Analysts: N.H. Primary Is Make-or-Break for GOP Hopefuls

4/16/2015
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Hillary Clinton's April 12 entry as the lone candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination to date, as well as Marco Rubio's decision to join a burgeoning GOP field, positions the New Hampshire primary as the most important early test for Republican presidential hopefuls in decades, Dartmouth analysts say.

Clinton's lack of challengers will likely push New Hampshire's all-important independent voters to the Republican primary, where they might conclude that their votes can make a difference, Professor of Government Linda Fowler says. Candidates like Florida Sen. Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker must do well in New Hampshire to be real contenders, she says.

"A lot is riding on New Hampshire. All this makes the Republican primary critical," says Fowler, who holds the Frank J. Reagan ’09 Chair in Policy Studies Emeritus.

Professor Ronald Shaiko says 36 is the latest number of potential GOP candidates listed by the Republican National Committee. Shaiko, a senior fellow and associate director of curricular programs at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, is survey director for the 2015 NH State of the State poll, scheduled for release next month.

It has been complicated to work out the names to include in the primary candidate portion of the poll, which is conducted by Dartmouth students in the Rockefeller Center's Policy Research Shop, Shaiko says.

"We're wrestling with that now," he says. "We're winnowing that down, but it's going to be tough."

The Democratic primary poses the opposite problem.

"I'm hopeful that there will be a couple of people besides Hillary in the mix. Someone's got to get in, otherwise it would be too boring," he says. The poll will include some other names, "Martin O'Malley, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, even though she says she's not running. She will poll well in New Hampshire," Shaiko says.

The question is whether Clinton will skip the critical one-on-one politics of Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of the media approach of her YouTube announcement, Shaiko says.

"Retail politics can't be conducted by video. It will be interesting to see if Hillary replicates her earlier campaign—more hands-on," Shaiko says. "New Hampshire voters are finicky. They expect candidates to reach out to them rather than the other way around."

Fowler says the danger for Clinton is that if she skirts the retail politics that are so important in the early primaries, she will miss the chance to hone her message.

"She has the resume, but the missing piece is her answer to why she thinks she will be a good president," Fowler says.

Associate Professor of Government Joseph Bafumi says the wide-open GOP field and the one-woman Democratic race flip the usual narrative of the New Hampshire primary.

"This year it's the opposite. The Republican side is very unpredictable and the Democratic side is very predictable—to an extreme degree," Bafumi says.

But if Clinton is able to show that she takes Iowa and New Hampshire voters seriously, the lack of competition in the early primaries could benefit her, he says. "It will enable her to keep more resources for the general election, and decrease the amount of negativity she faces, while the Republicans are experiencing a lot of negativity."

Another potential candidate who faces difficult political calculus in New Hampshire is Jeb Bush, says Fowler. Like the other GOP contenders, he must show that he can attract a critical level of support, while contending with a mixed Bush family history in the state, she says. His father, George H. W. Bush, lost the New Hampshire primary to Ronald Reagan in 1980, and his brother, George W. Bush, lost the 2000 primary to John McCain.

"There is a lot of residual disaffection in New Hampshire for the Bush family name," Fowler says, which makes the game of "exceeding expectations" in the state more complicated.

This week, as Clinton traveled to Iowa in a campaign van, Republicans are gathering in Nashua for the "#FITN Republican Leadership Summit," which will include speeches by the three declared GOP candidates: Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Paul, as well as Christie, Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and many more. The sold-out event will give presidential hopefuls an opportunity to pitch their campaigns to New Hampshire's top political operatives.

In regard to a field like this, Fowler cites her New Hampshire primary rule of thumb: "Among the serious candidates—those who don't fall into the 'fringe' category—those who don't have traction in New Hampshire by the fall will be out by October."