In Iowa, Hillary Clinton dramatically underperformed expectations against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. As results trickled in, Clinton and Sanders were in an effective tie in Iowa. What looked like a sure Clinton win even in the summer of 2015, rapidly became uncertain as Sanders made the race competitive. For much of December and January, polls went back and forth between Sanders and Clinton, and heading into the caucuses, the race was a true tossup.
Despite the advantages Clinton entered the race with, Sanders leaves Iowa rightly feeling good about his performance. In many ways, despite the race being narrower this year, the race must be about as disappointing as 2008 for the Clinton camp.
Sanders’ performance is meaningful, especially given where he was polling even a few months ago and there is no doubt, his performance in Iowa will continue to energize his ‘revolutionaries,’ and bring substantial small dollar donations and intense media coverage. Sanders has the momentum, support, and (most importantly) funding to keep going. And he will. He will march on to New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina and Texas…Ahhhh!!!!
But the most important next step has little to do with Bernie Sanders. It’s obvious: Fly to Manchester, and win New Hampshire.
For Clinton, she is surrounded by experienced, savvy advisors. These advisors worked tirelessly as Clinton’s Iowa numbers declined. She’ll have plenty of discussion about how to carve the right path to the nomination. One person she may consider listening to, though, is Toby Ziegler.
No, Toby isn’t on Clinton’s payroll. But in a fictional election in the West Wing, he advised a liberal candidate seeking the presidency, Jed Bartlet. In the second season of the West Wing, Bartlet had momentum coming out of Iowa (ironically, in a Sanders-esque way, losing but with momentum). The next race was, of course, the New Hampshire primary. New Hampshire was Bartlet’s homestate and Toby and his other advisers made an important point: Bartlet couldn’t beat expectation, and spending the time and effort there might have been a waste. His performance would play poorly in the media. His advisers told him to go immediately to South Carolina.
Perhaps that strategy would be effective for Clinton. After the Iowa win, Clinton could write off New Hampshire, say that it is Sanders neighbor, head to South Carolina and Nevada, and try to change the dynamic in the race. Rather than Clinton losing New Hampshire in the state she competed in, she could frame New Hampshire as a loss in a state she handed to Sanders. If she won’t win the Granite State, why not set up shop in a state she knows she will win.
The media, addicted to the horserace, will frame a Sanders win in New Hampshire—by whatever margin—seem like a political earthquake, and so instead, Clinton should try to blunt that message.
Her shift to the next two states would let her continue to connect with the voters there and begin to implement (perhaps a bit earlier than expected) a march through Nevada, South Carolina, and a pack of Southern states that fill the Super Tuesday primary.
She doesn’t need to wholly ignore New Hampshire; she can send surrogates—she has plenty. SuperPAC money can fill the void. Independent expenditures like EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, or one of the many unions that have endorsed her can fund a week-long effort. Meanwhile, the candidate can crisscross the Palmetto State, honing her message and campaigning on the Obama record that South Carolina Democrats strongly support.
Like Bartlet, it’s unclear what she wins by continuing to compete in New Hampshire. She has much more to win if she can wrestle away the media narrative and turn a loss into a win—or at least a less bad loss. She can’t make New Hampshire disappear, but she can try to make it disappear from the headlines as quickly as possible.
It’s probably not best for a presidential candidate to take advice from a fictional adviser from a TV show. But the next step for the campaign is an important one. Conventional wisdom says a candidate should not skip states: grind your way through all of them until you win or withdraw. But, there’s nothing conventional about this year’s race. In fact, if Donald Trump has shown us anything, sometimes you win by breaking the rules, doing what you want, and hoping it works.
Campaigning in New Hampshire won’t work for Clinton. Skipping it might. In 1992 in New Hampshire, Governor Clinton was accused of dodging the draft. In 2016, Secretary Clinton might be best served being M.I.A.