The 2016 New Hampshire Presidential Primary is almost here. On February 9, all eyes will be on the Granite State. For the Republicans, coming out of the Iowa Caucus, it is currently a three-man race between Iowa Caucus winner Texas Senator Ted Cruz who ended the night with 27.65% of the vote, national front runner billionaire Donald Trump who took second place with 24.31%, and the surprise of the evening, Florida Senator Marco Rubio who went home with the third place trophy with an unexpected 23.10% of the vote which was about 8 points above pre-caucus projections. Going into New Hampshire, according to the most recently released poll, The University of Massachusetts/7 News Tracking Poll, Trump is still the leader of the pack at 35%, a 21+ point lead over Rubio at 14% and Cruz at 13%.
Many say that Trump has New Hampshire in the bag, that he resonates more in a state like New Hampshire than he does in Iowa. After all, evangelical Christians represent a much smaller segment of the Republican voter base in the Granite State than in the Hawkeye State where Cruz was so popular.
Trump also learned his lesson in Iowa that the local people don’t like it when you skip a debate on their home turf. He delivered a strong performance at the February 6 ABC Debate at Saint Anselm College. He had an interesting moment when he attempted to counter the perception that he is not a “conservative” by making the point that being a conservative is about “conserving” our nation’s resources. “I view the word conservative as a derivative of the word ‘conserve’. We want to conserve our money. We want to conserve our wealth. We want to conserve, we want to be smart…We want to conserve our country. We want to save our country,” Trump told the audience.
While he did not sacrifice any of his usual bravado, he appeared more presidential in his demeanor. However, poll projectors and campaign analysts claim that Trump must win New Hampshire even though he is leading in most national and state polls, as he will face greater challenges as the campaign moves south.
Cruz, for his part will probably be happy with a second or third win in New Hampshire and will focus his efforts on South Carolina. While he is still riding high on his Iowa win, his campaign has likely suffered from the accusation that his staff tried to sabotage the campaign of Dr. Ben Carson by misinterpreting a CNN on air report that Dr. Carson was leaving Iowa to get a fresh set of clothes to mean that he was dropping out of the race.
The Carson campaign published on its YouTube channel an audio of two voice mails which the Cruz campaign sent on Iowa caucus night to precinct captains. The messages said that Carson was suspending his presidential campaign and instructed Cruz’s precinct captains to urge Iowans to caucus for Cruz over Carson, citing the CNN story as the source of the “breaking news”. The audio of the voice mails was originally obtained by Breitbart News.
The Trump campaign jumped on this story and quickly started accusing Cruz of committing fraud and demanding that Cruz’s campaign results be nullified. For his part, Cruz shot back, accusing Trump of “throwing a Trumper-tantrum”. While Cruz has endeavored to diffuse the situation with the Carson campaign by apologizing for his staff’s failure to correctly follow up on the “report”, his campaign had to waste valuable time fighting, defending themselves in the media which took away from Cruz’s message.
On the other hand, Cruz delivered a competent performance in the ABC debate. While it was not one of his standout performances, it was polished and on message. He also had a humorous moment when he spoke about immigration. “We’re going to build a wall. We’re going to triple the border patrol. We’re going to increase — and actually, since Donald enjoyed that, I will simply say, I’ve got somebody in mind to build it.”
Rubio, who was experiencing a halo effect from his strong third place win in Iowa and a number of high profile endorsements including South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, and two of his past GOP presidential ticket rivals, former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, hit a shocking low point with an extremely weak performance at The ABC Debate. The weak performance was especially noteworthy given that Rubio is usually one of the better debate performers.
However, in New Hampshire, Rubio was completely off his game. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went after Rubio’s attendance record in the Senate and branded him as too inexperienced to be president of the United States. Rubio who is typically extremely articulate repeated the same statement three times within a matter of minutes “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he is doing.” Christie called him out for this repeated sound bite. “This is what Washington, D.C. does. The New Jersey Governor proclaimed “The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”
While Rubio can overcome one bad debate, his lackluster performance had the side effect of buoying the confidence of some of the second tier candidates like Governor Christie, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich who all delivered strong performances. Bush had a particularly effective moment when he said, “ I’d like to see more millionaires. I think we need to grow more millionaires, we need to create a prosperity society where people can rise up.” Bush had another good moment when he went after Trump on eminent domain.
One of Christie’s key supporters, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, thought Christie won the debate. “He got the biggest applause. He was tough. He answered the questions.” Hogan further added, “It was a good night for the governors. Kasich held his own [and] Bush did really well.”
The “governors” may now have a greater motivation to stay in the race longer as they perceive weaknesses in the campaigns of three candidates at the top. If one or more of these tier 2 candidates breaks out with a strong placement in New Hampshire or the upcoming South Carolina primary, the race may shift from being a three man race to a four or five man race in the lead up to Super Tuesday on March 1.
Given that 45% of New Hampshire voters have not yet made up their mind who they are going to vote for on Tuesday, the pressure is on. Every candidate has a chance to make more headway before the polls close Tuesday night. Stay tuned as the countdown to the New Hampshire Primary begins!