The Granite State Bet: Magnet for GOP Underdogs

The Granite State Bet: Magnet for GOP Underdogs
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NASHUA, N.H.—By Friday, John Kasich will have hosted six town halls in the Granite State in the week since he launched his presidential campaign. A super PAC supporting the Ohio governor is already running ads, sharing this early airtime only with a certain fellow contender from New Jersey.

Like Kasich, Gov. Chris Christie made New Hampshire his first stop as a presidential candidate and is turning it into something of a second home, with 15 town halls under his belt so far. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham shoots up to New Hampshire during breaks from votes in Washington. Carly Fiorina’s calendar is filled with house party invites and diner stops here. Former New York Gov. George Pataki announced his campaign here. And for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who didn't compete here in 2012, “Live Free or Die” now rolls off the tongue.

These Republican candidates may be considered long shots for their party’s presidential nomination, but no early state welcomes underdogs quite like New Hampshire.

The state always plays a critical role in the nominating contest as the host of the country’s first primary—it picked the last two GOP nominees—but never before have so many candidates depended on New Hampshire to make or break their campaigns. With its early February primary, New Hampshire figures to play a bigger role than ever in winnowing down the crowded field.

Unlike Iowa, New Hampshire leans more moderate, with a significant number of independent voters casting ballots. It’s also small enough that candidates can cover most of the state with campaign events in a two-day swing, making airtime less critical. Additionally, primaries cause fewer infrastructure and organizational headaches than caucuses. Thus, it’s where lesser-known candidates hoping to make a direct impact on voters focus their attention. 

“New Hampshire gives underdog candidates a chance to compete without having to have a lot of financial resources,” says Ryan Williams, a GOP strategist whose firm is working for Jeb Bush. “If you are behind, you can camp out for a while and can make inroads.”

The strategy seems to be working well so far for Kasich, who has risen to third and fourth place in two recent New Hampshire polls.

Those same polls, however, show Donald Trump with a significant lead over the field here, underscoring how difficult it is for candidates to break through in this political climate. 

“I think we will see over the next few months these candidates start to gravitate one way or the other to try to break through somewhere early,” says Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “We will see candidates become more Iowa centric or New Hampshire centric.”

Bottom-of-the-poll dwellers aren’t the only ones trusting New Hampshire with their fates. The state will be key for the field’s leading contenders.

Jeb Bush, whose family has had mixed results here, made the Granite State his first stop after launching his presidential bid from Miami. He has returned often, including a two-day tour last week. The former Florida governor is considered the more moderate, establishment-oriented candidate and his tempered campaign sensibilities figure to play well here. But the pressure is on. While the field is wide open here, the first primary is widely considered Bush’s to lose. Even though he has enough money and resources for the long haul, a loss here would be nothing short of a blow.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio isn’t placing all his stock in one state in particular, but he is looking for a spot to break through. Rubio hired former Mitt Romney campaign strategist Jim Merrill early on in the cycle to help run his Granite State campaign. New Hampshire could provide a needed boost for him before the next primary in South Carolina, where his campaign is most organized. 

And while Iowa is considered Scott Walker’s to lose, the Wisconsin governor may look to New Hampshire as a way to quicken his path to the nomination and try to end the contest early. 

With so many candidates running, the threshold for success is lower in the early states, particularly in New Hampshire. “In New Hampshire, you could get 10 to 15 percent of the vote and be a surprise election,” says Paul Young, a longtime New Hampshire Republican strategist working for Graham this cycle. “You appeal to two out of 10 voters, and you’re in first place.” 

Graham visited New Hampshire earlier this week for a speech at the Chamber of Commerce, and his witty personality and focus on defense issues figure to play well here. But so far, he is barely registering in the polls. “For Graham, it’s important because he’s got to establish credibility before South Carolina,” says Young.

Graham’s Senate colleague, John McCain of Arizona, is heading to New Hampshire soon to campaign for him and will be a valuable surrogate.

McCain’s come-from-behind win here in 2008 is considered a model for GOP candidates banking on the state. Underdog candidates point to the way in which McCain earned votes through an intense focus on the state with hundreds of town hall meetings and his “straight talk express” bus. 

“The people of New Hampshire don't pay attention to the polls or what the national media is saying about a candidate because these people have gone to town halls where they met McCain, or sat at a diner where he showed up,” says Lauren Carney, a longtime New Hampshire consultant working for Fiorina’s campaign. “They’re not afraid to say, ‘No, we don't want the frontrunner or the expected candidate.”

Conversely, Jon Huntsman’s New Hampshire-based campaign has become something of a cautionary tale about candidates who put all their eggs in one basket. The former Utah governor placed all his bets on the state, only to come in third. He dropped out soon after.

Candidates including Kasich and Christie have emulated McCain’s style over Huntsman’s, even though their campaigns are New Hampshire centered. Christie is something of a master of town halls, having done them frequently as governor, and considers them a showcase for him, slowly but surely. Kasich has also embraced the town hall forum, hoping that once voters know who he is, they will support him. He has also focused on his accomplishments in the key swing state of Ohio, a must-win for Republicans. 

The problem is, there are limited tickets out of New Hampshire. And those hoping to do well there are all competing in a similar lane. The campaigns of Kasich, Christie, and others may depend on voters looking for a similar alternative to Bush.

The crowded field in New Hampshire opens up opportunities for Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning senator from Kentucky who is courting his father’s limited but reliable base here. Paul, polling in fifth place, visited the state over the weekend but hasn’t been living up to expectations here. Ron Paul placed second here in 2012. Part of the problem may be that foreign policy has become a key issue in the primary, especially in New Hampshire, and the rest of the field has taken a more conservative approach to defense. But even Paul’s supporters here say his father’s base feels as though the son has drifted from libertarian principles, opposing the Iran nuclear deal as the latest example. 

There are over five months to go until New Hampshire voters cast any ballots, and the debates, the Iowa caucus, and the rigors of the campaign can help narrow the ballot. But it’s clear this cycle that candidates banking on New Hampshire will be undeterred. The ballot here will be full. And until then, voters can expect to see many candidates—on a regular basis.

“Even if voters don't want to see these people, these candidates run into them,” says Lauren Carney. “They cannot avoid it.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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