What are we looking for in New Hampshire?

Democrat and Republican voters in New Hampshire have been going to the polls overnight (Australian time) to vote on their preferred candidates, in the traditional first primary (and second contest, after last weeks Iowa caucuses) of the United States presidential election.

Small and hopelessly untypical as New Hampshire is, it has an inordinate amount of power in choosing a nominee. The obsessive media coverage means that an unexpectedly good or bad result in New Hampshire can have huge consequences.

For Republicans in particular it has good predictive power: in modern times, only two Republicans have gone on to win the nomination after losing in New Hampshire (Bob Dole in 1996 and George Bush Jr in 2000), while four of the eventual nominees have lost in Iowa – including both of the last two. No candidate from either party has been nominated without finishing in the top two in New Hampshire since Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

This year’s contest, however, seems to hold less interest than usual. Both parties have very clear leaders in the opinion polls. Donald Trump is recording twice the support of his nearest Republican rivals, while among Democrats, Bernie Sanders – senator from neighboring Vermont – holds something like a four to three advantage over Hillary Clinton.

For either Trump or Sanders to lose, or even come close to losing, would be big news. It’s hard to imagine either of them recovering from there.

Assuming that doesn’t happen, what are we looking for in New Hampshire?

On the Democrat side, the answer is simple; Clinton simply needs to stay in touch. Since Sanders has long been regarded as unbeatable there, anything over a third of the vote would be perfectly acceptable for her.

The Republican race is more complicated. Iowa confirmed that there are three front-runners: Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But it’s by no means certain that they will finish as the top three in New Hampshire.

Cruz has the easiest task. His position as the leading extremist (not counting Trump, who is sui generis) in the field is secure, and expectations for him in New Hampshire are low. He doesn’t need to do particularly well himself – even fourth would be OK – as long as Rubio does badly.

Rubio is the one with most to lose. A close third in Iowa has made him the favorite for the nomination, but in New Hampshire there are three other mainstream candidates taking him on: John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. If one of them can score a second-place finish, or even a close third behind Trump and Cruz, that will make life much more difficult for Rubio.

What the Republican establishment desperately wants is for mainstream opinion to rally as quickly as possible behind a single candidate, who can then take on Trump and Cruz in Nevada, South Carolina and then the big one, Super Tuesday, on 1 March.

If Rubio does well today, then he will be that candidate. But Rubio’s problem is that, as mainstream candidates go, he is pretty extreme. That might help him to take votes from Cruz and maybe Trump, but it’s a drawback when facing more naturally moderate candidates. Kasich and Christie are almost certainly too moderate to win the nomination, but a good result in New Hampshire would keep them alive a bit longer.

Bush is in an even more interesting position. Having been written off a couple of months ago and running a poor sixth in Iowa, he seems to be finally getting some traction in the New Hampshire polls. Although Trump and Cruz are much more his ideological foes, Rubio for now is the one that he has to beat.

The establishment’s worst nightmare is that the four mainstream candidates all stay in the race to Super Tuesday, ensuring that none of them can get the break that they need and leaving the party to choose between Trump and Cruz.

Polls close at 11am, eastern Australian time, so it won’t be long now.

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