What did February 9 mean?

Insights and observations from the 100th New Hampshire primary

After years of preparation and campaigning and the expenditure of record amounts of money, both by candidates and their allegedly independent political action committee/501(c)(4) organizations, what can be said of the results of the Feb. 9 presidential primary?

Obviously, Democratic Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders scored a decisive popular vote, reportedly the widest margin of victory by any Democrat in a primary in history, with 60 percent of the vote, compared to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 38 percent. 

The Democratic results appear to say that Clinton and her advisers are of a generation that focuses on things other than that which young Democratic voters see as important today. Bringing in Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright may influence the vote of women of Clinton’s generation, but apparently had no effect, or even a negative one, on the votes of young women (and men), who voted overwhelmingly for Sanders. 

One thing the press did not call the Clinton campaign on was its explanation that Sanders was from “next door”, and therefore we were familiar with him.

Wrong! New Hampshire voters are familiar with Massachusetts politicians because of the influence of Massachusetts media, but know virtually nothing about those from Vermont. To claim that his victory was influenced geographically, while logical, is mistaken. 

Whether Sanders’ performance can be repeated in other states will be interesting to see, given the Democrats’ “super delegate” system, which favors Clinton overwhelmingly (and apparently awards her half of the New Hampshire delegates anyway), and her organizational strength. Whether Bernie Sanders is the equivalent of Eugene McCarthy or whether he will have a lasting effect on national politics is a fundamental question for the remainder of the political season. 

On the Republican side, Donald Trump exceeded the expectations of the polls and apparently attracted a lot of previously uninvolved voters. Whether this alternately disgusts, depresses or amazes observers, the 35.4 percent of the vote and 10 delegates Trump achieved were substantial. 

Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s second-place showing was impressive and a reward to his decency and constant campaigning in New Hampshire. Totaling the votes of Trump, the three governors, Fiorina and Carson, all but 22 percent of the voters voted for someone not in federal office. 

Significantly, the winners of both parties were the candidates who did not have Super PACs supporting them. The piles of mailings and the repeated advertisements, and the incessant phone calls, seemed to have little if any effect and the money seemed to deafen the ears of the voters.

The other big factor was the constant media attention, which provided Sanders and Trump huge amounts of free publicity and perhaps influenced the race more.

The Super PACs, led by Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise, claim to be independent of the candidates. The overwhelming negativity of these groups was terrible. Whether the negative advertising did as much to affect other candidates as one neatly aimed shot by Chris Christie did to Marco Rubio of Florida in the debate the Saturday before the election is doubtful.

Where does it go from here? It looks like the field will be reduced further with the elimination or irrelevance of several of the candidates who remained through New Hampshire, including Christie, Fiorina and Carson. Whether Rubio can bounce back from his dismal showing in New Hampshire, whether Bush can do well the closer he gets to Florida, and whether Cruz can attract hard right-wing and evangelical votes outside of the Northeast, as he did in Iowa, will be critical to their continued viability.

Whether Kasich has any organization other than in New Hampshire is critical to his continuing and, of course, whether Trump continues to attract disaffected voters is the most important GOP question. 

On the Democratic side, whether Sanders continues to attract voters in other parts of the country, especially in states with larger minority populations who have traditionally supported the Clintons, is an important question.

Another is whether the Democrats’ “super delegate” system will be allowed to contradict the votes of the people if Sanders repeats his performance. 

What is clear, however, is that the 100th New Hampshire primary surprised many, depressed some, and was meaningful in ways yet to be discerned. 

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

Categories: Cook on Concord