Last night, the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary reordered the presidential race on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the ticket. Though long expected to take first place, Donald Trump even outdid these expectations, finishing with 35 percent of the vote, only four points below Mitt Romney’s finish in 2012. John Kasich took second place after a strong finish among moderate and liberal primary voters, winding up a few points above Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, who took third and fourth respectively. After a difficult debate performance on Saturday, Marco Rubio slipped from second place to fifth and took only about 10 percent of the vote.
On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders walloped former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by a massive 22-point margin, winning almost every demographic except voters over the age of 65. Though victory came as no surprise given Sen. Sanders’ long-standing lead over Secy. Clinton in the Granite State, the margin of his victory did come as a bit of a shock. Only two of the last ten polls taken on the Democratic side in the week before Tuesday’s vote gave Sanders’ a 20-point or greater advantage over Clinton, and of the last three polls, Sanders averaged only about a 10-point lead.
As the Republicans move forward to next week’s primary in South Carolina, it remains to be seen who will emerge from the pack of mid-tier candidates as a viable alternative to the current frontrunners, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Though Jeb Bush took fourth place in New Hampshire, doing so did not defy expectations. In fact, Bush’s final vote tally came in at 11 percent, half a point below his final standing in the RealClearPolitics polling average. The only reason Bush did not finish fifth (or worse) was Marco Rubio’s sudden decline, which slotted the young Florida senator into the fifth place spot and gave the former governor the votes of some of Rubio’s disaffected supporters.
Even John Kasich’s second-place finish, which situated him four percent above the third-place Ted Cruz, does not tell us much about the future of the race. Kasich matched Trump’s strength among moderates and liberal New Hampshire primary voters, but collapsed among conservatives and voters looking for a political outsider. In South Carolina, there is no such thing as a northeastern moderate, yet without this demographic, Gov. Kasich will struggle immensely. He took only 11 percent of conservative voters who, in notoriously moderate New Hampshire, made up nearly seventy percent of the primary electorate. In view of these numbers, Kasich’s second-place finish is more indicative of the suitability of the Granite State’s demographics for a moderate presidential candidate than Kasich’s broad electoral strength.
Another problem for Gov. Kasich is money. He has concentrated almost all of his resources on New Hampshire, quietly building support through town-hall meetings while the better-funded candidates campaigned in Iowa and spent millions on giant ad buys. If he receives anything less than a massive shot in the arm from his second-place finish, Kasich will not have the resources to weather a tough defeat in South Carolina and build a head of steam going into Nevada and Super Tuesday.
Jeb Bush has a similar problem. Though the former Florida governor’s super PAC still has cash on hand, Bush’s seemingly endless stumbles in the debates—as well as the echoes of Donald Trump’s vicious attacks from the early days of the campaign—have reduced the flood of campaign funding to a trickle. In terms of hard campaign dollars, Bush has less cash on hand than Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Unless he can somehow parlay his fourth-place finish in New Hampshire into some real momentum, perhaps through an unexpectedly strong debate performance before South Carolina, it is unlikely that Jeb will be able to revive his candidacy in time to build the coalition he needs to win the nomination.
This seems to leave Marco Rubio, once again, as the candidate of choice. Well-funded and with a strong finish in Iowa under his belt, Rubio could have been the second-place finisher if not for his stumble in Saturday’s debate, which undoubtedly led to his disappointing showing in New Hampshire. Regardless of how the race goes from here, Sen. Rubio will need to offer compelling answers to those who question his experience and the authenticity of his “canned” message if he wants to have any hope of turning his striking defeat in New Hampshire into forward momentum.
Fortunately for Sen. Rubio, his difficult debate moment does not appear to have been a campaign killer. Rick Perry’s infamous “oops” moment in 2012 dominated the airwaves for weeks; Rubio’s misstep was replayed for only a day or two, at the end of which the news media shifted its focus to the New Hampshire primary. The next debate will be a crucial opportunity for the Florida senator to reclaim his position as the coalition candidate and reaffirm his ability to connect with the American people. Without a doubt, Marco Rubio is one of the best debaters in the field, but he needs to demonstrate that he can provide good responses to attacks upon his youth, inexperience, and his prepared lines if he wants to redeem himself before it is too late.
The Democratic race
The battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the hearts and minds of Democratic voters has been fascinating to watch. Throughout the process thus far, I have maintained a healthy reserve of doubt about Sen. Sanders’ chances of obtaining his party’s nomination. Clinton has the support of the entire Democratic Party machinery and has effectively been the anointed candidate of the party establishment even before the day she announced her candidacy. According to FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement primary tracker, which allocates points to candidates based upon the endorsements they receive, Secy. Clinton has 466 points; Sen. Sanders has just two.
Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that having institutional support might not be enough this year, just as it was not enough for Clinton back in 2008. Sen. Sanders is gaining a remarkable foothold in this race, turning out notoriously unengaged voter groups—millennials, for instance—and raising millions of dollars in a truly grassroots presidential election campaign. Though he still has enormous ground to cover in many polls, particularly in the South, the reason for his deficit in these areas has more to do with how little people know about him than with actual disagreement on the issues. This effect has been borne out by recent national polls. In one stunning example, a Quinnipiac poll taken shortly before Christmas showed Clinton with a massive 31-point lead over Sanders nationally. Less than a month-and-a-half later, the same polling organization conducted another national survey and found Sanders and Clinton in a statistical dead heat.
Bernie Sanders’ best bet is to keep talking and keep expanding his media presence. The more people hear about his campaign, the more they like him, and the harder it will be for Hillary Clinton to hold onto her lead in her so-called southern firewall. At the same time, Sen. Sanders must expand his support beyond white liberals into the minority community. If he cannot make the sale to African-American and Latino voters, he will be crushed when the race turns toward Clinton’s stronghold in the South.