Clinton and Obama: What happened in New Hampshire?

The results of the Iowa caucuses produced an absolute stunner last week when Barack Obama beat both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards by hefty margins.

Not to be outdone, the New Hampshire primaries produced an even bigger stunner when Clinton somehow turned a roughly 7-12 point deficit in most tracking polls into a 3 point victory over Obama, the candidate who had all the momentum and enthusiasm. And this all happened in about a 24-hour span.

Needless to say, there will be a flurry of "Comeback Kid: Part II" stories in the media to describe Clinton's improbable victory. However, because absolutely no one predicted this, something unforeseen was at work that nobody had picked up on.

What on earth happened? Here are my theories, listed in no particular order:

1. Stopping Barack Obama was more important than supporting Hillary Clinton. You all know the story. Obama is a first-term senator who recently left the Illinois state legislature. He has a brief resume and has often been criticized for not offering much specifics. His detractors have been clamoring about this for months, but he has never really been penalized for it. Perhaps New Hampshire voters viewed their primary as the last chance to put the brakes on this freight train before it left the station? Had Obama beaten Clinton as soundly as the polls suggested he would, Clinton would have been sent into a tailspin and would have had to endure certain defeats in Nevada and South Carolina before staging Super Tuesday as her Waterloo moment. Clinton's arguments about the importance of "experience" and Obama being "risky" may have had some resonance. Obama inspires voters to look for a healer, but Clinton reminds voters we are looking for a commander in chief. If this is what happened, this is a very potent line of attack that likely weighs heavily on the minds of many people. The Iowa caucuses eliminated all of the "experience" candidates on the Democratic side and there wasn't enough time for the sole surviving second-tier candidate (Bill Richardson) to effectively present his case to the voters. Advantage: Clinton.

2. Obama was a victim of his own success. Is it possible that Obama's supporters thought his lead was so strong that they didn't have to turn out for him at the polls? Close races drive up voter turnout. Blowouts depress voter turnout. The McCain-Romney race was considered much closer, and McCain's base turned out for him. If this is what happened, then the blame would have to lie with Obama's supporters, who were reminded that bumper stickers, pep rallies, and yard signs don't win elections; votes do. Also keep in mind that the weather was unusually mild. Is it possible that Obama's younger base decided to stay home and take advantage of the rare 50-degree weather by spending Election Day in the mountains, rather than at the polls?

3. The Douglas Wilder effect is alive and well. About 20 years ago, Virginia's Douglas Wilder became the first Black ever to be elected as a governor in the United States. Prior to his election, almost all tracking polls (including those of his White opponent) suggested that he would win the race by about 10 points. However, he ended up winning only by 1 point. The Douglas Wilder effect means that voters may tell pollsters one thing because they want to seem politically correct, but reveal their true biases in the privacy of the voting booth. Is this what happened in New Hampshire? The Douglas Wilder effect is what Blacks mean when they worry about Obama's "electability." The Iowa results encouraged Black voters, but the New Hampshire results likely gave them pause. Both states are 95+% White, so Blacks are likely hopeful, but cautious at the same time about Obama's chances.

4. The "politics of pile-on" made women angry. Clinton was the recipient of a lot of tough attacks at the ABC debate last weekend. And she famously "became emotional" at a recent campaign event when she was asked how she was able to keep going on the campaign trail even though it entails so much stress. John Edwards took a swipe at her shortly thereafter by saying you have to be "tough" to be President. Pundits and the media wondered out loud if Clinton's "tears" were genuine or staged. And there was the recent debate question about how Clinton feels knowing that so many people simply don't like her. All of this combined to form a maelstrom that finally, even if only briefly, broke Clinton down and led to those tears. Men who were watching that event likely told their wives, daughters, female coworkers, and female friends that "this inability to handle pressure and contain themselves" is why women should never be President. These women likely took this personally and instantly identified with Clinton, as they too are often working multiple jobs where they may feel disrespected by their male bosses and male coworkers, only to come home and have to take care of the children, cook dinner, and deal with a husband who is not always appreciative of them and how hard they work. These women might not even "like" Clinton, but they do respect her as a hardworking professional...a professional woman. Remember the 2000 Senate race she had with Rick Lazio in which Lazio entered Clinton's personal space, got in her face, and tried to intimidate her. Women watching that debate likely recoiled in anger about that and punished him at the polls. If this is what happened here, then the media are to blame because they have been unfairly tough on her. Also, Barack Obama probably wants to backhand John Edwards and tell him to get out of the race because his remarks about "toughness" didn't help.

I do not know which of these factors is most responsible for explaining the results of the Democratic primary, but there will likely be a serious discussion about the validity of polls and the methodology involved because nobody was expecting this. Why were all the polls wrong? Obama was expecting to win handily, and even Clinton was hoping to keep her loss to him in the single-digits. Where this hidden Clinton vote (or anti-Obama vote?) came from is anybody's guess, but the fact that this vote stood in such stark contrast to everyone's most rational expectations of this race is a testament to the unpredictability of politics and will keep this race from being a blowout. Obama will not waltz to the nomination and he will have to do more than "inspire" his way to victory. Clinton knows she will have to retool her campaign because the old way of doing things simply isn't working as well as it used to, as Obama's strength shows.

