Polls in New Hampshire have been fairly steady for quite a while. Donald Trump has held a consistent lead among Granite State Republicans for months, but his backing has struggled to reach the 30% threshold – suggesting he could be vulnerable to one of the more establishment-friendly candidates, if this faction of the GOP weren’t already being split five ways.
The New York Times reported the other day that Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, both of whom are betting much of their candidacies on the first primary, have started pushing a new line on the campaign trail in the nation’s first primary.
On Monday night, speaking at the Christmas-bedecked American Legion hall in Alton, Mr. Bush picked up where Mr. Christie left off.“New Hampshire has a special place in our democracy,” Mr. Bush said at his 27th town-hall-style meeting, alluding to its tradition of holding the first primaries, shortly after Iowa’s caucuses. “I, for one, will entrust the voters of New Hampshire to make this decision disproportionately more than any other place. I’m totally confident that you all will maintain your position as first in the nation, that you will be discerning about this.”
Of course, few have suggested New Hampshire won’t maintain its first-in-the-nation status, making this a curious thing for Bush to say.
The implication is subtle – Granite State Republicans wouldn’t take kindly to being threatened – but the underlying argument is that if Trump maintains his lead and actually wins the state’s primary, New Hampshire’s special status could be at risk. After all, the thesis goes, if the state’s GOP voters are going to deliver an important primary victory to Trump, maybe the state should no longer be trusted to have an advantage other states might handle more responsibly.
The Times piece added that the rhetoric includes a “dash of Tony Soprano – nice little primary franchise you got there, be a shame if something happened to it.”
Christie characterizes his rhetoric as more of a guilt-based pitch, but with Bush, the insinuation about future punishments has a slightly more aggressive edge.
The former governor told a group of New Hampshire voters last week, “The question is will New Hampshire want to support a guy who might tarnish this extraordinary reputation that you have, which is first-in-nation status, where you make people walk through the hot coals each and every time they come, where you challenge people, where you help them learn how to get better at doing this.”
The key word in that pitch is “tarnish” – as in, New Hampshire Republicans might “tarnish” their reputation to such an extent that their “first-in-nation status” may be in jeopardy.
For the record, I seriously doubt that a Trump primary win would cost New Hampshire its exalted status in future cycles. Granite State Republicans ignored the national party’s mainstream in 1996, for example, and voted for Pat Buchanan over Bob Dole. Four years earlier, it embarrassed then-President George H.W. Bush, a sitting president running for re-election, holding him to just 53% of the vote in the state’s primary.
What were the consequences of these results? There weren’t any.
I can’t say with confidence how Trump will fare in New Hampshire, but I think it’s a safe bet that the state’s first-in-nation status will be unaffected by the results, subtle threats notwithstanding.