- Five candidates vying for strong finish to catapult ahead
- Sanders comfortably ahead of Clinton, according to polls
New Hampshire voters are putting their imprint on the 2016 presidential race today and who Republicans pick behind frontrunner Donald Trump could set the tone for the weeks ahead.
Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern time in most of the state, and surveys have showed Trump leading the Republican field comfortably. The second, third and even fourth place slots all are up for grabs, with no fewer than five different candidates jockeying for those key spots.
Coming out of Iowa, Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s strong third-place finish set him up for another big night in New Hampshire. But after a debate stumble Saturday, other Republicans are trying to slip in behind Trump, including three governors: John Kasich of Ohio, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida.
The Iowa winner, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, hasn’t competed as fiercely here but is hoping a good showing as well.
On the Democratic side, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is topping Hillary Clinton by a comfortable margin in the polls.
Exit polls released by CNN showed the Democratic race has been stable for some time, with polls showing decisive leads for Sanders for weeks. In the exit poll, 77 percent of voters said they decided earlier than in the last few days.
It’s much more volatile on the Republican side, where 46 percent of voters made their candidate choice in the last few days, and 65 percent said Saturday’s final debate before the primary was important in their decision. That could be bad news for Rubio, who had hoped for a second place finish, after he was pummeled in questioning by Christie at the debate.
New Hampshire historically serves to narrow crowded presidential fields, like this year’s Republican contest, but the volatile nature of the race could take the nominating fight in both parties well into the spring. In fact, most of the Republicans who competed in New Hampshire seem sure to go on to the next contest in South Carolina on Feb. 20.
“If somebody runs that table it’s over, but I don’t see anybody running that table,” former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican, said at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast briefing in Manchester on Tuesday.
Trump stopped short of predicting victory after seeing his weeks-long polling lead in Iowa evaporate and drop him to second place in last week’s caucuses behind Cruz.
“I just want to do well. I want to win, even if it’s by one vote,” he told Fox News in Manchester on Tuesday.
Rubio, who came to New Hampshire with momentum after a strong third-place finish in Iowa, could drift further back due to the fluid nature of a race.
Christie, Kasich and Bush all were looking for strong showings. Cruz had placed as high as second in some polls but has said he’s looking forward to races in South Carolina and other southern states where the electorate is more conservative.
All three governors had staked their campaigns on performing well in New Hampshire, but if they finish close to each other they can claim they essentially tied for second and move on to South Carolina, said Steve Duprey, New Hampshire’s Republican national committeeman, who is neutral in the race.
“It’s just so hotly contested, and there are so many good candidates who have run aggressive, hard campaigns,” Duprey said. “It’s almost like neighborhood-to-neighborhood combat here.”
In the Democratic race, Clinton made clear she already was looking beyond what could be a tough night in New Hampshire. She announced she’s going to Nevada, site of the party’s Feb. 20 caucuses, on Saturday and Sunday.
Sanders’ lead has narrowed in recent polls and Clinton wasn’t conceding the race. Yet her supporters have been emphasizing Sanders’ home-field advantage as a New England candidate and suggesting that a close finish would amount to a victory as she heads to states where she is leading.
Clinton is still the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. But after Sanders closed a 40 percentage-point deficit in Iowa and lost by less than a percentage point last week, his team says it will fight to the end in upcoming contests across the Midwest and South with momentum behind his message of a rigged economy benefiting the wealthy.
Voting started just after midnight in three small towns in New Hampshire that can set their own hours. In one of those communities, Dixville Notch, Kasich came out on top with three votes, followed by Trump with two; Sanders won all four Democratic votes, according to the Associated Press. In Hart’s Location, it was also Kasich and Sanders, and in Millsfield, Clinton and Cruz won, according to Politico.
Adding to the uncertainty about the finish is the large number of voters who hadn’t committed to a candidate. A CNN/WMUR New Hampshire primary poll released Sunday showed that only 45 percent of likely Republican primary voters said they had definitely decided who they will support, with 25 percent leaning toward a candidate, and 30 percent still trying to decide.
Also on Monday, the Financial Times reported former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he is “looking at all the options” on a potential presidential run, his first public comments since the New York Times reported on his deliberations about an independent bid last month. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. A representative for the former mayor, Marc La Vorgna, declined to comment.
Trump said he’d welcome the former mayor to the race. “I think I’ll call him later and say: do it,” he said on MSNBC on Tuesday.