Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary garners a level of attention completely disproportionate to the paltry 23 delegates it will send to the nominating convention. But New Hampshire voters will answer some key questions that will ultimately determine how the Republican primary race shakes out.
New Hampshire is used to being an important state in the Republican nominating process, despite its small size and population unrepresentative of the country’s demographics. It has a strong record of its winners going on to take the nomination. There is little doubt that New Hampshire will help clarify the Republican nominating process again this year.
What remains to be seen is whether the Republican nominee will have a strong shot at winning the presidency in November. The Republican campaign has evolved into a bloody intra-squad scrimmage with the leading candidates trading cheap shots and jabs to gain headlines.
Although the GOP seems damaged, New Hampshire is an opportunity for Republicans to right their ship and produce a viable candidate for the general election. Three things we stand to learn on Tuesday will show whether the GOP stands a good chance to win the White House.
Where will independent voters cast their ballots? New Hampshire’s open primary process means the independent voters, historically 45 percent of the electorate, can vote in either party’s primary. A recent WBUR survey found that 48 percent of these undeclared voters lean Republican, while 39 percent lean Democratic. Many are as angry and frustrated as the party bases and both parties offer outsider candidates. However, businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz offer different leadership and a fundamentally smaller government, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side is about a more activist government with more programs.
Where New Hampshire’s undecideds vote will either signal that the middle wants a less activist government or that the middle wants more government. A large majority of undeclared voters in New Hampshire participating in the Republican primary may signal that voters are looking for a change in the country’s executive leadership.
Will the GOP candidates pivot their appeals to be more inclusive? The GOP candidates were so focused on Iowa’s evangelicals that they seemed out of touch to many important voters around the country. Even Trump stressed his faith and character rather than talking as much about restoring the country’s economy and international prestige.
Republican candidates have typically pivoted to try to address broader groups of voters once they leave the Iowa caucus. One of the keys to Ronald Reagan’s political comeback in the 1980 New Hampshire primary was developing a message that appealed broadly to groups he used to win the presidency: conservatives, evangelicals, defense hawks and moderate voters who would later be called Reagan Democrats. It showed he learned his lesson from four years earlier when he lost New Hampshire to Gerald Ford after positioning himself as a rock-ribbed conservative in contrast to Ford’s more moderate image.
Can Republicans regain the control over their message? Republicans have traditionally been considered the party of message discipline, but Trump’s presence in the nominating process and the saturation coverage by the media has all but displaced the basic Republican message of government accountability and international strength. Instead, the leading GOP candidates are defined by journalists and each other as hypocrites with reactionary policies who can’t get things done.
Although George W. Bush lost the 2000 New Hampshire primary to John McCain, it was a turning point in his path to the nomination and, ultimately, the presidency. After the loss, the Bush team felt as though the McCain campaign had defined Bush as part of the establishment and unable to reform government. Starting with the South Carolina primary campaign, the Bush team adopted the new theme “Reformer with Results” to highlight his effectiveness as as a reformer while serving as Texas governor.
The question for Republicans is whether they can control the chaos that they are bringing into New Hampshire and give voters a clear idea of how the nominee will govern with a Republican Congress.
Despite critics who argue that New Hampshire is too small or too homogeneous in its population to be in such an important position in the nominating process, candidates and their campaigns have learned important lessons that last far beyond the nominating process. In the next few days we will see if Republicans will stop their mud wrestling to learn from history.
Note: Published in US News and World Report, February 8, 2016