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Dispatches from the Campaign Trail

Why Do We Care about New Hampshire?

Daniel Kuhn, SPA/MPA '16

American University students and faculty listen to a campaigner in New Hampshire during the lead-up to the 2016 primary.

The New Hampshire primary is a big deal. It’s a part of the state’s identity, which politicos argue has a civic-oriented fervor. One woman said she’s felt physically ill and is losing sleep thinking about the big decision ahead of her.

To date, 23 candidates have made a mind-boggling 1,725 campaign stops in the Granite State.

Some are simply competing against expectations; they don’t necessarily need to win, but they need to meet or beat expectations. Donald Trump, who even after Iowa is polling 21 points over Marco Rubio, has only made 42 campaign stops. He is instead opting for relatively few mega-events in very un-New Hampshire fashion. Rubio, has made only 55 stops, and may be playing the long game by playing down expectations, and hoping for a top 3 finish in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Some candidates simply hoped that if they could meet every single likely voter, give everyone a selfie, they might be able to overcome the odds. Three candidates fighting for the establishment mantle have practically lived in New Hampshire, with 111 campaign stops for Jeb, 182 for Kasich, and 181 for Christie.

It seems as if Clinton and Sanders agreed to a plea for sanity, each with less than 90 stops in the state.

But is the New Hampshire primary a big deal for the rest of the country? The candidates sure think so.

It’s an opportunity to demonstrate legitimacy early on in the race (or, as it were, a year into the race). If anything, Iowa and New Hampshire do have a tendency to offer candidates a dose of reality. The 15 candidates that entered Iowa are now 11. Many are branding the primary as “top 4 or go home” for a bevy of establishment candidates, which count Bush, Kasich, Christie.

Let’s take a look back in time to assess the Primary’s predictive powers.

2012: With Obama seeking reelection, Mitt Romney, who would go on to win the nomination, won with 39%

2008: After Obama pulled a shocking upset in Iowa, Hillary Clinton pulled out a two-point victory with 39% of the vote. On the Republican side, New Hampshire catapulted John McCain to possible front-runner after finishing 4th in Iowa, and eventually captured the nomination.

2004: With George W. Bush seeking reelection, eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry won the primary.

2000: Al Gore pulled out a four-point victory over Bill Bradley. It wasn’t close on the Republican side with McCain winning by 19 points over “Dubya” Bush, but Bush went on to capture the nomination.

What does this all mean? Well, based on the results, of the 6 contested New Hampshire primaries since 2000, the eventual nominee won 4 times, with each party’s eventual nominee losing New Hampshire once in three chances (Hillary 2008, McCain 2000).

Some experts feel that while Iowa is better at picking Democrats and bad at picking Republicans, New Hampshire is better a picking Republicans. No Republican except Dubya Bush has lost New Hampshire and won the Presidency (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Daddy Bush all won NH before claiming the White House).

Back to 2016. As of today, there is a cluster behind Trump at 33%. Rubio sits in second (12%), followed by Cruz and Kasich (11%), Bush (9%) and Christie (6%). Remember, any Republican who fails to reach 10% will receive zero delegates.

Now to the Democratic side, which has been dizzying. In July, Hillary Clinton led by 17%. In September, Bernie Sanders led by 13%. Then, around Thanksgiving it was Clinton by 8%, and by Christmas it was Sanders by 9%. Only up 3 points the first week of January, he now leads by 18%. We’ve got a good old-fashioned game of political whack-a-mole on our hands.

There is a lot campaign left after New Hampshire (in fact, almost all of it).