Sabato's Crystal Ball

What Would – and Would Not – Be Surprising in New Hampshire

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 8th, 2016


Last week, we wrote that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the favorites to win New Hampshire, and while there have been plenty of fireworks between then and now (Monday afternoon), our overall assessment hasn’t changed. Polling in the New Hampshire primary is often far off the mark — the electorate has a remarkably high number of late-deciders and switchers — but keep this in mind: Trump has appeared strong in New Hampshire for more than half a year. Since mid-July, he has led 72 straight polls, almost all of them showing a double-digit lead. And since early January, Sanders has led 38 straight polls, with most also showing a double-digit lead.

So Sanders or Trump losing would be a big surprise. But what else should — or shouldn’t — shock us on Tuesday? Let’s look at some possible outcomes and separate the predictable from the unpredictable:

SURPRISE: Trump outperforms his polling

Trump’s loss in Iowa showed deficiencies in his campaign. He did not have an adequate ground game and he has ignored traditional campaign tools and tactics. For instance, Trump does not do internal polling, and thus he has no non-public data guiding his campaign. He also has generally eschewed the small, personal events that are a hallmark of winning primary campaigns. These shortcomings can matter at the margins, and they help explain why Trump’s support shrunk to some extent in Iowa. While it’s anecdotal, we also can’t ignore the frequent reports from journalists in New Hampshire about how many of the people at Trump’s events are not actually from the state or are otherwise not likely to vote. There’s a novelty that remains in Trump’s campaign, a novelty that probably makes his level of support seem higher than it is. Trump is at about 31%-32% in the polling averages. It would be more surprising to us if he exceeded those numbers than if he fell below them. But even if Trump falls all the way to about 24% — matching his Iowa performance — that’s still probably enough to win given the fractured GOP field, though it would be the lowest winning percentage in New Hampshire presidential primary history (Pat Buchanan’s 27.2% in 1996 is the all-time mark). But such a result would also fuel even more questions about Trump’s ability to expand his support ceiling.

NOT A SURPRISE: Rubio finishes inside the top three

Marco Rubio appeared to be rising in New Hampshire until his poor debate performance on Saturday night. His robotic, repeated talking points about President Obama played into a preexisting narrative about Rubio that he is too rehearsed and too green for the presidency. It was a bad moment, and one that his opponents and the national press jumped on. However, let’s not overreact here. There’s little hard evidence to suggest Rubio is sinking in New Hampshire or elsewhere. While some rival campaigns have suggested their internal polling shows a Rubio drop, it’s hard to take Rubio’s competitors at their word less than 24 hours before polling locations open. Still, the expectations for Rubio are higher now, to the point where anything other than a top-three finish, and maybe even a top-two finish, would signal weakness. Rubio is well-positioned to inherit the bulk of voters who support candidates other than Trump and Ted Cruz as the field contracts. His challenge now is getting those other candidates out of the race, and a subpar showing by Rubio in New Hampshire would only embolden the others to stay in longer. Rubio’s mainstream competitors — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich — also believe that if only they can survive to face just Cruz or Trump, or both Cruz and Trump, they can unite a big enough segment of the party to ultimately prevail. Judging by the Rubio endorsements trickling out from Capitol Hill, we think most Republican officeholders are coming to believe Rubio is the Trump/Cruz stopper. He needs to continue to prove that.

SURPRISE: Christie finishes ahead of Kasich and Bush

Kasich has been something of a man apart in Republican debates. His message is generally less hard-edged than his competitors, and he rarely engages in arguments with his rivals (nor do they engage much with him). He doesn’t get a lot of time to talk, and he doesn’t produce soundbites that dominate coverage. But that might be a good approach for New Hampshire, where he is backed by the influential Sununu family and which has a big bloc of moderate voters who tend to prefer Republicans with softer edges than their opponents, candidates like John McCain in 2000 and 2008 and Jon Huntsman in 2012, who despite running a poor campaign that year still got about 17% in the Granite State. While Huntsman argued that his third-place performance gave him a “ticket to ride” to the next contest in South Carolina, he ended up dropping out before the Palmetto State voted.