I plan to write a more general post later about the consequences of the Democratic and Republican primary results in terms of what they mean for various candidates, but I just had to assess the disconnect between everyone's predictions and reality regarding Clinton and Obama because it was just a bit too unexpected.

What a race...

8 comment(s):

Schenck said...

Oh lordy... my first inclination was a lot of #2 ("I don't have to vote, Obama's already gonna kick some butt") and a little of #3 ("I'm not racist, but...")

I would think the anti-Hillary group would be much larger and more adamant than the anti-Obama group, but #2 could explain this.

This is American Gladiator at its best and most fulfilling. I hope this throws even more wood onto the fire for Obama's supporters. I guess we'll see what happens, but I don't see Obama winning again til South Carolina; I hope I'm proven wrong.

Schenck said...

I was looking at some stats:

2008 New Hampshire Results

And was wondering about your take on the huge support for Clinton in urban areas (i've seen them been called the "less rural" areas) versus the boonies. I mean, common sense would say that isolated hicks would be less likely to vote for a black candidate than city-folk. Then again, Clinton slightly favors the upper-middle class and big business (from what I gather). And what about Diebold? Is it just a coincidence Hillary came in first where voting machines were used?

Thomas said...

Anthony, how do you think George Allen or Bill Frist would have been faring if they had run for president? If "macaca" had never been spoken, would Allen have a chance?

Anthony Palmer said...


I encourage you to read my piece on the Iowa results (link here). In that blog post, I cited a column from the LAT about the curse of George Allen.

In a nutshell, George Allen would have been the consensus conservative candidate on the GOP side had "macaca" never happened. Also, the GOP would still be controlling the Senate had "macaca" never happened. Jim Webb would be a private citizen. George Allen was a Southerner, a former governor, a social conservative, a defense hawk, and CONSISTENT. He was the supposed to be the candidate that Mitt Romney is trying to be now--with limited success.

Allen's demise has led to a free-for-all among the GOP candidates who are trying to "out-Republican" each other. The problem is, as they keep making their overtures to the right, they look phony because their past records suggest they are more moderate. So there's a major authenticity gap. Note that the two most authentic candidates in the GOP (in my estimation, other than Ron Paul) are Huckabee and McCain--both of whom are doing quite well. Yes, Romney won Wyoming, but nobody was paying attention to it. Allen would have brought the authenticity WITH the consistent conservative record.

So, yes, Allen would have been a giant.

As for Bill Frist, he would have gone the way of Tommy Thompson. In my estimation, he was a relatively ineffective Senate majority leader and lacked the charisma to rally people to his campaign.

Thanks for the question.



I really think #4 played a bigger role than people would like to admit. Even the most anti-Hillary people I know have said they (the media, her rivals) were being unfair to her. So I bet the "protest vote" is what pushed her over the top.

As for the voting patterns, I was watching on CNN that Obama carried the more liberal areas that Howard Dean carried in 2004, while Clinton carried the areas that Kerry carried--eastern NH and the cities. Imagine that! It is the exact opposite of what one would have expected.

Thanks for the comments.

Silence Dogood said...

Anthony, I think you left out one possibility, and that you had bascially answered it in your previous post. Effectively it was the opposite of what you predicted with regards to Obama's numbers proportional to independent voters. You correctly noted that if Obama got to a certain percentage (40%?) that would start to draw on McCain's support big time. I think just the opposite happened here, much of Obama's base in N.H. (independents) ended up voting McCain and thus couldn't support Obama too. I don't know if the break down of the numbers support this but that was my take

Anthony Palmer said...


You know, I was thinking the exact same thing. I may have touched on that with reason #2 in the original post, but rather than staying home, these independent voters simply voted in the Republican primary instead.

The two most curious candidates in the race now are John Edwards and Mitt Romney. Where do they go from here? South Carolina is Edwards' last chance, and Michigan is Romney's last chance. Both need a victory, and badly.

Crazy stuff indeed.

Schenck said...

Anthony! Your first troll? (First I've seen) Congrats, you made the big leagues!

Anthony Palmer said...


Are you talking about that "OBAMA IS A RADICAL MUSLIM" post? I never received the original email that was making the rounds earlier this campaign season, but it looks like it finally found me regardless. I will tell you one thing, however, judging from the keywords people are using to find this site, it looks like a lot of these rumors and misconceptions about Obama are sticking. (That picture of Obama not covering his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance or whatever seems to be a bigger deal than I had originally thought.) And that is very, very unfortunate.

On a related note, those insinuations by Hillary Clinton about Obama and race may be what I write about next. I think I know what she's doing, and it's working. Even if she only further sullies herself, she is succeeding in bringing Obama down with her.