Hillary Clinton’s campaign team has begun to soften expectations for her performance in the coming Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary. But what does she need to achieve in order to maintain her aura of invincibility in the Democratic primaries after the Granite State?
Certainly she must win. A loss would be fatal to her presidential ambitions. But a win might be perceived as a loss (just as her husband’s loss to Paul Tsongas in 1992 ended up getting spun as a win).
She also needs to unambiguously top her 2008 result where she garnered 39 percent of the New Hampshire Primary vote in a very hotly contested race with now-President Obama.
If a win with more than 40 percent of the vote is the absolute low water mark, what’s the realistic target?
As was widely reported this week, a Clinton campaign official circulated a memo to reporters that argued that:
“In New Hampshire, no Democrat in a contested primary in the last 25 years has won by more than 27,000 votes or received more than 50 percent of the vote. Even running unopposed in 2012 as the incumbent president, President Obama received around 80 percent of the primary vote.”
In addition, Bill Clinton pulled 84 percent in 1996. Getting over 80 percent would certainly be the high water mark. But Hillary isn’t the incumbent president and there is real opposition available for voters to support. So it’s unlikely she’ll be able to get anywhere near that.
The closest parallel to Clinton’s current campaign might be Richard Nixon in 1968. He won the New Hampshire Primary that year with 78 percent of the vote, with Nelson Rockefeller drawing 11 percent. Like Hillary, Nixon was well well-known without major opposition, but not an incumbent. Still, it’s hard to see the former Secretary of State getting in the high 70’s given the current dynamics.
Of course, looking across the aisle in 1968, Lyndon Johnson won the New Hampshire Primary 50-42 over Eugene McCarthy. That ended up being a slim enough margin that it helped prod the incumbent president to forego a shot at another term.
Could Hillary go as low as 50 percent this time around and still survive? Or would it be a mortal wound if she just barely gets a majority of Democratic voters?
The fact that her campaign raised the 50 percent issue in their background memo suggests that they are prepared for the possibility of cutting it close. The advantage that Clinton has in 2016 over Johnson in 1968 is that the votes are likely to be split among more than one candidate. So instead of having a 50-42 victory, something that looks more like the 2000 GOP results seems more plausible. That year, the final tally looked like this: McCain 49, Bush 30, and Forbes 13.
One could perhaps see Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley finishing with percentages in the mid-teens to high-twenties. That would put Clinton perilously close to 50 percent, but still well ahead of the next nearest challenger.
The very fact that she has more than one opponent must come as a deep relief to the Clinton team. It makes it hard for the disaffected liberals, the anti-Clinton crowd, and anybody else wanting a different choice to coalesce around a single opponent.
If Clinton wins something like 50-28-15 that’s quite a bit better than 50-43.
The bottom line is that Clinton’s percentage matters, but so does the margin of victory over whomever finishes in second place. The realistic range that one could see for Hilary is something in the 50-65 percent window.
Finishing with less than majority support would likely be viewed as a serious challenge to her candidacy and might spur more folks to look at her competitors — or perhaps even encourage a late entrant to the race.
Conversely, ending the night with something approaching two-thirds support would likely stick a dagger in the hearts of the opposition.
Where in that 50-65 percent window does the tide turn? It’s hard to say exactly, but if I were the Clinton campaign, I’d be focused on getting the New Hampshire number to 55 percent to head off concerns about Hillary’s viability in the remainder of the primaries.
Since Hillary Clinton will be matched against the expectations coming in to the New Hampshire Primary, it’s something worth considering. The bar may rise or fall over the course of the next 8 months, but you can be sure that the campaign insiders have begun to war game the different scenarios so that they can do their part in establishing an attainable goal.
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