But for Kasich, 17% and third place might be a good showing. By not allowing Bush or Christie to get to his left, Kasich has positioned himself to do best among the three Republican candidates with gubernatorial experience. Christie appears the likeliest to show poorly in New Hampshire: His brutal attacks on Rubio, while potentially effective and a good use of his prosecutorial skills, were also a sign of desperation for a candidate mired in sixth place. Meanwhile, perhaps the deployment of popular former first lady Barbara Bush will add some points in a state that has sometimes been good to her family, but Jeb Bush could still find himself in fifth or worst, and as we’ve seen, money can only do so much if the candidate himself isn’t selling. As the race moves to South Carolina, Nevada, and the Southern-dominated March 1 primaries, even a governor who does well in New Hampshire, be it Kasich, Bush, or Christie, might not be able to build much momentum in the short term.

SURPRISE: Sanders wins by less than 10 percentage points or by 20 or more

In the 18 polls with survey dates following the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses (in RCP’s database), Sanders has led 12 of them by 10 to 17 percentage points, two by less than 10, and four by at least 20. Thus, we expect Sanders is most likely to win the Granite State by double digits, but not much higher than the mid-teens.

Of course, New Hampshire presidential primary polls can be fickle (on both sides): Just ask Barack Obama, who led all surveys that sampled up to two days and the day before the Jan. 8, 2008 Democratic primary, only to see Hillary Clinton win in the end. There are a couple reasons for this volatility.

First, an early primary election always contains some unpredictability. In a primary, a voter doesn’t have party ID to rely on when selecting a candidate to support; instead, he or she may largely agree with most positions held by the different candidates, meaning that more than one might be an acceptable choice. Up until the voter casts a ballot, there’s nothing to stop that person from switching allegiances. Spoiled for choice in their primary, Republicans find Rubio and the governor trio of Bush, Christie, and Kasich fighting for many of the same kinds of somewhat conservative or moderate voters. And some still haven’t finalized their decisions: Polls show as many as 44% of likely Republican primary voters could still change their minds.

But Sanders’ lead may be more certain because Democrats have only two candidates to pick from on Feb. 9, limiting the potential for vacillation; indeed, compared to Republican voters, polls show smaller percentages of likely Democratic primary voters expressing some level of uncertainty about their vote choice.

Second, another complication is New Hampshire’s “undeclared” voters, who can choose to vote in either party’s primary. With Sanders holding a solid lead in the polls, might some undeclared voters inclined to back him choose to vote in the GOP primary instead? Such a development might help Kasich, who notably has higher support among undeclared voters in primary polling compared to registered Republicans. Reduced independent involvement would hurt Sanders’ margins as he has a larger lead among undeclared voters than among registered Democrats.

If Clinton comes closer than 10 points, she could try to spin that performance into a comeback, though it won’t be easy. If Sanders wins by double-digits, or even approaches or surpasses 60%, Clinton will find herself in a dark place. We know that she is well-equipped to fight back in the more diverse and less liberal states that come next on the calendar, but that doesn’t mean that the New Hampshire aftermath won’t be withering.

SURPRISE: Cruz finishes below the top four

Ted Cruz isn’t going to win New Hampshire — he’s too conservative and outwardly religious for an electorate that is more secular and moderate than Iowa’s — and as we said last week, anything over 15% would be a strong performance for him. However, Cruz should be able to finish in double digits by picking up some pieces of the old Ron Paul coalition — the elder Paul finished second behind Mitt Romney in New Hampshire in 2012 — while also doing well among the small number of New Hampshire’s strong conservatives and evangelicals. That very well could be all it takes for him to finish ahead of some of the other candidates who have put more of a priority on New Hampshire than he has. Any of the Bush-Christie-Kasich group who finishes behind Cruz in a state like New Hampshire will have to reassess their path forward. The same wouldn’t necessarily be true of Rubio in the unlikely event he dips below Cruz, but a strong comeback in South Carolina would become a necessity for Rubio.

NOT A SURPRISE: GOP makes New Hampshire primary history with five candidates winning at least 10%

Based on the aggregate data at HuffPost Pollster and RealClearPolitics, four Republicans are presently averaging more than 10% in New Hampshire polls: Trump, Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich. The 10% mark is not only a straightforward cutoff point, it’s also the statewide threshold for winning at least one of the 20 GOP national convention delegates at stake in the Granite State’s Feb. 9 primary (the state has 23 total but its three automatic delegates are officially unbound).

