Winning by Losing in the New Hampshire Primary

Candidates hungry for national exposure find a rich lode in the Granite State; for more than a month before the primary, most hotels in Manchester and Concord are booked solid, mainly with representatives famous and little known of the news media.”

Jules Witcover – Marathon – The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972 -1976.

This observation by the venerable author and journalist Jules Witcover is already on the minds of the communications teams of the Democratic Presidential candidates. I just left for my quadrennial visit to New Hampshire. I’ve made this political pilgrimage for more than 20 years on behalf of candidates competing in the first-in-the-nation Democratic primary.

Since it first started more than a century ago, the New Hampshire Presidential Primary has gone from a little noticed intramural skirmish within the two major parties to a national and even international media event.

This year’s primary promises to be one of the most interesting ever for two reasons. First, the results in the Iowa Caucus were inconclusive as a result of a faulty app. As a result, there was no election night victory speech, and no positive media coverage – for any candidate – which could have resulted in a bump in the polls. Secondarily, unlike recent Democratic primaries, there are more candidates vying for the win and the national recognition that comes with it. And, there are two tiers of contenders – the first comprising three front runners, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, and the second comprising of seven others desperately trying to break out of the pack before Super Tuesday on March 3rd.

For the candidates’ communications teams, this tight race means it’s possible for more than one candidate to claim victory. This has happened in the past. Most recently, this happened at the New Hampshire Primary in 1992, when Bill Clinton exceeded all expectations and came in second place behind Paul Tsongas. Clinton and his communications team immediately organized a news conference where he proclaimed himself the “Comeback Kid.” Simultaneously, his rapid response team sent out talking points to surrogates and supporters in the other 49 states.

Four years ago, the New Hampshire Primary was a simple two-person race between establishment front-runner Hillary Clinton and progressive upstart, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In what many considered a major upset, Sanders won every county in the state by double-digit margins. By contrast, it is highly improbable that the winner of this year’s multi-candidate contest will win an outright majority.

In this crowded field of candidates, Sanders is going to have difficulty generating the kind of positive press coverage he received in 2016. His rivals are already drafting media talking points saying that a Sanders win is not unexpected or exceptional given his existing organizational advantages from four years ago. Plus, New England candidates have traditionally done well in New Hampshire.

There already exists an “under the radar” messaging campaign which dismisses a Sander’s victory as to be expected from a favorite-son candidacy. This will make a poor showing for Bernie even more damaging to his campaign. This also puts tremendous pressure on Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running neck and neck with Sanders. Biden’s poor showing in Iowa – if combined with a less- than-stellar performance in New Hampshire – will have a serious impact on his ability to raise campaign funds going forward.

The danger for the three front runners is that, traditionally at this stage in the primary, most people have already made up their minds as to how they will vote. But, polling indicates that there are still a significant number of undecided voters just days before the Primary. I spoke with a Democratic Town Chair recently who told me that the “political dynamics are incredibly fluid.” This potentially creates a wide opening for one of the second-tier candidates to make an impact.

The New Hampshire Primary will be won on expectations, and it is very likely that one of the second-tier candidates will exceed expectations. Even with a third or fourth place finish, we can expect every major candidate to position this outcome as a major “win.”

 

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