RALEIGH – New Hampshire is one ornery place. Its voters enjoy sticking fingers in the eyes of party regulars in other states and, it seems, of national media commentators and pollsters. Perhaps that’s the reason they decided to defy every expectation – including those of the managers of the respective campaigns – and give Hillary Clinton a stunning comeback victory Tuesday night.
Every poll had Barack Obama ahead going into Tuesday’s balloting. The average was about eight points. Were all the New Hampshire polls hopelessly screwy? Well, the same pollsters actually pegged the margins in the GOP primary pretty well – the average edge for John McCain going in was four points, and he ended up defeating Mitt Romney by five.
Whatever New Hampshire voters were thinking, the practical effect is to sustain an interesting and competitive race in both parties over the next few weeks. Let’s start with the Democrats. Next Tuesday’s contest in Michigan will be “won” by Clinton, the only real candidate on the ballot because Obama (and John Edwards, who used to be a real candidate) chose not to participate to honor the national party’s censure of the state for moving its contest early. This won’t matter much, though there will still be a ripple of positive media.
In South Carolina, I suspect that Obama will have the most to gain from what will probably be Edwards’ further decline. The Democratic race is, in my view, still written in in binary code: Clinton +1 or Clinton 0. Obama still has an excellent chance of winning South Carolina. On the other hand, Clinton seems well situated to win in Nevada, which for Democrats will occur a week before South Carolina. A spirited Democratic contest will likely continue into Super-Duper Tuesday on Feb. 5.
On the Republican side, Romney fell short in a state bordering his own Massachusetts, a state where he spent many millions of dollars. McCain repeated his winning New Hampshire performance of 2000, though the margin was well short of spectacular. Is Romney done? Is McCain the new frontrunner? No and no.
Many have already found it easy to ridicule Romney’s “silver medal” spin on the Iowa and New Hampshire results. But what is truly ridiculous is how the media spinners treat primaries and caucuses as if they were basketball games, where all that matters is the win. That’s just not true. The cumulative scores are what counts, not the individual win-loss record. Admittedly, Romney spent a lot of money for months in Iowa and New Hampshire, and didn’t come in first (he spent a lot less money in Wyoming, and won). He came in a few percentage points behind the winners, but ahead of all the others. He leads in the delegate count. It is premature to count him out.
Obviously, Michigan is critical. The GOP primary there is a real one, to be heavily contested by McCain, Romney, and Huckabee. A week from now, if Romney can manage to come in first in his home state, he’ll have outperformed every other GOP candidate, taken a significant lead in delegates, and moved into position to contest Nevada and South Carolina on the 19th. As telegraphed in his concession speech, Romney will underline his economic message in Michigan, which has lagged the rest of the country in job creation and economic vitality.
The obstacles for him are daunting, however. Let’s face it: Romney is just not as exciting as political personality as are McCain, Huckabee, Clinton, and Obama. If voters are voting on personality rather than issues and competence, he won’t be their choice this year. And the compressed time frame limits his options. Still, I get so annoyed by the notion that primary wins by a few percentage points, with the totals in the 30s, are “decisive” and “devastating” and such.
As I observed after Huckabee’s win in Iowa: the one man clearly smiling after these earlier contests is Rudy Giuliani, who has performed abysmally in all of them. Why is he happy? Because his strategy was always to hope that the other GOP candidates split the early primaries, giving him an opening to take the lead with a win in delegate-rich Florida on Jan. 29 and the huge sweepstakes on Feb. 5. I didn’t think his strategy was viable, because I expected the other well-funded, well-organized candidate – Romney – to win either Iowa or New Hampshire or both.
If you enjoy watching presidential politics, 2008 is proving to be just the year for you. The last time both parties had such competitive presidential primary seasons, with no incumbents or incumbent veeps, was, uh, never.
And if you enjoy quirkiness, New Hampshire is the place for you.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.