New Hampshire Votes: Thoughts on the Democratic Primary

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A week ago, winning New Hampshire by just two percentage points — less than 7,500 votes — would have been proclaimed a disaster by most analysts. Now it’s a major victory and a tremendous shock. Of course, the shock is to those who wrote her off just five days ago.

Which shows how significantly, and inappropriately, Senator Obama’s victory in Iowa last Saturday changed the expectations of the Democratic nomination fight. Prior to those caucuses, Senator Clinton’s campaign focused on the depth of her experience and on the inevitability of her nomination. Then she finished third, losing out to Senator Obama and, barely, to former Senator John Edwards. Both Senators Obama and Edwards had campaigned as change agents. Senator Clinton’s message had failed to resonate and the inevitability of her success was seriously in doubt.

So in New Hampshire, she modified her message slightly, promoting herself as the candidate whose experience made her most capable of achieving change. The message seemed to reinforce the opinion of those who had supported her before the Iowa and may have been strengthened by New Hampshire voters’ penchant for thumbing their noses at expectations. According to the CNN exit poll, thirty four percent of the voters said they had made up their minds at least a month ago and Senator Clinton garnered 48 percent of their votes while Senator Obama received 31 percent.

What this says to me is that the Iowa bump for Senator Obama was in the eyes of the pundits, not among voters.

The New Hampshire results does seem to have accomplished three things. First, it put to rest talk of inevitability concerning any candidate.  Second, it confirmed the old cliche that the only poll that matters is the one on election day. Voter surveys as recent as yesterday projected a decisive win for Senator Obama. But it’s who shows up at the polls that matter, and the Clinton campaign got their voters out. I also think the polls may have worked against Senator Obama as New Hampshire voters seem to dislike being told what to do.

Third, the New Hampshire results have all but reduced the primary trail to a two person race, sending Senator Edwards on a downward spiral from which he is unlikely to recover while limiting Governor Bill Richardson to showcasing his Vice Presidential credentials and seeking favorite-son status from New Mexico.

Senator Edwards’ post-Iowa strategy was to convince voters — and the media — that the campaign was about change and Senator Clinton was incapable of delivering it. He then believed his more aggressive and partisan approach to transforming America would win out over the more conciliatory style of the Senator from Illinois.

It didn’t turn out that way. Senator Edwards received only 17 percent in the New Hampshire primary, less than half of what Senator Obama earned. Perhaps even more disastrous, polls show Senator Edwards to be even further behind Senators Clinton and Obama in the upcoming South Carolina primary, the only state he won in his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004. As a southerner, if Senator Edwards can’t win there, it will be tough for him convince anyone he can win anywhere.

Senator Edward’s downfall stems, at least in my opinion, from his extremely partisan stance. He positioned himself as a fighter, but too much so. For example, after castigating insurance executives as greedy and accusing them of valuing profits over human life, Senator Edwards proclaimed, “And people say to me that as president of the United States, they want me to sit at a table and negotiate with these people? Never. It will never happen.’”

Now, contrast this with Senator Obama’s approach. In his concession speech tonight he promised supporters he would tell insurance and drug companies that “while they get a seat at the table, they don’t get to buy every chair. Not this time. Not now.” (This can be viwed about five minutes into the clip).  Senator Obama’s rejection of Senator Edward’s contention-as-usual politics was explicit, describing his supporters as a new majority “who are tired of the division and distraction that has clouded Whasington, who know we can disagree without being disagreeable.” (About four minutes into his speech).

Senator Edward promises a new agenda, but the same ugly, tired politics of division. Senator Obama promises changes in policy and in politics. Senator Obama finished a close second. Senator Edwards finished a distant third and, while he retains enough support and money to to continue to slog ahead, at least until February 5th when the bulk of delegates will be selected, he’s likely to be increasingly marginalized over the next four weeks.

Meanwhile, attention on the Democratic side turns to the Nevada Caucuses and the South Carolina primary (Michigan will hold a primary on January 15th, but neither Senators Obama’s or Edwards’ name is on the ballot). Senator Clinton and Obama will be seeking momentum prior to Super Duper Tuesday when California and 21 other states caucus or vote. Which means by February 6th one of the two may have emerged as unbeatable.

Which one? The odds are, marginally, favoring Senator Clinton. According to the CNN exit poll, she out-polled Senator Obama among Democratic voters 45 percent to 33 percent. It was independent voters participating in the Democratic primary that kept the Illinois Senator close with 41 percent of them supporting Senator Obama and 30 percent voting for Senator Clinton (in New Hampshire, independents can choose to cast either a Democratic or Republican ballot) .

However, not all states allow non-Democrats to vote in their primaries. Of those that do, independents comprise less of the electorate than in New Hampshire where they represent about 45 percent of all voters.

Before proclaiming Senator Clinton as the inevitable winner, however, keep in mind that in California voters registered as Decline to State  — about 19 percent of the electorate — can cast a Democratic ballot (but not a Republican one). Senator Obama’s broader appeal should serve him well here. And on February 5th, California is the biggest prize of all.