In New Hampshire, surprises on primary day are the norm. That’s because the place remains full of choosy voters who are famously undecided until they’ve actually met all of the candidates personally. And of course the Granite State includes a small but relevant share of independents who genuinely can’t make a decision between, say, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Those two are almost certain to take first place in the Republican and Democratic primaries. (Notice how I didn’t say “their” party’s primaries because neither is really a member of the party?) But the margins could shock and we might see other gob-smacking moments.
After attending Trump’s now-infamous “Ted Cruz is a pussy” rally last night in Manchester, I realized that I’ve seen astonishing turnarounds on the last weekend in six of the eight New Hampshire primaries I’ve covered since I was a pup.
In 1984, I watched Sen. Gary Hart come out of nowhere to beat former Vice President Walter Mondale by a wide margin.
In 1988, sitting Vice President George Bush, humiliated only days before by Rev. Pat Robertson in Iowa, clobbered Sen. Bob Dole and went on to win the White House.
In 1992, Gov. Bill Clinton, reeling from sex and draft-dodging scandals, finished second behind Sen. Paul Tsongas from neighboring Massachusetts, but spun it as a “Comeback Kid” victory that gave him rocket fuel all the way to the presidency.
In 1996, commentator Pat Buchanan—sounding many of the same themes as Trump—upset Dole here and complicated his path forward.
In 2000, Sen. John McCain came from far back to handily beat frontrunning Gov. George W. Bush and nearly wrest the nomination from him.
And in 2008, Sen. Hillary Clinton, trounced by Sen. Barack Obama in Iowa, turned it around with a convincing win in New Hampshire that presaged a bitter struggle all winter and spring.
Of course, in all of those cases, the polls were wrong—not by a little but by a lot.
The big historic stories tonight will likely be that Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP remains on track and that Sanders will bedevil Hillary for months.
But the battle for second place on the Republican side has become critically important for the contours of the GOP race.
Just as Obama’s “You’re likable enough, Hillary” comment in the 2008 primary-eve WMUR debate stopped his momentum, Marco Rubio’s callow robotics under withering prosecution from Chris Christie ended any momentum Rubio had from his impressive third-place finish in Iowa.
That leaves the “establishment lane”—a large chunk of the GOP—up for grabs.
It may be that no one fills it in New Hampshire, with Rubio, Cruz, Jeb Bush, Christie, and John Kasich all in a clump behind Trump.
Six tickets out of New Hampshire would be an even bigger win for Trump, dividing the opposition as the campaign heads into delegate-rich primaries.
My gut is often wrong (so don’t hate me in the morning) but I have a feeling Kasich might take a solid second, in large part because he’s put in the time here—103 town meetings—and has distinguished himself from the pack by combining a strong track record as governor with a positive message, the latter as rare this year as a red rose in a snowbank.
On board his bus Sunday, I asked Kasich if that positivity would continue all season.
“If someone messes with me, I can’t just smile,” he said, signaling that if he does well here he will likely join the cage fighters by Nevada and South Carolina.
But is he too reasonable for today’s GOP and too conservative for moderate southern New Hampshire businesspeople concerned about the tone of the Republicans?
Kasich told me he doesn’t see anger in the electorate but cross-party concerns about student debt, aging out of the workforce, and rampant drug abuse, the latter a particular problem in northern New England.
“I’m like porridge—not too hot and not too cold—the right temperature,” Kasich said. “We’re cutting through with a positive message when everyone else is trashing everyone else.”
Still, he thinks others contenders have already indicated they fear his emergence. “If we were so [ineffectively] ‘reasonable,’ why did they spend $5 to $7 million to knock me down?” He believes the debates are overrated in their effect on the race and, unlike Trump, he claims to not pay attention to polls: “I play golf without a leader board.”
He concluded: “I’m a true believer. A true believer thinks he can convince anyone of the rightness of his cause.”
His electoral predicament was captured a few minutes earlier at a town meeting in Concord when a young woman asked him: “If you could get a balanced budget but only in a deal that included fully funding Planned Parenthood, would you do it?”
Kasich said a GOP Congress would never go along with funding Planned Parenthood (“It ain’t gonna happen”), but then he went to pains to tout his support for women’s health as governor of Ohio.
The disappointed questioner was left with the realization that no matter how much more reasonable Kasich is than the other GOP candidates, he would still allow, as president, the dismantling of a program that provides millions of women with their basic health needs.
But this contortion has little bearing on the primary. Both John Weaver, Kasich’s chief strategist, and former Sen. John Sununu, an important supporter, made convincing cases to me that late deciders weren’t likely to go to Rubio (who according to polls, lost his Iowa momentum even before his disastrous debate), Trump (who already has any voter who thinks waterboarding is too gentle), or Cruz, though the latter may have won some support in the debate for his slightly too-eager description of his half-sister’s death from a drug overdose.
And sure, Jeb could make an epic comeback, but I wouldn’t bet Kennebunkport on it. Yesterday I saw his final appearance, which, fittingly, took place at the Nashua Country Club. Bush gave a good speech about his accomplishments as governor of Florida, including a sharp crackdown on deadbeat dads, but the Rotary Club only filled a half-dozen tables. Those ridiculous ads from his still-unpopular brother—not to mention a last-minute visit from 90-year-old Barbara Bush—seem like Jeb’s way of making his loved ones feel useful at his political wake.
I heard Christie get some nice “attaboys” for decking Rubio but they didn’t seem to be translating into votes. He’s closing with an ad about the 9/11 attacks in a state that rejected Rudy Giuliani and he looks like a tea kettle in it. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorini have passed their sell-by dates.
That leaves Kasich as the last man standing under Trump, at least in New Hampshire. Christie, he of nine credit downgrades, refocused attention on governors, leading voters back to Kasich, who has the most recent record of accomplishment.
Of course that only matters if experience, knowledge, and achievement count for anything anymore in presidential politics, a premise of great utility in a democracy that a certain vulgar and demagogic prevaricating billionaire has done his best to destroy.