Polls say Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are headed for convincing wins tomorrow in the New Hampshire primary, the nation’s first. As of early Monday afternoon, Trump enjoyed a 15.3-point advantage in the EP Poll Average with Sanders sporting a 13.5-point edge. Those margins will be practically impossible for anyone from either party to close. Even given the poor performance of the pollsters in recent elections, these two should be easy winners tomorrow. Such are the expectations for the New Hampshire front-runners. What happens, though, if they win but by a narrow margin? And what if someone like Jeb Bush, who sits in 5th place in the polls, finishes 3rd or even 2nd? Sometimes, like in Iowa, coming in first isn’t a win and less than winning can be a victory. So, here’s a look at EP’s view of the expectation game and what the main nomination players need to do to win it.
Front-runners who lead primary battles in the polls by double-digits margins must, of course, win. But a convincing win is needed to avoid losing the expectations game. If Trump wins by a half-dozen or less, the story will be how he underperformed again, and his momentum will take another hit. One bad thing about being so far in front is that there’s little upside no matter what the outcome turns out to be. He’ll gain less from overperforming than he will lose from underperforming.
Expectation threshold: Trump must pull out a double-digit margin of victory. Bernie Sanders
The Democratic upstart is in much the same boat as The Donald. Having come off a surprisingly strong finish in Iowa, Sanders must hold serve in New Hampshire to avoid seeing his Iowa gains rolled back. According to the polls, Hillary Clinton is strong in the races coming soon after New Hampshire, so Sanders has to perform well here to avoid slipping further behind going forward.
Expectation threshold: Sanders also must win by at least 10%. Marco Rubio
As I suggested after the Iowa caucuses, Rubio had the most upward movement since last week’s results. That outcome has helped propel him into second place in New Hampshire polling. Now he must make those polls accurate. If he finishes third to Cruz, Bush or Kasich, or, much worse, fourth, then his Iowa showing may become a flash in the pan. His strategy for winning the nomination is targeting a second place finish here followed by a win in South Carolina. If he can earn a runner-up finish tomorrow, victory in South Carolina becomes doable. If not, it’s hard to see him reaching his goal in the Palmetto State.
Expectation threshold: Anything less than runner-up for Rubio will be an expectation game loss.
Of all the contenders for either nomination, Clinton has the least to lose in New Hampshire. Even when she was trouncing Bernie Sanders nationally (she averaged a lead of more than 20 points in all December polls), she was losing here. So, expectations have always been for her to lose the Granite State primary. And Sanders lead has expanded only marginally in the state since his surge this year began. Clinton doesn’t need to win. She doesn’t even need to outperform her polling because a significant loss is already factored into the expectations game. Her position in advance of the vote is enviable. She really can’t lose.
Expectation threshold: Clinton just needs to get close to her current poll numbers. Ted Cruz
New Hampshire has never been thought of as a Cruz stronghold. His finish in Iowa last week, however, did raise expectations that he would carry some momentum into tomorrow. Since Iowa, Cruz has seen a slight uptick in the polls, but nothing grand. As a result, he’s moved fractionally into third place behind Trump and Rubio. That’s where he must finish to avoid losing to expectations. If he slips behind Kasich or Bush into fourth, it’ll be a losing night for him. Taking second away from Rubio would be a big victory.
Expectation threshold: Cruz needs to finish 3rd or better. John Kasich
What can I say? Everything rides on New Hampshire for John Kasich. After a paltry 2% in Iowa, Kasich must excel in New Hampshire. He knew the Iowa result could not be helped, so he’s spent most of his time in the Granite State hoping to ensure a strong performance here. Nationally, Kasich’s campaign is polling at just 3.2% and running in sixth. Without a third place finish or better in New Hampshire, Kasich may be the first to drop out after tomorrow.
Expectation threshold: Kasich must beat Jeb Bush by a solid margin and sneak into third place to consider New Hampshire a victory. Jeb Bush
Like Kasich, Bush has put a lot at stake in New Hampshire. He still seeks to be the establishment candidate, but those aspirations may hinge on him defeating Kasich and Christie, the other candidates with establishment potential. After a sixth place finish in Iowa (2.8%), Bush needs a respectable chunk of the vote tomorrow. If he doesn’t get into double figures and better Kasich and Christie in the process, he’ll be all but done.
Expectation threshold: Bush must beat Kasich and Christie and secure at least 10% of the vote. Anything less than a strong 4th will not be good for him. Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson
Expectation threshold: These three are pretty much out of the running. So even surpassing any expectations they might have would result in little to no increased chance at the nomination.