2016 USA primaries: #3 – New Hampshire

by Jackie_South on February 8, 2016

NH iconTuesday sees the next contest in the US presidential primary season, and the first true primary election, as opposed to caucus.

New Hampshire is very proud of this, and likes to boast that this is the first true primary. Outside the state capital in Concord, the pavement has a timeline showing the contests, their winners and the eventual winner of each party. In the fairly modest sized golden-domed building itself, the electoral services team that run the process occupy the corner office on the same corridor as the governor.

Of late, that pavement strip shows that the state’s primary has become a less and less accurate predictor of the eventual winner. For the Democrats, it failed to pick their last two successful presidents: it went for Paul Tsongas in 1992 rather than Bill Clinton and backed Hillary Clinton over Obama in 2008. For the Republicans, it picked John McCain in 2000 rather than the eventual president, George W Bush.

But it has been decisive at other times. It killed off presidents Truman’s and Johnson’s hopes of an easy re-election. John Kerry’s victory in 2004 and Mitt Romney’s in 2012 saw them both in pole positions for their respective candidacies that saw them win their party’s nominations.

So, the candidates trudge through the New England snow hoping that this is their turn.

THE GRANITE STATE

Iowa is small: a population of Wales spread across an area the size of England and Wales combined. New Hampshire is smaller still: less populous than the English Hampshire or Essex and spread over an area a bit bigger than Wales.

It is predominantly (93%) white and its cities are small: its largest, Manchester, has a population similar to Chelmsford (the town itself, rather than borough) and only two other cities have a population of over 40,000: Nashua nearby on the Massachusetts border and Concord. Most New Hampshirites live in the valley of the Merrimack River, and the two southeastern-most  counties – Hillsborough and Rockingham – contain half the population of the state.

The map below shows the state and the cities with a population over 20,000. The state’s two congressional districts (NH-01 and NH-02) are shown in red.

Also marked are the two places that are traditionally the first to report their results, due to rules that enable them to vote at midnight due to their small size: Dixville Notch and Hart’s Location.

NH map

The state is the most Republican-inclined in New England, but then New England is very Democratic. New Hampshire voted for Bill Clinton both times, and for Obama both times, and then John Kerry in 2004 (it narrowly voted for George W Bush in 2000). Those victories have been fairly tight though: Obama won in 2012 by 52.0% to 46.4%.

The Democrats are strongest in the west of state, along the border with Vermont and to a lesser extent in Merrimack county. The Republicans do best in the east of the state, including the second largest county, Rockingham. Rockingham county contains some of the wealthier commuter-towns for Boston, across the border in Massachusetts.

The largest county, Hillsborough, is slightly more Republican than average but acts as a fairly good bellwether within the state.

The map below shows how the counties voted in the 2012 presidential election. The lead in each county is shown, together with the percentage vote for Obama (blue) and Romney (red).

NH 2012 result map

To give an idea of the number of votes in each county, the graph below shows the same result by county and votes cast for each party.

2012 NH county results

THE REPUBLICANS

Like a brutal Grand National, we have already seen a number of fallers after the first hedge, Iowa. Previous winners of that state, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, got 2% apiece and have now suspended their campaigns (Santorum endorsed Marco Rubio in doing so). Rand Paul also withdrew from the contest. All three were on the right of the party, albeit with an interesting libertarian leaning in Paul’s case.

That leaves eight main contenders. The polls show Donald Trump well ahead in New Hampshire. But they did also in Iowa – should we believe them?

There are two reasons to suggest we should. Firstly, polling for caucuses, like Iowa, is difficult, not least because the caucus process is designed to persuade voters to change their mind on the night. A primary election does not have that dynamic.

In Iowa, Trump failed to mobilise the vote showing in the opinion polls. That is equally a risk in New Hampshire, but the key difference is that Trump is much further ahead. In Iowa, Trump was five points ahead of Cruz in the Des Moines Register poll and six percent on the rolling average of polls a couple of days before the election. He ended up four points behind: so a shift in relative positions of 10%-11%.

