A week after the Iowa caucuses and a day after the Super Bowl, voters in New Hampshire go to the polls. It's a tradition stretching back to the 1950s, and a hugely important marker for the 18-month reality show that is the 2016 presidential race.
Whereas Iowa’s caucus system relies on antiquated methods of vote casting (people moving around a room is considered good politics in the Hawkeye State) Tuesday's primary is a more traditional secret ballot in which voters pick their nominee.
The rules of the Granite State election allow both existing party members and unaffiliated voters to lodge their preference. Unaffiliated voters can register the day before, making accurate polling for the state very difficult especially in years of higher voter turnout.
It also means that those voters signing up late (up to 45 percent of the electorate could decide who to vote for as late as Monday) will swing the election. The result will come down to which individual candidates appeal to the most voters rather than any fidelity to a particular party.
Like Iowa, the importance of New Hampshire is not in the amount of delegates a candidate can leave with (the total number of delegates ultimately decides who is the nominee), but in determining which candidates stay in the race. A bad showing in New Hampshire traditionally means donations dry up, forcing hopefuls to withdraw. Alternatively, a good showing can propel an ailing campaign back into health.
Recent campaign finance reform has allowed some candidates to build up huge war chests, lessening the financial impact or a poor ballot, but momentum still remains important.
For Republicans, businessman Donald Trump has led in statewide surveys for several months and is the favourite to win, although some pollsters warn his fear peddling rhetoric might not translate into a sweeping victory on Tuesday.
“Trump benefits from the fact that he is less ideological and socially less conservative than the rest of the Republican field,” said Linda L. Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, the academic noted that perceived problems with Trump's campaign in Iowa could work to the tycoon’s benefit in New Hampshire. “People here, at least some of them, are susceptible to celebrity, as they are everywhere,” she said, adding: “[New Hampshire] voters also like ‘straight talk’.”
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose brand of extreme politics proved popular in Iowa, is unlikely to appeal to the less religious voters of New Hampshire, though Fowler argues Cruz doesn’t need to win to “remain viable” in the South Carolina primary on Feb. 20 and in the more religious southern states that follow.
As such, the senator will likely vie for second position with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who finished third in Iowa, as well as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who could benefit from a solid TV debate performance on Saturday. John Kasich, the moderate governor of Ohio, is also expected to be competitive, while former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is still in the mix, albeit running out of chances to build up some steam.
The state has a historical reputation for backing establishment candidates, including Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in 2012, John McCain and Obama in 2008 and John Kerry and George Bush in 2004.
However, voters also went for John McCain over George Bush in the 2000 GOP race, and for conservative author Pat Buchanan in 1996, meaning the state can spring a surprise.
Noting Newt Gingrich’s fourth place finish in 2012, Fowler said the best way to think about the state is that “it gives some candidates a second look after Iowa and lets them through the gate to try their fortunes for a bit longer.”
Likewise, it can “shut the door on others,” she noted, citing the campaigns of Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum, also in 2012. “A lot of its influence depends on the calendar and whether candidates have the resources to stick around for a few more contests,” Fowler adds.
For the Democrats, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders leads in the polls and should come out ahead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but he’ll require a sizable victory if he is to have the impetus moving forward into the southern primary states in which Clinton’s polling is far stronger.
Sanders was narrowly defeated in Iowa, a state he once trailed by a huge margin. However, Fowler is dubious over whether the senator's impressive Iowa result will have an impact in the 'first in the nation' primary. “Whether the toss-up in Iowa will boost his standing here or give people second thoughts is an open question,” she said.