Tuesday, January 08, 2008

How to score the New Hampshire primary

Tonight, New Hampshire speaks. Here's what I plan to be tracking:

1. Barack Obama's margin of victory. If he wins narrowly on the Democratic side, the Hillary people can semi-accurately insist that their "girl" (Hillary's recent description of herself) is alive and well and looking forward to wresting the "change" label away from Obama in the big-state contests on Feb. 5. But if Obama wins a double-digit blowout tonight, the long knives will come out in the Hillary camp and some big-shot strategists may be forced to take the fall. Plus, the money donors will start treating her as a leper, impervious even to Bill's lip-biting entreaties. And then Hillary will have to decide whether it's worth sticking around to run and/or condone a negative "stop-Obama" campaign, one that could sow bad feeling among grassroots Democrats who have hitched their hopes and dreams to the new hero. (Of course, if Hillary defies all current expectations and actually wins tonight, please forget every word I have just written.)

2. John McCain's margin of victory, assuming he wins. It all may depend on whether New Hampshire's independents, who are free to vote in either primary, flood the GOP race in sufficient numbers to put McCain over the top. If the old warhorse gives Mitt Romney a thorough thrashing tonight, it's doubtful that Romney can resuscitate himself in next Tuesday in Michigan (a state where the Romney name is a brand, thanks to his late father's stint as governor - but also a state where McCain is popular, having won the 2000 GOP primary). McCain and Romney both badly need to win tonight. Mike Huckabee does not. His southern-fried populism/evangelism is not a good fit for New Hampshire, and he'll be fine with a respectable third-place finish - especially since he has now vaulted to first place among GOP voters nationwide in the latest Gallup poll (another sign of one-time frontrunner Rudy Giuliani's ongoing slide). And speaking of the independents...

3. The behavior of the state's independents. This should tell us plenty about the general mood of the electorate. Eight years ago, the last time both parties had contested primaries, 60 percent of the independents opted to vote in the Republican race (elevating McCain). This time, New Hampshire's non-partisan Secretary of State predicts that 60 percent of the independents will choose the Democratic race (thus elevating Obama). If that number holds true, it would be another sign that the Democrats are the hotter draw in 2008. Which brings us to...

4. The turnout figures, as indicators of an energy gap. Watch to see which party gets the biggest share of the overall action. Back in 2000, the Republican race attracted 238,206 voters, crushing the Democrats, who drew only 154,639. It has been evident for many months that the GOP has been under-energized - as evident, last Thursday, in the Iowa turnout. Let's see whether New Hampshire reverses its '00 numbers and confirms the national zeitgeist. The behavior of young voters could also be a big factor; ditto the voters who are newly arrived in New Hampshire, many from the liberal Boston region (nearly one-fourth of the state's potential electorate has arrived in the years since the 2000 primaries).

By the way...Seven months ago, who would have imagined that, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, we would be talking about a potentially ascendent John McCain, and a potential Hillary Clinton flameout? Such is the velocity of contemporary politics.