Sabato's Crystal Ball

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.