New Hampshire prides itself on surprising people with the outcome of its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. This year, though, the top winner in each party was the candidate the polls had long predicted would win.
So if there was any surprise, it was that the candidates those polls had been smiling on were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Less than a year ago, neither would have been thought a likely candidate, let alone a plausible winner.
Trump has been a man of uncertain party affiliation who has flirted with running for president for decades. Sanders has billed himself as a socialist and then as a democratic socialist, and now as a Democrat.
Those histories might have hurt these outsider entrants a week earlier in the Iowa caucuses, where activism and intensity count for a lot. But in New Hampshire, where roughly 40 percent of the vote in each party was cast by people who do not declare a preference for either party, the very independence of Sanders and Trump clearly helped their cause.
Among those independents who voted Tuesday in each party, the clear majority voted for Sanders and Trump. Among declared Democrats, Clinton held her own. And among declared Republicans, Trump did not do nearly as well.
Iowa and New Hampshire dominate the early campaigning, the early reporting and the early punditry in every four-year presidential cycle. But Iowa and New Hampshire have spoken, each in its own unique accent. Now the race moves to two states quite different from the first two, and also quite different from each other.
In Nevada, the contest takes on a Spanish inflection for the first time. The Democrats will be here first, for Saturday caucuses on Feb. 20. Clinton has had a lead in the limited polling done in the state, and Sanders has yet to have much of a presence. But that will change in the wake of New Hampshire.
The GOP comes calling for its own caucuses on Feb. 23. Trump has been the early favorite.
Candidates in both parties will be contending with a new media reality in the Silver State, where the largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has just been bought by billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Czar of an international gambling empire, Adelson is also a Republican who has taken a highly active interest in presidential politics. He largely bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s White House campaign four years ago.
But the larger prize on the horizon is South Carolina, which not only has more delegates to offer but has stood as a gateway to the South, including the mega-states of Georgia, Florida and Texas.
In every presidential cycle from 1980 until 2012, the winner of the GOP primary in South Carolina stormed on to dominate later Southern primaries and wrap up the nomination. This year, the Republicans are going to South Carolina before they get to Nevada, and their primary in the Palmetto State is slated for a week from Saturday (Feb. 20).
Half-a-dozen serious contenders remain on the GOP side, and most have powerful assets in South Carolina or meaningful ties to the state. Trump leads in the polls there by more than his national margin.
Ted Cruz also sees pastures of plenty in the state’s populous evangelical community (more like Iowa than New Hampshire), and among those who call themselves “very conservative” on social issues in particular. Cruz has been running a strong second in state polls, and if Iowa and New Hampshire are any indication, he will exceed his poll numbers.
But Marco Rubio has not been far behind, at least in the weeks before the Feb. 6 debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Although he had initially denied the debate had hurt him, Rubio left New Hampshire admitting he had “dropped the ball” and assuring his backers “that will never happen again.”
Rubio has major backing in South Carolina from Senate colleague Tim Scott and other major statewide figures. He also has several key campaign advisers who hail from South Carolina and are steeped in its sometimes rough-and-tumble political tactics. The state has a growing Hispanic population that will probably find Rubio more simpatico than Cruz.
Jeb Bush has spent heavily in South Carolina and can be expected to double down on the investment after finishing well enough in New Hampshire to revivify his campaign. Bush has the support of longtime Sen. Lindsey Graham (who ran for president himself earlier in the cycle). Moreover, Bush may find his family history more of a boon in South Carolina than in any other state in the early voting.
His father’s campaign guru, Lee Atwater, hailed from the state and literally invented its primary to facilitate Ronald Reagan’s nomination in 1980. Transferring to the Bush team in 1988, Atwater delivered his home state for his new boss in 1988 and 1992, cementing Bush’s claim on the nomination each time. The second President Bush also won here, in 2000 and 2004.
The remaining Republican contender of note is John Kasich, the Ohio governor who catapulted from nowhere in Iowa to second place in New Hampshire. Kasich camped out in the Granite State for weeks, neglecting Iowa and other early voting states. He has not had noticeable standing in South Carolina and will need to exploit his New Hampshire success quickly to avoid embarrassment there.
Kasich has moved into a stage of his campaign in which he can envision being virtually any other candidate’s first choice for vice president. Kasich’s own moderate appeal (with the necessary conservative credibility) is a good complement to the magnetic attraction of his home state. (No Republican has ever been elected president without carrying Ohio.)
As of this writing, the future campaign plans of Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Jim Gilmore remain uncertain. But it is hard to imagine them continuing much longer following weak finishes in New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, South Carolina has been the place in past campaigns where one candidate or another found the key to African-American hearts – and with it the short route to the nomination.
It was in South Carolina in 2008 that Barack Obama absconded with the black vote that Hillary Clinton (and her husband, Bill) had thought they had under contract. Obama parlayed his performance in Iowa, which he won with an almost all-white electorate, into an irresistible bid for black support. Sanders will seek to do something similar, but cannot play quite the same identity politics mastered by the first African-American nominated and elected to the White House.
South Carolina will be the true testing ground not only for Sanders’ message of economic change but for the Clintons’ residual appeal to black voters. It has been described as Hillary Clinton’s firewall against the Sanders conflagration. But it has yet to be truly tested, and Sanders has 17 days to surmount it.
Thereafter, there will only be a handful of campaign days before a dozen states vote on March 1. The long and languorous phase of 2016, when candidates could spend weeks concentrating on a single state, is now in the rearview mirror.