There is more at stake than meets the eye in today’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary in New Hampshire. The campaigns of the frontrunner and lone remaining challenger on the Republican side have been well-chronicled. Meanwhile on the Democratic side, write-in candidate Joe Biden, after ditching the state in favor of South Carolina, is holding his breath, hoping to at least secure a majority against two relative unknowns. But those two other Democrats and no less than five independent candidates also stand to gain or lose traction depending on what happens in the Granite State.
At the same time, we should take a step back and examine the macro picture. The hoopla surrounding its status as the kickoff primary of the election season grossly distorts the relative significance of the state of New Hampshire in the long run. It has been awarded less than one percent of the total delegates to July’s GOP Convention in Milwaukee and holds a mere four electoral votes – also less than one percent of the 538 total. Put another way, if the state’s primary was held in, say, March or April, few would pay attention to it.
Nevertheless, that said, what happens in New Hampshire will not, as the saying goes, stay in New Hampshire. The cascading effects of the various possible outcomes will make for robust debate over the coming months in an – and this word is used advisedly – unprecedented presidential election. But there is no word short of that to describe a race featuring the oldest man – and perhaps the most feeble – ever to hold the office against his predecessor, who would himself be the eldest by the end of a second term. On top of that in the realm of the never-before-seen, Trump is under indictment in half the country, it seems, a target of the boldest, most perverse attempt ever witnessed to “protect democracy” by forcibly removing the frontrunner from the ballot and sending him to prison. Add to that a building thirst among a strong majority of the electorate for alternative candidates, leading to the already-declared candidacies of Jill Stein, Cornel West, and most notably, Democratic defector Robert F. Kennedy Jr. plus the likely entry of a well-known moderate in the No Labels middle-of-the-road lane, and almost anything seems possible.
You Can’t Tell the Candidates Without a Scorecard
On the Republican side, Donald Trump has undoubtedly been energized by the unexpected but wise withdrawal and endorsement of the man once thought to be his chief rival, Ron DeSantis. He is looking not just to win in New Hampshire, but to deliver a knockout blow to the lone remaining GOP challenger, Nikki Haley. The former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador has in turn targeted her campaign at disparate anti-Trump factions including Lincoln Project-type Republicans, independents and Democrats converting to the GOP. The lady who has outlasted no less than eight male candidates will attempt to capitalize on her supposed recent momentum. And while her self-proclaimed “big mo” was something of a dubious claim considering her third-place finish in Iowa, she did turn out to be right with her widely ridiculed statement that the GOP primary had become a two-horse race.
Haley’s goal is to limit her margin of defeat – hopefully to single digits – in order to justify carrying on her back-to-the-future quasi-neo-conservative campaign. Realistically, her hope is in living to fight another day – but with her home state, and one of Trump’s strongest states, looming, a crushing defeat would force her to seriously consider following Ron DeSantis to the sidelines and endorsing Trump in a further show of Republican unity. It would also mean sidestepping an embarrassing landslide on her home turf that could weaken her brand for another run at the big prize in 2028.
The effect of ending the intra-party race would be profound. If Trump wins in a blowout, forcing Haley to withdraw, he will be able to immediately pivot to his real campaign against Biden, months earlier than if he was still engaged in an active primary in his own party. That extra time and unity would allow Trump to focus the entirety of his campaign on ramping up and sharpening his attacks on the man who unseated him. If, on the other hand, Haley somehow shocks the world and wins, or at least comes within single digits of Trump, the primary campaign will likely carry on to South Carolina and Nevada. But Trump holds enormous leads in both those states, so her long-term prospects remain dim.
If Haley does ultimately withdraw and endorse Trump, the reaction of the former president could be revealing. If he is as gracious to Haley as he was to the vanquished DeSantis, and considering her undeniable cross-party appeal and favorability among the crucial voting bloc of suburban women, it could signal that he has her in mind for the second spot on the ticket. Still she would likely be among others, even as he claims to have already decided on his vice presidential choice.
New Hampshire: All Downside, No Upside for Biden
Even more might be at stake for a Democrat president staggering under the weight of miserable polls as he launches his abortion-laden, Trump-as-totalitarian campaign. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) has run a brave and spirited campaign while no-hoper Marianne Williamson is, well, about where you would expect a spiritual guru to be when running for leader of the free world – nowhere. Nevertheless, if that pair can manage to combine for more votes on the printed ballot than those written in for Biden, it’s a big story. If not, an incumbent president winning a primary is a non-story.
But what of the others? Robert F. Kennedy Jr. ditched his run against Biden after being all but canceled by the party and, in the most shameful and underreported turn of events to date in this campaign, the man whose father and uncle were gunned down in cold blood was denied secret service protection three times. One would expect that any further softening of Biden’s nationwide support would accrue to RFK Jr.’s benefit among the growing chorus of Biden skeptics in the rank and file. But a strengthening of Biden’s hand – most likely with a Trump conviction – would likely chase dissatisfied Democrats back into the arms of the party reminding them of the consequences of a second Trump presidency.
The same thing goes for Cornel West. Biden’s cratering support on the left over the Israel War – particularly in Michigan with its 300,000 Arab Americans – is Cornel West’s gain. The professor’s unabashed support for the Palestinian cause stands to siphon enough votes away from Biden to make a difference in the type of close election most are expecting. Then there is third-time Green Party designee Jill Stein, blamed by Democrats for doing what they fear she and the others will do again, after winning enough votes in three critical battleground states to swing the 2016 election to Trump. She is running on a platform of a full-on Green New Deal with the slogan “People. Planet. Peace,” hoping to drain some pacifists and climate change activists, again at the expense of Joe Biden.
But the biggest threat of all to this president, though not in New Hampshire, might be a TBD – a candidate yet to be determined. That would be whoever is designated by the No Labels movement as another centrist alternative – but one likely to produce a nationally known/admired candidate such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman or the anti-Trump former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. If you don’t think Democrats are absolutely desperate to add the No Labels movement to the list topped by Trump of candidates and parties that must be canceled in order to “preserve democracy” Biden-style, think again. They are out to decimate the centrist coalition, just as they are with Trump. Only the tactics, not the strategy, differ. Those clever Democratic strategists who thought skipping New Hampshire – akin to skipping Christmas among the political class? – was a good idea would not now be investing time and resources in beyond-hardball politics, vowing to kick any or all of the independent candidates off the ballot in as many states as possible – in the furtherance of democracy, of course.
New Hampshire may decide many things, or just a few. But despite its small size and demographics atypical of the rest of the country, particularly the all-important battleground states of the Midwest, it stands to have a significant if not decisive impact on both parties. The smart money seems to be on Trump winning definitively and Biden gathering his write-in majority. But if there is one thing the Granite State is known for beyond its prestigious first-in-the-nation primary, it is the ability of its state’s live-free-or-die citizens to throw a curveball when the frontrunner is expecting a fastball.