Wednesday, January 9, 2008

You Only Live Twice: Clinton, McCain Win New Hampshire

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 377

"Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
~ Samuel L. Clemens, 1897

Politicians love to quote this line any time they or their favored causes pull back from the brink of failure. There have been few occasions in recent American political campaigns, however, when the quote has applied so readily as it does this morning to the revived fortunes of Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Both McCain and Clinton have been declared dead in the course of this campaign, McCain in the spring and summer of 2007, and Clinton less than 24 hours ago. And yet, thanks to the voters of New Hampshire, both are very much alive today. Here's a look at some things worth noting about what happened in last night's New Hampshire primary.

- Undecideds: in the final 72 hours of the campaign, those who waited until the last minute to make up their minds went as much for Clinton as they did for Obama. This was as decisive as anything else in determining the outcome, as it made up for any loss of support Clinton may have experienced in the aftermath of her defeat in last week's Iowa caucuses.

- Independent voters: New Hapshire voters registered as Independents broke for John McCain, siphoning those votes away from Barack Obama. This may have been because national security was perhaps the biggest issue on voter's minds, nudging them towards the hawkish McCain, or perhaps was merely driven by the horse race. As Bill Bradley observed over at Pajamas Media, "It may well be that expectations of a sizeable Obama win, in virtually every poll, led more independents to vote for McCain, feeling that the real contest was on the Republican side."

- The women's vote and the Bill factor: much is being made in the media of the fact that women broke decisively for Clinton and against Obama in New Hampshire, countering a nearly opposite trend from last week's Iowa caucuses. Similarly, some are smirking that Hillary Clinton would be out of the race this morning but for the exertions of her husband. Let me caution against interpreting this result as either some sort of electoral chick flick or the tale of a damsel in distress rescued by a Knight in Shining Armor. Both ideas are as wrong about Hillary Clinton as they are insulting to the voters of New Hampshire.

While more women voters supported Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama yesterday, I've seen no evidence to support the inference some are making that they did so based primarily on gender identification, and it strikes me as pretty silly to suggest so.

As to Bill Clinton's role in the New Hampshire campaign, of course any candidate - Hillary included - would rather have the support of a uniquely gifted campaigner who is also a hugely popular former president than not. And while drawing parallels with Bill Clinton's "comeback kid" second place finish in New Hampshire in 1992 is proving irresistible for many, such comparisons are entirely specious. Yes, New Hampshire is indisputably friendly territory to the Clintons, but there is again no evidence to support the suggestion some are making that Clinton rode to victory on her husband's coat tails. For one thing, it defies logic that anyone should win any election anywhere based on their relation to someone else who finished second there more than a decade before. Hillary Clinton first became known to New Hampshire voters, of course, through Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign there. But the Clinton campaign fashioned New Hampshire as its Granite Firewall months ago, and Hillary has worked hard to make her own name there ever since. New Hampshire voters cast their ballots yesterday for Hillary, not Bill.

John McCain's connection to New Hampshire, incidentally, is arguably much stronger than Hillary Clinton's, winning here as he did against George W. Bush back in 2000. McCain succeeded in tapping the residue of that success, which helped him enormously in yesterday's voting.

The real question now is where Clinton and McCain go from New Hampshire this morning. McCain goes on to Michigan, another state he won eight years ago, to battle putative native son Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton, while unquestionably resuscitated by last night's win, remains a candidate on the edge, with far from certain prospects in Nevada and South Carolina. The reality is that Hillary Clinton must make fundamental shifts in both tactics and strategy if she hopes to fulfill her ambition to become the next president. It is key that Clinton and her enormous but to this point less-than-agile campaign actually put into practice her pledge that, "we’re going to take what we’ve learned here in New Hampshire and we’re going to rally on and make our case."

So now we have a race with no frontrunner in either party. McCain's victory revives his campaign, but it does not reshape the Republican field. After consecutive losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, states that were the cornerstones of his electoral strategy, Mitt Romney's candidacy is reduced to the absolute necessity of winning in Michigan, which, with his name recognition (Mitt's father George was Governor of Michigan) and his vast personal fortune committed to the race, he may well do. Mike Huckabee remains today what he was yesterday, the uncertain hope of the tottering religious right. And lurking in the swamps of Florida and the airwaves of the Super Tuesday behemoths is Rudy Giuliani, who has made token nods at best to the small states of the early contests. And on the Democratic side, Barack Obama comes out of his three point loss in New Hampshire diminished but little, if at all. A week ago, few would have predicted he would do so well as he did last night in New Hampshire, and he retains full capacity to continue to scare the life out of the Clinton campaign every time he utters the word "change."

And I thought this campaign was going to stop being fun when it left Iowa!

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