However, because Bush is averaging just under 10% in both aggregators (9.3% in HPP, 9.8% in RCP), five candidates could garner double-digit percentages on Tuesday. That would be a first: In the history of New Hampshire presidential primaries, there has never been a Democratic or Republican contest where five or more candidates won 10% or more of the vote. In six instances, there have been four candidates who finished with 10% or more: the 1964 Republican, 1976 Democratic, 1988 Republican, 1992 Democratic, 1996 Republican, and 2004 Democratic primaries. The closest call was the 1988 GOP tilt, when Pat Robertson won 9.4% to finish fifth behind George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, and Pete du Pont. Yet in that primary Bush and Dole combined for 66% of the vote, whereas the combined percentage of the top-two finishers in this cycle’s GOP contest might not even form a majority. Given the heavily fragmented polling data and the uncertainty surrounding the impact of Saturday’s debate on the outcome, we could see an electoral traffic jam that creates five “10-percenters” on Tuesday night.

Sanders, Trump Still Favored in New Hampshire

But fickle New Hampshire has a way of confounding the experts

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, UVA Center for Politics February 4th, 2016


New Hampshire, as usual, will not be inclined to ratify the result of its early-state rival, Iowa. In open seat races, it’s natural for New Hampshire to zag after Iowa zigs: In the modern era of presidential nominations starting in 1972, there have been 16 contested presidential primaries (seven for the Republicans, nine for the Democrats). In only four of those races did the same candidate win both Iowa and New Hampshire: Presidents Gerald Ford (R) and Jimmy Carter (D) won the first two contests against, respectively, Ronald Reagan in 1976 and Ted Kennedy in 1980, and Al Gore and John Kerry won both while cruising to the Democratic nomination in 2000 and 2004.*

On the Republican side, Iowa and New Hampshire represent two different parts of the party, with Hawkeye State voters being much more conservative and religious than their Granite State counterparts. New Hampshire Democrats are both very white and very liberal, making the state quite similar to Iowa — and quite dissimilar to many of the other states later in the calendar.

If polls are to be believed (and they were not terribly accurate in Iowa), Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are clear favorites in New Hampshire, the first primary. And as of this writing, five days before the Granite State votes, we think Sanders and Trump are in fact the favorites, but we don’t believe their leads are as big as the polls suggest. And voters in New Hampshire are notoriously fickle late deciders — Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Granite State upset of Barack Obama is a recent example — making any predictions about what they will do several days before an election dangerous. Trump in particular may be vulnerable to a crippling falloff after Iowa proved that the fellow who relentlessly projected the image of a winner can also be a loser. Still, if Sanders and Trump do win, Iowa and New Hampshire will have once again backed different candidates.

In addition to his appeal among white liberals, Sanders has a regional advantage in New Hampshire: He’s from neighboring Vermont, and New Hampshire often supports Northeastern candidates when given the opportunity. Hillary Clinton’s main goal should be to hold down Sanders’ margin. The Vermont senator currently leads both major polling averages by close to 20 points. We suspect things will narrow a bit but Sanders is still well positioned to win. The more interesting question is whether a Sanders victory in New Hampshire would have a ripple effect in the Nevada caucus (Feb. 20) and South Carolina primary (Feb. 27), two diverse states where Clinton has been well ahead. Sanders has thus far been unable to make significant inroads with minority voters. Nevada probably offers Sanders a better chance of victory than South Carolina, if only because it holds a caucus. If Clinton can go into March 1’s Southern-tinged Super Tuesday with wins in three of the four February contests, she’ll be in a very strong position. On the other hand, if there are upsets beyond New Hampshire, Clinton will be looking at a long, miserable slog to the nomination.

In New Hampshire, independents — about 40% of the state’s voters — can vote in either primary. These voters “tend to go where the action is,” as former state Attorney General Tom Rath told the New York Times. We wonder if some of Sanders’ independent voters will believe their guy is going to win handily and will thus decide that the action is on the Republican side. If so, Sanders could lose some of his lofty lead to Clinton, who does better among older Democratic Party stalwarts.

Trump’s lack of a traditional campaign organization probably hurt him in Iowa, where every voter had to show up to caucus at a specific time with a willingness to spend hours in the process. But Trump’s organizational deficiency might not matter as much in New Hampshire, a traditional primary with voting hours throughout the day. However, Trump faces another threat: a crisis of confidence among his voters, who may have been unimpressed with his underperformance in Iowa. We think Trump, a bandwagon candidate if ever there was one, needs to win New Hampshire, period. A loss after holding such a big lead would make him seem like a paper tiger. Defeat in New Hampshire would increase the chances of a Trump early exit.

Trump’s advantage is that the GOP field in New Hampshire remains fractured, with five other candidates — Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich — all capable of finishing in double digits. The crowded field has allowed Trump to build a 20-point lead even while he’s only in the low 30s.

