden to her Wall Street donors.

Despite his strong lead in New Hampshire, Sanders has insisted he is still the underdog in the race, taking on the “most powerful political organisation in the United States”.

That status and Clinton’s trust issues with New Hampshirites means she has an uphill climb.

“The big advantage that Sanders has is that he is regarded as authentic,” said Fowler. “People who don’t agree with him ideologically nevertheless think he has diagnosed the problem correctly, if not the solution, and they know these are beliefs he has had for his whole life.”

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