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Sanders, Trump clear front-runners as New Hampshire votes Tuesday

While the poll leaders are clear, it's spin that will truly decide who wins 2016's first primary.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points at supporters after speaking at rally at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2016. (Photo by Justin Lane/EPA)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points at supporters after speaking at rally at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2016.

HUDSON, New Hampshire — If the Iowa caucuses all came down to turnout on the Democratic side, New Hampshire will come down to spin. 

There’s little question that Clinton will lose the state, and there’s little question that both sides will try to claim the result as a relative win for their side. But how large the margin is will determine who succeeds. 

Sanders has been leading in most polls since August, with a brief intermission at the end of the year, and is currently 20 points ahead according to the latest NBC News Wall Street Journal poll.

RELATED: Live updates and analysis from the 2016 New Hampshire primary

Clinton and her team have done everything they can to broadcast, without ever quite saying it, that they are OK with losing New Hampshire and are already looking ahead to the next batch of contests in late February and March. 

The overwhelming Democratic front-runner dropped the word “victory” from her election-night watch party. This weekend, she traveled to Michigan, which holds a primary in March, while Bill Clinton traveled to Nevada ahead of a caucus later this month.

In the lead up to the New Hampshire primary, her campaign released its first South Carolina TV ad, featuring former Attorney General Eric Holder. They released their second South Carolina ad, focused on criminal justice reform. They released their first Spanish language ad for Nevada.

The campaign went out of their way to announce that Bernie Sanders had out-raised them by $5 million in January. They’ve pointed out repeatedly that New Hampshire is basically the Vermont senator’s “backyard.”

And here are some of the email fundraising subject lines the campaign sent. From Chelsea Clinton: “My mom is down in the polls.” From Bill Clinton: “out-raised and outspent.” From Hillary Clinton: “Help close a $5 million gap."

The night before the New Hampshire primary in 1992, Bill Clinton went to a bowling alley at 11:00 p.m., trying to wring every last vote of the Granite State. He went on to come in second behind a neighboring-state senator Paul Tsongas, but his campaign and supporters successfully spun the finish as a win that made him the “comeback kid” and put him on the path to the nomination.

This year, there were no late-night trips to bowling alleys for Hillary Clinton Monday.

Instead, she had a quiet dinner with her daughter at a rustic tavern before heading to her final rally, which was more or less indistinguishable from any other rally she’s had in the state.

Meanwhile, across the state, Sanders was holding a blow-out concert with model Emily Ratajkowski and a crowded marquee of indie bands, headlined by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

RELATED: Bernie Sanders suddenly looks like a winner

"Tomorrow, if we have a good voter turnout," Sanders declared to thousands of screaming fans. "I think that we're going to have a very, very good night."

Clinton made no such declaration at her rally. “I will ask you respectfully to please consider giving me the chance to do this job for you,” she said.

Aware that too-high expectations could rob Sanders of the full weight of his victory, he and his team have been playing with their own forecast. While Sanders hails from a neighboring state, Clinton is the only candidate who has actually won any votes in New Hampshire, they correctly note. 

She and her husband have been campaigning in the state since 1991, when  New Hampshire effectively launched her husband to the White House. Not long ago, especially after her 2008 primary win, everyone called New Hampshire “Clinton County” and assumed it was Iowa where Sanders would try to pull ahead of Hillary. They are supported by practically every elected Democrat in the state and most from Vermont.

She hasn’t exactly abandoned the state, holding 85 events here to Sanders’ 93, according to the NECN candidate tracker. Clinton also has 19 offices and get-out-the-vote centers in the state to Sanders’ 18 campaign offices.

Both teams refused to discuss numbers they’d consider a win, at least on the record, but some data points to consider:  No one has ever won a New Hampshire Democratic Primary by more than 16 points. But if Clinton loses by 10 she can claim she cut Sanders’ lead in half.

What’s likely to determine the margin? New Hampshire’s notoriously fickle and hard to poll independents. Unaligned voters make up 40 percent of state’s electorate, but a much smaller portion are actually up for grabs between the parties.

Sanders and Clinton are roughly tied among registered Democratic voters, but he swamps her among unaligned voters. If they show up and vote for Sanders, and don’t decide to vote in the Republican primary, he can expect to expand his margin greatly. 

Trump goes blue, Rubio tries to fend off rivals

On the Republican side, the race is as uncertain as ever. Donald Trump leads all polls by double-digits, but many voters say that they’re holding out until the last minute to make their decision. 

The billionaire’s final rally on Monday was emblematic of the crudely populist campaign that captured the imagination of Republican voters while horrifying his rivals.

RELATED: Trump shocks and awes in final New Hampshire rally

Speaking to a crowd at an arena in Manchester, Trump, who has said he’ll institute interrogation techniques “much worse than waterboarding” against suspected terrorists, chastised Senator Ted Cruz for only pledging to allow simulated drowning in rare circumstances. When a woman in the crowd called Cruz a vulgar epithet for his brief hesitance at embracing torture, Trump gleefully repeated the line.

“She said he’s a p---y,” Trump said, to raucous cheering from the crowd that lasted over thirty seconds. He tried to continue, but was overpowered by chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” that continued to pour from the crowd. “Terrible!” he said in mock disapproval.

“[Trump is] turning the campaign into the latest episode of a reality show but let's not forget who whipped who in Iowa,” Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler tweeted in response.

Handicapping the rest of the field is a mess. Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Cruz, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush have all placed second in different surveys this week, usually separated form each other by a narrow margin. Cruz’s path to the nomination is less reliant on the state than the others and he's more invested in socially conservative states like South Carolina, which votes Feb. 20. 

The biggest question is whether Saturday’s dramatic debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester made any significant impact on voters’ preferences.

Rubio, who appeared on the cusp of consolidating establishment support after placing a strong third in Iowa, stumbled badly at the finish line. In a widely replayed faceoff against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the senator responded to an accusation that he relied on canned talking points by nervously returning to an anti-Obama line he had just used moments earlier.  

Rubio has tried to move past the incident, saying he stood by his repeated debate line that Obama “knows exactly what he's doing" and is on an ideological quest to “change America."

“I’m going to keep saying that a million times cause I believe it's true,” Rubio told voters at a town hall on Monday. 

In an uncomfortable echo of the debate moment, however, Rubio repeated himself during his remarks at his pre-vote rally later that night in Nashua, twice describing the difficulty of raising his children in the 21st century given “the values that they try to ram down our throats.” 

RELATED: With pressure on, Robotic Rubio has a breakdown

Bush, Kasich and Christie have all targeted New Hampshire as a critical starting point for their campaigns. Their path to the nomination looks daunting without a surprisingly impressive performance to rally support. But any sign of vulnerability from Rubio heightens the odds they’ll stay in the race, even if they can’t overtake him in the final results. 

“He's a gifted person and he will be a leader going forward, but he doesn't have a proven record and I think people aren't willing to make a risky bet on that,” Bush said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday.

Kasich has practically camped out in the state, and wrapped up his 106th town hall of the campaign on Monday night. He’s emphasized his willingness to work with Democrats on policy, his experience as a governor and Congressman, and his compassion.

“What I have found in this state is that people share their sorrows and hopes and defeat,” he said in Plaistow on Monday. “When they come to a town hall … they at least feel safe about it.”