New Hampshire: How much does winning the primary actually matter?

Just because you win the nation’s first primary doesn’t mean you’ll win everything else

Andrew Naughtie
Monday 10 February 2020 13:16 GMT
'She pulled me close' Joe Biden jokes at campaign event in New Hampshire

Coming off the disastrous Iowa caucuses, this year’s Democratic candidates are hoping the New Hampshire primary will bring some order to the crowded race for their party’s nomination. At least two candidates are thought likely to scoop a victory, and at least two more are hoping a strong finish or upset victory will transform their chances in the rest of the contest.

This is what New Hampshire has done for decades, winnowing out no-hope candidates and elevating underdogs over frontrunners.

But while the first-in-the-nation primary obviously carries huge symbolic weight, it does little to determine the eventual outcome. The victor in New Hampshire often goes on to lose their party’s nomination — and the loser very often wins it, only to lose the presidency at the end of the year.

As the media and the campaigns prepare to plot the Democratic candidates’ trajectories after the result, here are five cautionary examples from primaries past.

1992: The comeback kid

Winning the New Hampshire primary doesn’t guarantee you the nomination — and it doesn’t even guarantee that your campaign will be remembered. Step forward Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, whose 1992 victory has been entirely obscured by the man who finished second: Bill Clinton.

Clinton went into the primary accused of dodging the draft and having extramarital affairs, as well as ordering the execution of brain-damaged criminal Ricky Ray Rector. He was not expected to recover. But a couples’ interview on 60 Minutes helped the Clintons turn their dismal polling around and revive their “two for the price of one” campaign, vaulting Bill into second place and earning him a nickname that stuck: “the comeback kid”.

2000 & 2008: The underdog

Twice a winner and both times a loser, the now deceased war hero John McCain won New Hampshire to give George W. Bush a 19-point thrashing in 2000 and revive a nearly-dead campaign in 2008. Both victories were heralded as glorious upsets for a rugged underdog, one who stood a good chance of uniting the country behind him.

And both times, it wasn’t to be. In 2000, Bush ultimately stamped McCain out after a uniquely nasty campaign in South Carolina, and in 2008, McCain’s victory over a rotating set of Republican frontrunners gave way to a flaccid fall campaign, dragged down by a global economic collapse on one hand and Sarah Palin on the other.

2008: Tears of joy

This might just be the big one. Humiliated by her third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses just days earlier, Hillary Clinton went on to New Hampshire haemorrhaging both goodwill and money, sinking in the polls and written off by the pundit class.

An incident where she seemed to tear-up during a campaign stop is generally credited with helping dispel her rigid caricature in favour of something authentic and personal, but it wasn’t until she actually won the primary — defying polls that had her losing by 13 per cent — that her campaign looked set to survive.

The rollercoaster narrative can be tracked through four days of New York Post headlines: “Down Hill”, “Panic”, “It’s Not Easy: Emotional Hill close to tears” — and “Back from the dead: Hill’s amazing win”.

Clinton went on to run Obama ragged until the very last primaries, long after it was clear she couldn’t win. But the night of her victory was also a momentous one for Obama, who used his concession speech to define his campaign “with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: yes we can”.

But Clinton’s next run at New Hampshire was a very different affair.

2016: Warning signs

Clad in funereal black and flanked by her husband and daughter, Clinton told a cheering crowd: “I still love New Hampshire”. Given she’d just lost the primary to Bernie Sanders by nearly 23 points, she might have been forgiven for being less polite.

Her mortifying defeat kicked off a persistent narrative that ran through the primaries, namely that she was a deeply flawed candidate whom the Sanders movement was able to to undercut across the country. Still, she trounced Sanders in the South Carolina primary and ultimately beat him to the nomination by 12 points and more than 4 million votes, rather setting up her (futile) popular vote victory over Trump.

But that fateful November, New Hampshire was one of several states she won only by a hair. With a margin of 0.37%, the state where she once triumphed against all expectations was her narrowest victory in the country.

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