The good news for Hillary Clinton is that when she gets asked about the latest poll out of New Hampshire -- which shows her trailing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by an eye-popping 60 percent to 33 percent – she can argue that winning the Granite State isn’t a requirement for securing the Democratic nomination. After all, in the last Democratic presidential primary, the candidate who won New Hampshire didn’t go on to win the nomination.
Unfortunately, that was in 2008, and the candidate who won New Hampshire but lost the nomination was Clinton herself.
The latest CNN/WMUR poll of New Hampshire voters, released late Tuesday afternoon, generated immediate buzz in the political press not just because of the margin between Sanders and Clinton but because of the magnitude of the change it showed from the last time the same poll was in the field.
In December, the CNN/WMUR result showed Sanders with a strong 10-point lead. But absent earth-shaking revelations of wrongdoing or other outside factors, the margin between two candidates in a race that has already been going on for the better part of a year doesn’t typically triple in the space of a month.
The surprising shift had many in the business of monitoring elections suggesting that the finding was likely an anomaly. However, they also stressed that Sanders is running a strong race in the state that borders his home state of Vermont.
“The margin itself seems like an outlier but Sanders has led most of the recent polls of New Hampshire, so it feels safe to say he’s leading there at the moment,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. However, he added, “a lot can change between now and when the state votes in three weeks.”
Indeed, Clinton’s and Sanders’ respective polling averages crossed back in August and the Vermonter has not trailed her since. Now, with less than a month to go before New Hampshire votes, Clinton is facing a difficult decision.
There is a long tradition in U.S. presidential politics of trying to manage public expectations about primaries – candidates consciously put themselves in a position to spin a loss into a moral victory by claiming they did better than they were expected to.
As it looks increasingly unlikely that Clinton will be able to win New Hampshire, the question is when (and if) she will decide to accept the inevitability of a loss there and start creating an alternative narrative that allows her to claim a measure of victory.
The obvious path is to highlight the fact that Sanders’ home state shares a lengthy border with New Hampshire and to claim that the primary should be viewed as something like a home state election for her biggest challenger. It’s a claim that will carry some weight, but will probably be blunted significantly by the fact that Clinton actually won New Hampshire eight years ago.
As Kondik pointed out, there is a lot of uncertainty left in the race for New Hampshire’s delegates. The same CNN/WMUR poll that has Sanders so far ahead also finds that nearly half of the state’s likely Democratic primary voters haven’t completely made up their minds about whom they will support.
However, nearly three in four are either decided or leaning toward one candidate. That means the decision point for Clinton is approaching – probably more quickly than she would prefer.