In New Hampshire, Trump is currently 18% ahead. The relative positions of him and second-placed Rubio would therefore need almost double the shift as happened in Iowa. He has clearly lost some support since the Iowa result, but not enough to do that, as our rolling tracker average of polls shows below.

GOP NH polls 2016

Trump needs to win though – without a victory here, he will be written off. A victory reshapes that narrative.

Marco Rubio clearly made gains following the Iowa result, but has only brought him back to the 16% level he started the year on.  Polls in the last couple of days have seen his support dip slightly as he faced attack in the latest TV debate from the three moderate (if under-performing) heavyweights in the contest: Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich. FiveThirtyEight judged that Rubio came out badly, not being nimble enough to depart from his rehearsed script.

Rubio’s other problem is that New Hampshire Republicans tend to be moderate, and whilst he might seem it compared to Trump and Cruz, to most people he is well to the right, even by Republican standards. He is a climate change denier, opposes Obamacare and peace with Cuba and Iran, opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest and voted against legislation supporting abused women. He wants to close the Department of Education and have more creationist teaching. He put forward legislation to make tax more regressive. Moderates are likely to look at that list and worry. More moderate Republicans in Iowa backed Trump than Rubio, with some good reason.

Christie, Bush and Kasich all need to shine in New Hampshire, with its more moderate Republican base than Iowa, if they are to go any further, and mathematics says that they cannot all do so. The polls show Christie in freefall, dropping from 13% at the start of the year to 5% now. His combative TV debate performance might help him but it looks too late. I expect him to drop out after the New Hampshire result.

Bush has been fairly steady around 10% across that period, whilst Kasich has been doing a little better. Both might hold on a little longer if they can stay in double figures, particularly if either takes third place or better. That would be a problem for Rubio, who needs them out of the way if he is to take on Trump and Cruz effectively in South Carolina.

Ted Cruz is currently in third place in the  polls, having bounced a bit from the Iowa result. He isn’t spending time in the Granite State though, instead travelling to South Carolina for the next primary. That lack of presence may hurt him, although the withdrawal of Huckabee, Paul and Santorum may help.

The remaining two in the running – Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – are both consistently polling less than 5% and seem likely to limp in last. Both may opt to see out South Carolina and Nevada, but I think they are likely to drop out before Super Tuesday (1 March).

THE DEMOCRATS

With the departure of Martin O’Malley, the Democrats have a clear two-horse race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The old socialist looks set on winning his neighbouring state, leading Clinton by 14%.

Dem NH polls 2016

That though is a decline in his lead since a peak at the time of the Iowa caucus, when it reached 26%. Clinton’s game plan is to whittle this lead down further, so that the result is closer than the polls show to suggest that the momentum is with her.

For Clinton to do so, she needs to do three things. First, make clear that she is electable against what is likely to be a very scary Republican candidate (Trump, Cruz or Rubio). Second, make the economy and healthcare the key policy issues – she outpolled Sanders on both in Iowa. Third, shows she cares about inequality – caring and inequality were issues Sanders owned in Iowa.

CONCLUSION

After predicting a Trump victory in Iowa, I ought to be cautious about predictions. But I think his lead in New Hampshire is significant enough for him to win, albeit by a smaller percentage than the 18% lead he holds in the polls.

Rubio should finish second, despite the fire he has drawn, and the party elite will start to consider him as their candidate, with more endorsements coming his way. Despite his current third place in the polls, I think Cruz will do less well, with probably Kasich picking up third place. Christie will drop out soon after the results are announced.

Bernie Sanders will win, but probably around 10 percent. But Clinton will spin this as closing the gap from where it was and will go on to win the Nevada caucus on 20 February and the South Carolina primary a week after that.

With those results, New Hampshire will not be the key contest this time around. South Carolina (20 February for the Republicans, 27 February for the Democrats), with the Trump-Cruz-Rubio three-way showdown and a likely breakaway Clinton victory, looks potentially more decisive this year.

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