Cruz probably won’t get much of a bump from Iowa because candidates supported by the most conservative and most religious parts of the party generally don’t do well in more secular New Hampshire. Still, Cruz should outperform the modest 9.4% that Rick Santorum got in 2012 after he won Iowa. Honestly, 15% of the vote would be a strong showing for Cruz in New Hampshire. Cruz already did what he needed to do in Iowa, and he and his team surely are looking ahead to South Carolina, an evangelical-heavy state where Cruz will try to replicate his Iowa success.

Rubio’s impressive over-performance in Iowa does give him some momentum heading into New Hampshire. He needs to hope positive press coverage helps him break out of the high single digits and, potentially, into second (or even first?) place over a crowded field of competitors.

New Hampshire is where Bush, Christie, and Kasich will make their stand. After combining for less than 7% of the vote in Iowa, they should do considerably better in the Granite State — or it’s curtains.

Realistically, each needs to finish ahead of the other two — and also in front of two of the three of Cruz, Rubio, and Trump. In other words, each should be gunning for at least second — a showing that only one of them, plausibly, can achieve. And if Rubio finishes ahead of all of them, he can make a credible argument that it’s time for the Granite-loving governors to go — an argument that other establishment-oriented Republicans also might begin to make forcefully, both publicly and privately.

The trouble for Rubio is that of the three candidates who effectively skipped Iowa to focus on New Hampshire — Bush, Christie, and Kasich — the most formidable opponent is the one he has the most interest in taking down: Bush. Bush’s Right to Rise Super PAC has been hammering Rubio to the point where it seems possible that Rubio’s numbers have been artificially low for months, and Bush and his Super PAC still have sufficient funding to continue. Many party leaders and pundits say Rubio is the likeliest GOP nominee at this point, but all that could go up in smoke if he sags badly in New Hampshire and allows one or more of the Bush-Christie-Kasich troika to move up and on.

Rubio had better be ready for the Saturday Republican debate — he arguably will be the top target of everyone else on stage. In fact, so many candidates have so much at stake in New Hampshire that they’d all better buckle on their armor. The incoming fire is guaranteed to be withering.

*We’re not including the Democratic contests in 1972 and 1976 because while Ed Muskie (1972) and Jimmy Carter (1976) finished first among named candidates in both Iowa and New Hampshire, they were second behind “uncommitted” in Iowa.

The Modern History of the Democratic Presidential Primary, 1972-2008

Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 4th, 2016


Most political observers consider 1972 the beginning of the “modern era” of presidential politics. After the controversial 1968 presidential cycle, the Democrats began to reform their nomination process to make it more inclusive and transparent, and to make its results more representative of the will of the party as a whole, not just the party bosses and insiders. In this new age of mass politics, Democrats have had nine competitive presidential nomination battles (i.e. cycles without incumbents running or serious challenges to sitting incumbents), whereas Republicans have had seven. Two weeks ago, we laid out the Republican presidential nomination contests going back to the Gerald Ford-Ronald Reagan battle in 1976, with the primary or caucus or convention results for the states and territories in each cycle. This week, we review the Democrats’ history.

In 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without having entered a single primary. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was the scene of mass protests and police beatings, while sharp disagreements and anger filled the air inside the convention hall. In the aftermath of that experience and the loss in November to Republican Richard Nixon, Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) chaired a commission whose purpose was to review the nomination process and to offer proposals to improve it. The commission’s report set out a number of guidelines and proposals that state parties were required or encouraged to adopt to bring more small-d democracy into the process. Among these were the implementation of anti-discrimination policies to increase the representation of women and minorities in state delegations and regulations that sought to ensure voters’ choices were better reflected in the eventual selection of national delegates. Amid the latter was a set of guidelines intended to create a more consistent system of proportionality in how a candidate’s support translated into delegate support, i.e. a firmer system of proportional representation. Proportionality was accompanied by the removal of the “unit rule,” which had enabled a majority of a state’s delegates, usually under the thumb of party leaders, to control the entire vote of a state delegation even if a large minority within that delegation had a different set of preferences.

