New Hampshire primaries are occasionally unpredictable, but this time around Iowa proved to be unpredictable, while the outcome in New Hampshire was known to everyone and their second cousin.
But New Hampshire was less about winning votes and more about constructing a winning narrative. As Iowa showed us, early primaries are not so much about delegates as about stories. Win or lose, every candidate uses the process as background for a narrative about their own trajectory. Winning candidates boast inevitability. Losing candidates claim that they exceeded expectations or were robbed.
For Sanders and Trump, their wins allowed them to reclaim the victories they thought had been denied to them in Iowa. New Hampshire was a do-over, rebooting the narrative of their inevitable candidacies.
For Hillary Clinton, New Hampshire is a setback, but not a major one. She had won New Hampshire in ’08 against Obama, but the racial calculus has since flipped. In ’08, Hillary Clinton’s base was white Democrats and New Hampshire is as white as the driven snow. Now Bernie Sanders is breathing down Hillary’s neck with white voters, but her political firewall is her base of black and Latino voters.
In ’08, Hillary Clinton had desperately scrambled to hold on to New Hampshire after her loss in Iowa. This time she desperately held on to Iowa, using tactics that look suspiciously like fraud, complete with magic coin tosses, but could afford to accept defeat in New Hampshire. Her victimhood antics from ’08 made a comeback in New Hampshire as Bill Clinton whined about “sexist” attacks, but if the candidate has any crocodile tears to cry on camera, she held them in liquid suspension in her steel ducts even in chilly New Hampshire, saving them for sunny Nevada or for an emergency Super Tuesday Weepathon.
In ’08, winning New Hampshire affirmed the legitimacy of her candidacy. The rebooted ’16 campaign however dismisses New Hampshire for its lack of diversity. New Hampshire has too many white people and white people don’t seem to be voting for her anymore. Instead winning New Hampshire actually becomes an indictment against Bernie Sanders who becomes guilty of doing too well with white voters.
And doing well with white voters is practically racism by association.
Hillary Clinton’s narrative in New Hampshire was endurance. It was a state she could afford to lose and so she made losing it into a statement about her long term goals. Had she lost Iowa and won New Hampshire, the buzz would be that history is repeating itself. But winning Iowa and losing New Hampshire allows her campaign to portray Bernie Sanders as another wacky primary pick in a state that has picked plenty of winners, but that also chose Tsongas, Hart and another Democratic weeper, Muskie. Not to mention that notorious presidential campaign loser, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
For the Republican field, defeat was also inevitable, but narratives were crucial. The Iowa narrative sidelined Cruz and Trump to emphasize a Rubio momentum. Going in, the narrative was of a Rubio collapse and a Jeb Bush political comeback. For the media, keeping Kasich’s doomed candidacy alive has always been a priority and New Hampshire gave them an excuse for pretending that he is relevant.
Exit polls suggest that the Kasich candidacy appeals to those who are least worried about the major problems facing this country, such as the economy and terrorism, and he has emerged as the perfect unruffled spokesman for that part of the Republican Party that thinks nothing is wrong. The comfortable and the unworried may not be a large demographic, but Kasich did well because he had it all to himself.
And sometimes taking the controversial position that nothing is wrong can earn you second place.
Christie’s desperate attacks on Rubio had finally connected at the last debate. Christie had been chasing Rubio as if the Florida senator were a delicious hot dog. And yet, Christie’s 15 minutes in the media sun wouldn’t matter if he couldn’t show that it had paid off for him in New Hampshire. Christie may have damaged Rubio, or Rubio’s momentum narrative may have fed excessive expectations damaging him, but Christie came away with little to show for his 15 minutes and $18.5 million except sixth place.
Unlike the Democratic race, which was a foregone conclusion, the Republican race in New Hampshire was real, but for most candidates it was also more about positioning and posturing than actually getting their moist hands on the state’s 23 delegates. But for Trump, a crowded field gave him the possibility of scooping up the delegates of those candidates with less than 10% support. The more candidates there were to split the vote, the more likely it was that the field would splinter into below ten percenters whose delegates automatically go to the winner of the primary, Donald J. Trump.
Everyone knew that Trump would win New Hampshire, but he had the opportunity to pull off a really big win by grabbing the delegates of the losers. It was exactly the sort of victory that would appeal the most to him and reinforce his image. Especially if he could feast on Jeb and Rubio’s delegates.
Christie did little except feed Trump delegates. Unlikely to break the ten percent mark, any votes that went to him were Trump votes. And if he could drag Rubio below the ten percent mark, that would mean even more delegates for Trump. For the first time in his life, the New Jersey governor was feeding someone else’s appetite, but he couldn’t successfully manage to do that either.
Instead Christie blew through $18.5 in New Hampshire to come in sixth place. Jeb Bush bought his momentum and fourth place finish with $36 million. Rubio’s $15.2 million couldn’t buy him a transition from his post-Iowa momentum to a New Hampshire momentum as he finished in fifth place.
Compared to that mass of campaign and SuperPAC spending, Cruz coming in third with a little over half a million was a bargain price. Cruz had not been counting on New Hampshire. It has fewer of the religious voters that fueled his win in Iowa and he was never going to come in first place. Instead he let the contenders commit the most resources for some of the smallest stakes in the election.
Trump, who also knows a bargain when he sees one, spent less than $4 million for his big win. Unlike Iowa, limited spending still allowed him to win big and he spent around 10 percent of what Jeb did. The long game is about resource management. While the contenders were breaking the bank to build a momentum narrative, Trump and Cruz, who actually have momentum, were conserving their resources for the big fights ahead. Both candidates now have one win a piece. And also much less to prove.
For Christie and Fiorina, New Hampshire was the last watering hole in the desert. They spent big and had little to show for it. For the contenders, Jeb and Rubio, it was a cliff they had to leap across at any cost to have a shot at the race. For Trump and Cruz, it was a stopover on the way to the big game ahead.
New Hampshire was an opportunity for Bernie Sanders to scratch out his own momentum narrative. His only hope for beating Hillary Clinton is to spur enough Democratic defections before the contest reaches the heartland of the Democratic political machine where minority turnout overseen by the bosses will determine the outcome. If he can’t do that, then all the enthusiastic slogans, handmade signs, Bernie Bros and Babes for Bernie will not be enough to stop the crushing weight of that political machine.
Winning Iowa might have done it. But winning New Hampshire will not.
The New Hampshire primaries were predictable, but not very significant. Some Republican campaigns will die here. Others will die down the road, but their failed spending in New Hampshire will have killed them. The Democrats have gained little from New Hampshire. But as the various campaigns depart for greener and warmer pastures, local drivers will breathe a sigh of relief and local diners will mourn.
Many candidates came to New Hampshire promising to revive the economy. They may not have revived the American economy, but they certainly did wonders for the economy of New Hampshire.