“The people of Iowa pick corn; the people of New Hampshire pick presidents.”
This oft-quoted quip about the importance of the New Hampshire primary is usually attributed to former New Hampshire governor John Sununu. The quote stems from Vice President George H. W. Bush’s victory in the 1988 New Hampshire primary after he lost the Iowa caucus to Kansas senator Bob Dole.
Now, 28 years later, what is notable about “Daddy” Bush’s New Hampshire victory is that it was the last time a non-incumbent president won the nation’s first primary and then went on to win the White House.
Since then, and in order for Sununu’s statement to be accurate, it would need to be revised to read, “The people of New Hampshire pick presidents who place second in our primary.”
Let’s look at the record.
While vying for their first term, the last three men to be elected president of the United States did not win the New Hampshire primary, but in each case finished second.
This historic precedent makes the candidates’ New Hampshire win order especially prescient.
Starting in 1992, Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas won his neighboring state primary with 33 percent of the vote compared to 24.7 percent for Arkansas governor Bill Clinton.
However, in what has since become a case-study in political strategy, Clinton brilliantly parlayed his second place finish into a psychological victory by calling himself the “comeback kid.” Clinton earned this self-proclaimed moniker after the national media largely dismissed him over accusations of a 12-year extra-marital affair and Vietnam War draft-dodging.
Today, the New York Times revisits Bill Clinton’s triumph in the context that his wife will likely lose the same primary. But, if Hillary Clinton manages an upset victory over Bernie Sanders, another senator from a neighboring state, then Mrs. Clinton can rightly call herself the “comeback chick.”
The next presidential campaign without an incumbent president was in the year 2000.
That was when Arizona senator John McCain won the New Hampshire primary with 48.5 percent of vote, handily defeating Texas governor George W. Bush who garnered only 30.3 percent.
Then in 2008, New York senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton defeated Illinois senator Barack Obama by a margin of 39 to 36.4 percent.
Is there anything we can read into this trend where the last three presidents placed second in the nation’s first primary?
Was it a reaction to the outcome of the Iowa causes? The numbers tell the tale.
In 1992, Bill Clinton, then nationally unknown, was a non-factor in Iowa winning only 2.8 percent of the caucus vote. The caucus winner was Iowa senator Tom Harkin. Therefore, in New Hampshire, Clinton had nowhere to go but up.
Then in 2000 the story was different when George W. Bush won a resounding victory in the Iowa caucus. Perhaps Bush’s New Hampshire loss to Sen. John McCain was also a pendulum swing reaction by voters to Bush’s Iowa win?
Same for 2008 when “the new fresh face,” Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus in a surprise upset and then Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary in a similar “pendulum swing.”
Most interesting and revealing is how the last three presidents fared in the South Carolina primary after finishing second in New Hampshire.
Surely, if any early primary state deserves bragging rights for picking presidents it is South Carolina. Here the record speaks for itself.
In 1992, Bill Clinton won the South Carolina primary with 62.9 percent of the vote trouncing Paul Tsongas, who only earned 18.3 percent.
In 2000, George W. Bush defeated John McCain 53.3 to 41.8 percent
Then in 2008, in what was considered a competitive three-way race, Barack Obama won big with 55.4 percent compared to 26.5 percent for Hillary Clinton and 17.6 percent for John Edwards.
What insight can we glean or predictions can we make about the current presidential race from the last three presidents’ second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary and first in South Carolina? Probably none, except for the fact that it is historical precedent times three.
The case for none is because every presidential campaign without an incumbent is vastly different than the one before.
In what is normally an eight-year time span, the issues, mood and circumstances of the nation and its place in the world have dramatically changed. New technological and communication advances have been developed, or existing ones have become more widely used — impacting campaigns like never before. And, even if some of the candidates are not new on the national scene they have boldly attempted to re-brand themselves.
Now consider how the current crop of 2016 candidates might repeat political history.
If Hillary Clinton places second in New Hampshire, she will likely win in South Carolina where she is polling 29 percentage points ahead of Bernie Sanders. (Precedent for president alert?)
On the Republican side, if Donald Trump wins New Hampshire, and goes on to win South Carolina, he could potentially break the mold of the last three presidents by repeating the 1988 performance of Vice President George H.W. Bush — the last non-incumbent president to win New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Trump continues to be the wildest of wild cards in the fight for the Republican nomination. Furthermore, he could become more disruptive to the overall campaign if he starts losing, or performing well-below expectations. So watch out!
If Trump falters, Texas senator and Iowa caucus winner, Ted Cruz could place second in New Hampshire and win South Carolina. (GOP precedent for president alert?)
Alternatively, Florida senator Marco Rubio has a shot at second place in New Hampshire. Then with some “big mo,” he might even win South Carolina, where he is currently in third place behind Trump and Ted Cruz.
Also, watch Ohio governor John Kasich for the latest polls indicate that he is heading toward a strong finish in New Hampshire and could place second to Trump. But unfortunately for Kasich, South Carolina polls show him to be a non-factor.
Finally, at the end of most investment ads you hear the phrase warning that “past performance does not predict future returns.” Not only does this statement ring true with investments but also in the political arena.
Still, the historic record of the last three presidents’ second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary and then winning South Carolina, should be acknowledged and might even be repeated.