While the Republican Party has a varied system of delegate allocation and has been more inclined to let states choose their own adventures, so to speak, today the Democratic Party universally uses proportional representation in determining how election results translate to “pledged” delegates, i.e. the number of delegates assigned to a candidate based on vote performance. Starting in 1992, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and six territorial delegations have used 15% as the proportional threshold. (An aside: It appears the Northern Marianas Islands will be making their first appearance at a Democratic national convention this July.) The McGovern-Fraser Commission had recommended proportionality prior to 1972, but it took some time for the 15% rule to spread to all states and other delegations. Some states were laggards in adopting proportionality, such as Illinois, which continued to use what was known as a “loophole primary,” where a state directly elected named delegates on the ballot separately from the “advisory” presidential preference vote statewide. But in the lead up to 1992, the 15% rule became standard: win at least 15% of the primary vote in a congressional district (or a smaller unit — New Jersey, for instance, uses its state legislative districts) and a candidate is guaranteed some share of the national convention delegates assigned to that district (at least 75% of a state’s base delegation has to be assigned to districts); allocation of at-large national delegates is determined by the statewide vote.

Now, this proportionality works differently in Democratic primaries and caucuses. Primary systems are straight-forward, with the result broken down by district and statewide to determine allocation. For caucus systems, there are differences depending on the state. Some, like Hawaii, use a presidential preference vote at the precinct caucus level to directly allocate pledged national delegates based on the result. Others, like Iowa, use proportionality to determine the number of delegates elected to the next phase of the national delegate selection process. In Iowa’s case, precinct caucuses elect delegates to county conventions, which elect delegates to congressional district conventions (where the first actual set of national delegates are determined), and then the state convention picks at-large delegates. Still, at every step of the caucus pyramid candidates must win at least 15% support to remain eligible to win delegates, lower-level or national. In the maps below, we use an asterisk to point out contest results in caucuses (and a few primaries) where national delegates were not directly allocated by the result, though winning delegates to the next round of a caucus-convention system is obviously vital for having support further along in the process.

Also worth noting is the “superdelegate” system of party leaders and elected official delegates (PLEOs) that the Democrats use to give the party’s higher-ups an increased say in the nomination process. The McGovern-era reforms had greatly reduced the clout of insiders, but by the early 1980s many Democrats felt that the rule changes had gone too far in limiting the influence of party leaders. Thus a new system was implemented prior to the 1984 cycle to give them more say in the outcome as, essentially, free agents who can back whichever candidate they want. At the 2016 convention, they should form about 15% of the total delegate votes.

Besides differences in how they determine delegates, the two parties also have seen some strikingly different kinds of results. In the seven competitive Republican presidential cycles, the largest number of candidates to win a state’s first-step caucus or primary in a given cycle was three. The Democratic experience could not be more different. Depending on how one counts the results — for instance, we chose to focus on the election of delegates rather than advisory presidential preference primaries if a state held them concurrently — as many as eight individuals won at least one state’s first-step caucus or convention event or a primary election. This remarkable fact was largely the result of the Democratic Party’s turbulent period in the 1970s, when the party’s nomination reforms combined with the party’s big tent (e.g. ideologically disparate George McGovern and George Wallace both ran in 1972) to produce tumult, but even in 1992 five separate candidates won contests. Conversely, the 2000 cycle saw Al Gore accomplish something that no non-incumbent candidate for president has done in either party: win every single state caucus or primary. Since then, four candidates won in 2004 but John Kerry largely dominated the process, and 2008 was a face-off between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The 2016 Democratic tilt will likely feature only two winners as well.

As we look forward to New Hampshire on Feb. 9, here are the state-by-state outcomes of (mostly) first-step caucus or convention events or primaries in the nine competitive nomination cycles Democrats have had since the 1970s:

Map 1: 1972 Democratic nomination contest

Map 2: 1976 Democratic nomination contest

Map 3: 1980 Democratic nomination contest

Map 4: 1984 Democratic nomination contest

Map 5: 1988 Democratic nomination contest

Map 6: 1992 Democratic nomination contest

Map 7: 2000 Democratic nomination contest

Map 8: 2004 Democratic nomination contest

Map 9: 2008 Democratic nomination contest

Notes: *State allocated no national convention delegates directly from primary or first-step caucus result shown. The dates of many caucuses reflect the last day of a meeting period or the day of the presidential preference vote. These events sometimes take days or weeks. In a few cycles, the maps denote that Texas used a two-step primary and caucus/convention system to determine delegates. “CZ” is the Panama Canal Zone and “DA” is Democrats Abroad. In some cases, the result shown reflects the delegate selection primary outcome in a state, not the presidential preference vote, which was sometimes purely advisory in nature.

Sources: Crystal Ball research; CQ Press Guide to U.S. Elections, 6th edition; CQ Weekly; Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections; FrontloadingHQ; The Green Papers