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First read: On New Hampshire primary day, follow the leaders

But Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are likely headed to victory tonight, and that would be no small feat.
People vote at a polling place at Merrimack High School in Merrimack, N.H., on Feb. 9, 2016. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters)
People vote at a polling place at Merrimack High School in Merrimack, N.H., on Feb. 9, 2016.

First Read is a morning briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Amid the uncertainty, follow the leaders -- Trump and Sanders

MANCHESTER, NH - For a moment, forget the race for second (or third or fourth) place in the Republican primary. And stop speculating about whether Hillary Clinton can bring the Democratic contest to single digits. Instead, devote your attention, at least for the time being, to the two men who have consistently led the New Hampshire primary amid all of the other uncertainty -- Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Think about it: Trump's been ahead in 75-straight New Hampshire polls going back to June (hat tip: the Boston Globe's James Pindell), while Sanders has led 40-straight Granite State surveys going back to early January. Anything -- and we mean ANYTHING -- can happen tonight. But Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are likely headed to victory tonight, and that would be no small feat. Six months ago, this dual outcome would have been dismissed as pure fantasy. Today, it may be the biggest signal yet that the country is so fed up with its political leadership that voters in New Hampshire will turn to a democratic socialist and a reality TV star to shake things up.

What Trump and Sanders have in common

Given their likely wins tonight, it's worth noting what Trump and Sanders have in common. One, they enjoy appeal among New Hampshire's independent/undeclared voters, who make up 44% of the state's voting population (and who can vote in either primary). Two, they were both the second-place finishers a week ago in Iowa. Three, they rail about big money in politics, which is never a bad issue in New Hampshire (see John McCain in 2000 and 2008). And four and maybe most importantly, the two are outsiders maybe best channeling the anger and frustration in America. With its intense focus on politics and high voting participation rates, New Hampshire is one of those states that sometimes best previews the country's mood. And right now, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are channeling that mood. Also as our colleague Dante Chinni writes, if Trump wins his first nominating contest victory, "it would indicate that, despite his second-place finish in Iowa, he may have a very long run ahead of him." The road ahead for Sanders is more daunting, but a decisive win would give him lots of momentum heading into Nevada and South Carolina.

Playing the expectations game

Beyond the two front-runners, how should we look at the expectations game? Well, knowing well how the expectations game was crazy last week in Iowa - the Republican who finished third was treated like a winner by many; the GOPer who finished second was the big loser; and the Republicans who won turned into an afterthought - here's what we HOPE is a thoughtful way to look at tonight's expectations.

Hillary Clinton: Given Sanders' big lead, his geographical edge (representing next-door neighbor Vermont), and New Hampshire's white and independent voters, Clinton narrowing the race to single digits would be a psychological lift for a campaign already beset by reports of a shakeup, which Team Clinton denies. Keeping New Hampshire closer than expected would be good news for them as the delegate race moves to the more diverse states of Nevada and South Carolina, as well as the March 1 contests. But a big digit-loss won't be good news, especially in a state that Clinton won in 2008 and that made her husband the "Comeback Kid" in 1992. Make no mistake: If she loses tonight, Clinton is headed for a tough few weeks -- her toughest since the darkest days of the 2008 race. If she loses, expect the national polls to tighten (with some maybe even having Sanders ahead); expect Sanders to continue to out-fundraise Clinton; and don't assume Nevada is some firewall. And it will all mean more Bloomberg stories and even Biden chatter… again. In short, if tonight is as bad for Clinton as it looks, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Marco Rubio: Speaking of psychological victories, Rubio holding on to second place would be a considerable lift for his campaign after Saturday's debate performance. It wouldn't erase that performance - his GOP rivals are smelling blood - but it would be great news for his team. But finishing below that, especially after getting an early bump from Iowa, will sound alarm bells as we head into all-important South Carolina.

Ted Cruz: It's possible he could finish second or fifth. While Cruz's path to the nomination doesn't go through New Hampshire, the former outcome would be preferable to the latter, especially after a rough week (debate, accusations of winning Iowa unfairly).

Jeb Bush: Who would have thought two weeks ago - even two days ago - that Bush would have a chance for finishing second in New Hampshire? But that's the situation now. And second place over Rubio would be a real shot in the arm for a campaign who has the ability and money to march into South Carolina. That said, finishing below the other governors (John Kasich and Chris Christie) would be problematic.

John Kasich/Chris Christie: Either could overperform, though Kasich appears to have the better chance here. But they both share this problem: After New Hampshire, where else can they play? That's a big problem. But after Rubio's debate performance, they don't have to close the door on their campaigns if they finish worse than third. With another GOP debate coming up, what's the incentive to get out?

The first votes are already in

Since it's New Hampshire, we ALREADY have voting results from three of the state's small towns - Dixville Notch, Hart's Location, and Millsfield. On the Democratic side in those three towns, it's Sanders 17, Clinton 9. And on the Republican side, it's Trump 9, Cruz 9, Kasich 9, Christie 3, Bush 2, and Rubio 2. Most polls are open 7:00 am to 7:00 pm ET, but each municipality sets its own time. The last polls close at 8:00 pm ET, and the NBC Decision Desk will not call or characterize a race until that time. All eligible voters can participate in the New Hampshire primary. Undeclared voters are required to choose a Republican or a Democratic ballot when they go to the polls. New Hampshire also allows same-day voter registration. In the GOP race, 23 delegates (awarded proportionally) are up for grabs, while it's 24 on the Democratic side -- plus eight superdelegates.

Clinton holds double-digit lead nationally over Sanders, per NBC|SurveyMonkey poll

Despite two national polls showing a closer national race on the Democratic side after Iowa, the NBC|SurveyMonkey tracking poll (conducted Feb. 1-7) shows Clinton maintaining a 51%-39% lead over Bernie Sanders. More: "And in addition to maintaining her lead, an overwhelming number of Democratic voters believe she will win her party's nomination." On the GOP side, it's Trump 35%, Cruz 20%, Rubio 17%.

Countdown to Dem Nevada caucuses: 11 days

Countdown to GOP South Carolina primary: 11 days

Countdown to GOP Nevada caucuses: 14 days

Countdown to Dem South Carolina primary: 18 days 

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