5 Scenarios for What Might Come Next in New Hampshire

5 Scenarios for What Might Come Next in New Hampshire

Donald Trump won twice in Iowa last night — first by securing an overwhelming margin of victory, and second because Nikki Haley’s claim as the only real alternative was damaged by her third-place finish behind a limping Ron DeSantis.

So now what? Is the 2024 GOP presidential race effectively over, or can something approaching a fight for the nomination still emerge? New Hampshire will provide an answer.

And no matter what answer you’re looking for, you’re in luck. In the seven decades since New Hampshire decided to put the names of candidates on its primary ballot, the Granite State has offered every conceivable result. It has made losers out of winners and winners out of losers; it has ended the battle for the nomination and turned coronations into pitched battles; it has turned underdogs into contenders, triggered months-long contests and delivered results that proved by turn decisive and irrelevant. Whatever happens next Tuesday, there’s a model for it.

Here’s how it’s gone down before, and how it might turn out in 2024.

New Hampshire Ends the Contest

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore was the frontrunner facing former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. It was Bradley’s hope that independents, permitted to vote in either party’s primary, would flock to him and provide him the victory. But that year, independents were drawn to GOP Sen. John McCain. He won his primary; Bradley lost to Gore by just four points and essentially disappeared after that, as Gore won every later contest en route to the nomination. Four years later, Democratic Sen. John Kerry followed his late-surge Iowa win with a 12-point triumph over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who had been leading in New Hampshire all through the pre-primary season. Kerry then won virtually every subsequent contest. That’s the highly likely result in 2024 should Trump win in New Hampshire by a comfortable margin.

“Correcting” Iowa

Haley did herself no favor in Iowa by observing that New Hampshire “corrects” the Hawkeye state, but her history is sound. Again and again, the first primary state has brushed aside the results of the first caucus state. Ronald Reagan lost the 1980 Iowa caucuses to George H.W. Bush; he then won a landslide in New Hampshire. Bush finished third in Iowa in 1988; his victory over Bob Dole in New Hampshire put him on the path to the GOP nomination. That same year, Mike Dukakis ran third in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, before winning the Granite State and eventually the nomination. John McCain was left for dead in Iowa in 2008; his New Hampshire win was his first big step to victory. Despite Trump’s huge margin in Iowa, the radically different terrain in New Hampshire — far less evangelical, far more moderate, a primary open to independents — opens the possibility for a very different result. (At least that’s what Haley is counting on.)

Winning by Losing, Losing by Winning

It’s a history familiar to political junkies, but it’s worth revisiting: Lyndon Johnson won the 1968 New Hampshire primary on a write-in by eight points; but the 41 percent won by anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy made the discontent with Johnson and the Vietnam War clear; he declared his intention not to run for reelection less than three weeks later. Ed Muskie won New Hampshire in 1972 by almost 10 points; but because he fell short of the 50 percent benchmark that the political world had set for his success, it was George McGovern’s 37 percent that proved more influential; front-runner Muskie left the race by the spring and McGovern won the nomination. In 1976, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan came within 1,341 votes of defeating sitting President Gerald Ford. But because his campaign had boasted of a likely landslide, the hairsbreadth loss was deemed a serious setback, and Reagan’s late surge was not enough to unseat Ford. In 1992, Bill Clinton ran almost nine points behind Sen. Paul Tsongas. But because charges of draft dodging and extra-marital affairs had threatened to drive him from the race, his second-place finish — and his shrewd command of election night TV — permitted him to proclaim himself “the comeback kid.”

It’s doubtful that a very close second place finish for Haley in New Hampshire this year would permit her to fit this category. Ironically, her surge in some of the state’s polls has robbed her of the potential element of surprise should she come close to the all-but-presumptive nominee. It may be that only a win will provide a serious blow to Trump’s “inevitability.”

The Front-Runner Stumbles, But Survives

Walter Mondale came to New Hampshire in 1984 holding what the New York Times called the biggest polling lead of any non-incumbent in history. By nightfall, he had been beaten by Gary Hart in a landslide, and only victories in Georgia and Alabama saved his campaign. In 2000, George W. Bush was on his way to a coronation, when John McCain’s free-wheeling town hall campaign earned him a similar win in New Hampshire. Only the determination of the GOP base not to nominate a heretic like McCain saved Bush.

This history is important to keep in mind should Haley (or more improbably DeSantis) actually win New Hampshire. For all the obsession with the first primary state, states later on in the calendar have often proved more decisive. Illinois and New York made the difference for Walter Mondale in 1984; South Carolina restored George W. Bush’s status in 2000. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 New Hampshire win prevented Barack Obama from quickly closing out the contest, but Obama still won after a months-long state-by-state delegate slog (his team’s great insight was that winning small states by large margins was more effective than winning large states by small margins).

That’s why even a Trump loss in New Hampshire may matter less than the media frenzy to follow would suggest. After New Hampshire the terrain is significantly tilted in Trump’s favor: It’s not only because of the size and intensity of his base, but because his supporters have dominated the delegate selection process, making it easier for a candidate to turn pluralities into winner-takeall delegate results. (Josh Putnam’s FHQ Plus is the indispensable guide to this world).

New Hampshire Is Irrelevant

The last campaign provided something new — a New Hampshire primary that turned out to have no significance. In 2020, Joe Biden followed his fourth-place showing in Iowa with a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, a contest featuring sparse roads, little money and the powerful scent of impending death. After Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ big win in Nevada, the question the punditry was asking was whether by Super Tuesday, Sanders would have enough delegates to make him an almost unstoppable leader.

But then came South Carolina — the first contest with a significant Black voter base and Biden beat Sanders by a 2.5 to 1 margin. Within days, contenders Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg dropped out to endorse Biden, and Super Tuesday gave Biden wins across the country. In 96 hours, he had changed from a sure loser to the presumptive nominee.

Given Trump’s standing in the Republican Party, even a Haley win in New Hampshire would likely be a speed bump on the road to a Trump nomination. But a “likely” result is not a certainty; the state’s political history demonstrates it can offer up just about any result at all.

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