MANCHESTER, N.H. — Early primaries are often as much about expectations as they are about winning or losing. Just look at Marco Rubio, who has spun a third-place finish in Iowa on Monday into momentum in New Hampshire because he did better than most expected. That’s why I’m wondering how the press will react when (if?) Bernie Sanders defeats Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
That post-New Hampshire narrative will matter a lot to Sanders because he’s currently trailing in the next two Democratic contests: Nevada and South Carolina. Both states are much more diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire, and Sanders will need to show he can win among non-white voters. A wave of favorable press would help.
So what will be deemed a strong performance by Sanders? It depends how far ahead in the Granite State the media thinks he is right now, and that’s not clear. The University of New Hampshire’s most recent poll put Sanders up by a staggering 30 percentage points. Meanwhile, a Suffolk University survey gave Sanders only a 9 percentage-point advantage. The FiveThirtyEight weighted polling average puts Sanders up by nearly 17 percentage points.
One easy answer is that the press will go with the simplest angle: Clinton has no business losing to Sanders. She led in New Hampshire by nearly 40 percentage points in early June 2015 after all. It doesn’t matter if she loses by 9, 17 or 31 percentage points. Add a loss in New Hampshire to her near loss in Iowa, and you can see a narrative building that Clinton is in serious trouble. The press has the added incentive of knowing that Sanders is all that’s standing between Clinton and an easy waltz to the nomination. It can be quite tempting to cover a competitive race.
Of course, Clinton probably won’t let that storyline spread without a fight. She’ll probably point out that Sanders is from next-door Vermont, and candidates such as Edmund Muskie, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry and Howard Dean — all from states bordering New Hampshire — finished first or second in the New Hampshire primary. She might also point out that Iowa and New Hampshire should be two of Sanders’s strongest states demographically — they’re full of white liberals.
All the spinning probably won’t do Clinton any good, though, if she loses by a ton — let’s say around 15 percentage points or more (that’s an educated guesstimate). Clinton might be more credible in claiming a moral victory if she were to lose by a margin in the single digits. Her husband, Bill Clinton, declared himself “the comeback kid” in 1992 after losing the New Hampshire primary to Tsongas by 8 percentage points. And the media bought it because Bill Clinton outperformed expectations; charges of marital infidelity in the lead up to the primary had caused Clinton’s poll numbers to tumble.
So a lot will come down to how the press interprets the margin in New Hampshire. Sanders needs to come out of the Granite State with some serious momentum. He has an incentive to run up the score.