A winner (more or less).

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Getty Images

From Steadfast Iowa to Contrarian New Hampshire

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Strong showings in the Iowa caucuses by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio sent them roaring into next week’s Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire with a head of steam at the expense of a deflated Donald Trump.

On the Democratic side, the virtual tie between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders puts intense pressure on Clinton to rebound in New Hampshire and foreshadows a protracted struggle in a race she expected to dominate.

New Hampshire is renowned for its independence and contrarian voting habits and anything can happen there. Trump and Sanders enjoy big polling leads that they now need to turn into New Hampshire victories. That will be a test of whether Sanders can retain the enthusiasm of his youthful supporters, and whether Trump fans still consider him a winner after losing the first contest of the 2016 campaign.

Rubio didn’t win Iowa but he was a big a winner there. His third-place finish was closer than polls predicted and he almost caught Trump. His challenge now is to persuade mainstream Republican voters to coalesce behind his candidacy to foil the self-styled outsiders Cruz and Trump. To do that he’ll need a strong showing in New Hampshire against Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie -- three other mainstream Republicans who are competing vigorously in the Granite State.

New Hampshire comebacks are not unusual. Clinton staged one after Barack Obama beat her in Iowa eight years ago. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 scored critical New Hampshire wins after losing Iowa.

Of course Clinton’s New Hampshire victory in 2008 wasn’t enough to propel her to victory over Obama for the nomination. This time she’s counting on strong organizations and well-financed campaigns in later contests to overcome the unexpected early success of Sanders, a senator from Vermont.

New Hampshire’s outcome is hard to predict because about 40 percent of its voters are independents who are allowed to decide on primary day whether to vote in either party’s contest. A candidate who scores big with these voters can spring a surprise. And surprise has already been the story of this campaign, in which little has played out as expected.

On the Republican side there are several huge question marks, in addition to the overriding one of Trump's durability:

¶ Can Rubio, the Florida senator, get a bounce from his strong Iowa finish and thereby crowd out the other mainstream contenders? He will be the focus of a lot of fire from rivals over the next few days to prevent this. If he places first or second in New Hampshire he would become a top contender for the nomination.

¶ Can Kasich, Bush or Christie do well next Tuesday? Each faces virtual elimination otherwise. And each probably has to finish ahead of the other two and Rubio for a plausible pathway to the nomination.

¶ Can Cruz ride his Iowa victory to a respectable showing in New Hampshire, a state he’d been inclined to ignore but now intends to contest? He’d planned to focus instead on South Carolina, where the third G.O.P. contest takes place on Feb. 20 and where conservative voters are more of a force. His campaign manager has predicted that the Texan will prevail there, though polls show Trump ahead. Another factor may be whether Ben Carson, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon who finished a distant fourth in Iowa, stays in the race; he and Cruz compete for evangelical Christian voters.

New Hampshire is likely to winnow out at least three or four candidates. Iowa effectively took out half a dozen, including Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, winners of the last two Republican caucuses there.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net