HANOVER, N.H. -- Al Foley, who taught history in these parts for decades and still is remembered in song and lore, was one of the great up-country raconteurs of his time. He died in 1978, but I met him once and, like so many others marinated in the folklore of this rugged state, I knew by heart many of his Yankee tales, including this one with special merit as the New Hampshire primary draws near:
Tourist from out of state to the farmer by the road: Does it matter which road I take to Manchester?
Farmer by the road: Not to me it don’t.
This story comes to mind as the uncertainties in 2020 presidential politics deepen, especially in this state, known as the site of the first primary and for its contrary outlook; it’s one of only five states, for example, refusing to use mileage figures to number highway exits. With the primary two months away, these questions remain unsettled and, for Democrats, darkly unsettling:
-- Does it matter who wins the Iowa caucuses? That contest, conducted eight days before the voting here, is no reliable harbinger for what happens here. The list of modern political figures who won Iowa but lost New Hampshire is long: George H.W. Bush (1980), former Vice President Walter F. Mondale (1984), Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas (1988 and 1996), Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri (1988), Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa (1992), Gov. George W. Bush of Texas (2000), former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas (2008), Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois (2008), former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania (2012) and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (2016).
Indeed, the only candidates in recent contests to win both Iowa and New Hampshire in years in which there was no incumbent running for re-election in their party were Vice President Al Gore (2000) and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts (2004).
So as you contemplate the 2020 Democratic field, remember Professor Foley’s story. Does it matter who wins the Iowa caucuses? Not to New Hampshire it don’t.
-- What effect will the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump have?
Not the one you think (piling on the president and accusing him as a national embarrassment, grifter and perhaps criminal). It will garner something more portentous for the Democrats (distracting the public’s attention from the campaigning, and perhaps even the results here).
Recent experience is illuminating: The first day of Trump impeachment hearings drew 13 million viewers for midday viewing, which is to say during the period people were at work and ordinarily don’t watch television. The last Democratic debate, on prime time after the Intelligence Committee proceedings, drew just half that audience.
Senate Republicans and the White House are contemplating a post-impeachment trial of Trump that would occur right as the Democrats are campaigning here and in Iowa. That means the five senators who are presidential candidates would be confined to their seats in the Capitol six days a week. The beneficiaries of that could be former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who might be the only top-tier candidates campaigning here. It could also open up possibilities for other candidates, such as businessmen Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang.
-- Who will still be in the race by the second week of February?
Not a small factor. A poor performance in Iowa may mean little to voters in New Hampshire, but it could shape the field of candidates who come here after Iowa.
Struggling candidates like Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who held five events here in the days leading to Thanksgiving, might not still be in the race after Iowa. He doesn’t have much support to distribute to others, but some of the candidates do.
If, for example, Sen. Cory Booker, who had eight events here in the pre-Thanksgiving weekend, performs poorly in Iowa, he might be forced to leave the race before he even gets to campaign here during primary week. But he has enough support here that its redistribution might be a factor; if not his voters then surely his activists -- an essential element of New Hampshire presidential politics -- would be an asset to another candidate.
Iowa could be curtains for many other candidates, including former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who has invested enormous time (232 events already!) in Iowa and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (second, with 214 events). It could also be the end of the road for Sen. Kamala Harris (77 events), who has made it clear she is making her stand in Iowa.
-- What will the Independents do?
A quirk of voting here is that Independents can take ballots for either party during the primary. Out-of-state commentators -- the very people who might ask Foley for directions to Manchester -- often exaggerate their importance. Their numbers are astonishing, but their impact usually is limited. As recently as 2002, they were fewer than the number of Republicans. Now they are by far the largest group of New Hampshire voters, today making up 42 percent of this state’s voting rolls.
Almost no truly Independent voters will opt for the GOP ballot; the challenges to Trump in his own party are paltry and meaningless, even that from a neighboring former governor, William F. Weld of Massachusetts. Many of the Independents will take the Democratic ballot. One candidate is working that part of the field hard: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has roadside billboards all over the state with an ambiguous but poignant message: "A Soldier’s Heart."
In 2012, the last time there was only one party contest -- Obama was running for re-election, so only the Republicans had a contested race -- Independents accounted for 47 percent of the Republican vote, and 31 percent of them went for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Generally, however, candidates win the primary here by prevailing among voters affiliated with a major party and not by riding a surge of support from Independents. "You have to win among your registered voters," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in Durham. "In a really, really close race with a lot of candidates, the unaffiliated can make a difference. But candidates should not pin their hopes on these voters."
-- But does it matter which road to victory the winner here takes? Not to South Carolina, the next stop on the campaign trail, it don’t.
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