By David M. Shribman
WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. -- This is the place to come if you want to discover which way the wind is blowing in the state that holds the first presidential primary.
The day of my visit those winds reached 82 mph at the top of Mount Washington, visible to the west, its summit eerily bare of snow -- for now. And if you're looking for a literal answer, the wind is coming from the west. Down here, at the base of the mountain, the gusts are reaching 52 mph.
What are those winds telling us? That Donald J. Trump holds a lead of more than 2-to-1 over Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas following closely in the Republican presidential race. That former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are in a virtual tie on the Democratic side.
Another gust -- they're coming at a compass reading of 270 degrees -- and you can discover that only a quarter of Granite State residents support the Common Core standardized national curriculum for public schools, about the same rate that regards the state's economy as "excellent" or "good" -- a figure that, significantly for the February primary here, is substantially down from last year. About two-thirds of Democrats support increasing taxes to maintain government services, but only slightly more than a quarter of Republicans agree.
That's the landscape in this vital state for so many candidates. A win or an impressive second or third here, and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, the candidate whose views may match those of New Hampshire Republicans the closest, will be catapulted into the front rank of candidates. The same goes for Rubio, whose youth and vigor are reminiscent of two candidates who used New Hampshire as a booster rocket: Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960 and Sen. Gary W. Hart of Colorado in 1984. A strong second propelled Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas forward to the next rounds.
Then again, New Hampshire has the potential this time of being the early graveyard of once-hopeful campaigns, that of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida especially. The custom here is that the deceased sometimes are not buried until spring, when the ground softens. That will not be the case for Bush if he hovers around 5 percent in the polls here.
Many others -- Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Gov. George Pataki of New York and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, all at about 1 percent or less -- almost certainly will suffer the same fate.
Another to keep an eye on: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. He may have just broken into double digits here, but he's within the margin of error of Trump in Iowa, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll. That underlines the immutable fact that the two early states are quite different -- in character, outlook and ultimately in the political choices they make.
"The New Hampshire electorate is much more grounded in policy positions," says David Spalding, who, as a onetime administrator at Dartmouth College here in New Hampshire and now as the dean of the College of Business at Iowa State, is unusually well-positioned to evaluate both states. "It's much more emotional in Iowa."
The destiny of one other contender, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, provides perhaps the most intriguing mystery. He was endorsed last week by the New Hampshire Union Leader, the first time the state's largest publication has backed a candidate with an average polling rating as low as 2.7 percent.
"We were looking at the Republican governors who are vying for the nomination because if there was ever a time where we need administrative experience, now is it," Joe McQuaid, the newspaper's publisher, told me. "It was down to three governors, and we think Christie stands out from Bush and Kasich as someone who can excite people, take the fight to Trump, Clinton and ISIS, and actually get things done."
You might think of New Hampshire as an "expectations state," a place where beating the expectations is more important than beating rival candidates. McCarthy learned that in 1968, when his 42 percent fell short of Lyndon Johnson's 50 percent but was enough to give him credibility and to wound, deeply, an incumbent chief executive. It happened again in 1972, when Sen. Edmund Muskie's 46 percent was regarded as a disappointing result for a front-runner, especially one from the neighboring state of Maine. He may have finished first, but the real winner was McGovern, whose 37 percent far exceeded expectations.
This time, however, the vagaries of the Expectation State may work another way.
A recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll indicated that about a third of the New Hampshire votes on Feb. 9 will be cast by independents, who, under Granite State law, may vote in either primary. That is always a wild card; no poll captures their inclinations with any reasonable degree of accuracy. But it is especially unpredictable in a year where both party nominations are open; when one candidate (Clinton) is a prohibitive favorite nationally, even though she's in a tight race regionally; and when the leading candidate of the other party, Trump, is a businessman without conventional political experience.
Here are a few of the scores of possible scenarios: Clinton supporters confident of her triumph flock to the Republican primary for an establishment figure, perhaps one of the governors. Liberal-leaning independents concerned about income inequality vote in the Democratic primary for Sanders. Voters warm to the Clinton candidacy but, offended by Trump, vote for another Republican to blunt his rise. Or independent voters who like what Sanders says about the billionaire economy are drawn to the billionaire candidate because of his straight talk.
This game could go on for months, and probably will. Which is why, even at the base of Mount Washington, it's difficult to tell the difference between gust and wind.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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