Distant Dome: Presidential Primary Two Years Away, But The Heat Is On

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President Donald Trump is pictured speaking March 19 at Manchester Community College. Photo/Carol Robidoux/Manchester Ink Link

Distant Dome is co-published by InDepthNH.org and Manchester Ink Link

By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

The New Hampshire Presidential Primary may be two years away, but in the current political climate it is never too early to begin the groundwork for a run.

Last week is a good example. On Monday, President Donald Trump returned to New Hampshire for the first time since his election.

Vice President Pence

Vice President Mike Pence

He made two stops, one at Manchester Community College to unveil his program to fight the growing opioid addiction epidemic, and Manchester Central Fire Station where the “safe station” program began.

Three days later Vice President Mike Pence was in the Granite State as the featured speaker at a program to tout the GOP tax reform/cut package passed last year.

And Pence was the main draw at Gov. Chris Sununu’s fundraiser in Manchester that evening.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona

Last Friday Arizona US Sen. Jeff Flake, who has repeatedly clashed with his fellow Republican Trump, earned a standing ovation at a Politics and Eggs event.

And Ohio Gov. and former Congressman John Kasich will be coming to Henniker next week.

The Democrats were represented by Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley who appeared at several events including a forum on gerrymandering and as the keynote speaker at the Democratic State Committee meeting over the weekend.

Sen. Jeff Merkley

Last year both former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont US Sen. Bernie Sanders made appearances in the Granite State as did former Delaware Gov. Martin O’Malley and Delaware US Rep. John Delaney.

All the political activity on the Presidential level had some in the  national media declaring it the opening of the 2020 presidential sweepstakes.

That may be a little premature.

No pass for Trump

What is more interesting is the number of people in the president’s own party exploring a run.

The President is usually given a pass by his — we have yet to have her — party when he runs for the second term. 

There are exceptions. In 1992 Pat Buchanan set up shop in New Hampshire for the five months leading to the primary.

His work was fruitful as he garnered 38 percent of the GOP against President George H.W. Bush who was saddled with a major recession that slammed the state’s military and high-tech dependent businesses.

The Republican primary vote was not really that close, but Buchanan showed Democrats Bush’s soft white underbelly and how to exploit it, which former President Bill Clinton did and won the presidency.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

There is no recession this time, but Trump’s approval rating in the Granite State — where he almost beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 — is 20 percent below Sununu’s.

According to the most recent Granite State Poll from the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center, only 35 percent of those surveyed approve of Trump’s job performance while 59 percent disapprove.

Trump’s support among Republicans remains high at 80 percent, is anemic as you would expect among Democrats at 8 percent, and low among independents at 33 percent.

Those figures should make a challenge from within his party a Quixotic undertaking, but that is not the whole story.

Independents matter

Anyone who observed New Hampshire’s political history knows independents determine who wins and who loses and is even more prevalent in presidential elections.

Independent or undeclared voters are 40 percent of the state’s 988,228 voters according to the most recent information from the Secretary of State’s Office released in January 2017.

According to the figures independents voters total 403,816, Republicans 305,368 and Democrats 279,044.

In New Hampshire, independent voters can ask for either a Democratic or Republican ballot in a primary election and can return to independent status before leaving the polls.

In general terms, independent voters go where the action is which means if there are no contests on the Democratic side then they would participate in the Republican primary and vice versus.

In general elections Democrats, Republicans and independents have the same ballot.

Independents generally go where the action is, but where the action is can be viewed in different ways.

Conventional wisdom would indicate independents would be more likely to participate in the Democratic presidential primary, but the number of Republicans showing up here including the vice president, belie that rationale.

Energized electorate

Trump’s unconventional presidency has energized large segments of the electorate wanting to make a statement in both the 2018 midterm elections and in the presidential primary.

And with a 33 percent approval rating among independents, a large portion of this group would want to make a statement by voting against Trump in the presidential primary.

Unlike usual challenges to sitting presidents when the candidates come from the parties’ wings, Trump’s biggest block of supporters comes from the GOP’s most conservative voters, according to Granite State Survey: prior Trump voters, self-described conservatives and those who listen to conservative talk radio.

With Trump, challengers would more likely come from the party establishment which should also make the GOP primary more appealing to independents.

Sen. John McCain

A large independent turnout in the GOP presidential primary would be reminiscent of the 2000 primary when independents flocked to Arizona US Sen. John McCain, who buried eventual nominee and general election winner George W. Bush.

In the 2000 primary, nearly 70,000 undeclared voters took a Republican ballot, while 42,000 took a Democratic ballot, turning a close contest into a blow out.

But coalescing around one Trump challenger is unlikely given the party’s divisions. But if Trump receives less than 50 percent of the vote it would be spun as a loss.

Similarly, a massive flow of independents to the GOP primary would also impact the Democratic primary.

Democrats would have the 2020 primary to themselves without significant influence from independent voters which tend to favor more centrist candidates.

Sen. Bill Bradley

Again looking back to the 2000 primary, Vice President Al Gore was the heir apparent, but was challenged by former National Basketball Association star and US Sen. Bill Bradley, who appealed more to progressive Democrats.

Bradley came within 6,400 votes of Gore, losing 70,502 to 76,897 and Gore was labeled a weak candidate although Bradley failed to mount a serious challenge during the remainder of the nominating season.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

If the same scenario holds true in 2020, the New Hampshire Democratic primary would favor candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Merkley over O’Malley and Biden.

But two years is more than a lifetime in politics.

Some GOP strategists believe Trump’s approval ratings will improve due largely to the tax reform package passed last year.

If support does not materialize and the GOP loses control of Congress, the race for the GOP presidential nomination will be on and very interesting indeed.

Garry Rayno can be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.

Garry Rayno’s Distant Dome explores a broader perspective on State House – and state – happenings. Over his three-decade career Rayno has closely covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat, and his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. He is former editor of The Hillsboro Messenger and Assistant Editor of The Argus-Champion. Rayno graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in English Literature and lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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