The New Hampshire Surprise

Ron Nessen
Ron Nessen Journalist in Residence

January 9, 2008

One lesson from New Hampshire for the 2008 election is that the common wisdom, the polls and the pundits can be wrong. Barack Obama was supposed to win among Democrats. Hillary Clinton was supposed to lose.

Appealing to a new, younger generation of voters, Obama was expected to gain additional momentum in New Hampshire – perhaps unstoppable momentum – after his victory in the Iowa caucuses.

With her boast of “35 years of experience,” Clinton was supposed to turn off New Hampshire voters looking for “change.”

It didn’t happen that way.

And, John McCain won New Hampshire after finishing a dismal fourth in the Iowa Republican caucuses.
The victory revived the McCain campaign, which was in shambles just a few months ago from lack of funds and staff defections.

Mitt Romney, who once appeared to have the Republican Party’s nomination locked up, now—to remain viable—must focus all his efforts on winning the primary in Michigan, his home state, where his father was once governor.

To remain viable among Democrats, John Edwards must win one or more of the next few primaries. Second- and third-place finishes may win him the vice presidential nomination, but not the presidential nomination.  Perhaps his best hope is in South Carolina, next door to his home state of North Carolina.
Mike Huckabee’s surprise win in the Iowa caucuses did not appear to give him much momentum in New Hampshire. Still, he has come out of nowhere, a former governor of Arkansas, to be a leading contender for the Republican nomination.

Rudy Giuliani has deliberately not staked his campaign on winning in Iowa, New Hampshire or other early primary states. Rather, his strategy assumes that the race for the Republican nomination will still be wide open by the time Florida voters go to the polls in their primary January 29th and when voters across the country vote on Super Tuesday February 5.

While the New Hampshire results boosted the prospects of Clinton and McCain, they almost certainly ended the campaigns of those who finished at the bottom – Democrats Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich as well as Republicans Ron Paul, Fred Thompson, and Duncan Hunter.

Based on past history, one of the winners in New Hampshire – Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican John McCain – should be the next president of the United States.

In the last eight presidential elections, going back to 1976, only two Democrats and two Republicans who won in New Hampshire failed to become their party’s nominee for the White House: Democrats Gary Hart in 1988 and Paul Tsongas in 1992, and Republicans Pat Buchanan in 1996 and John McCain 2000.

Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination and the White House after finishing second to Tsongas in New Hampshire. George W. Bush won the Republican nomination and the presidency after coming in behind McCain. Robert Dole went on to win the GOP nomination after finishing second to Buchanan. And Walter Mondale eventually became the Democratic nominee after losing the primary to Hart.

Of course, the winners in New Hampshire are not yet rehearsing their speeches accepting their party’s presidential nomination. And the other surviving viable candidates are not throwing in the towel.

The confetti and balloons at the Clinton and McCain victory bashes had barely been swept up when the candidates headed for their next campaign stops: the Michigan primary on January 15th, the Nevada primary on January 19th, the South Carolina primary on January 26th, and the Florida primary on January 29th.

By then, the identity of the Democratic and Republican nominees almost certainly will be settled. If not, then “Super Tuesday” on February  5 – when primaries take place in 17 states, including California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Georgia, Minnesota, and Colorado – should settle it.

But it ain’t over till it’s over.

Obama’s surprise win in Iowa followed by his surprise loss in New Hampshire, Clinton’s surprise loss in Iowa and surprise win in New Hampshire, McCain’s surprise comeback in New Hampshire, Thompson’s surprise collapse as a serious contender, Giuliani’s decision not to compete in New Hampshire, all suggest that many unexpected twists and turns in the 2008 presidential campaign are likely before the November election.