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3 winners and 3 losers in the New Hampshire primary

The winners.
The winners.
Andrew Burton and Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In one very literal sense, there are only two winners of the New Hampshire primary most years. And by that understanding, Donald Trump definitely won the Republican race, and Bernie Sanders definitely won the Democratic one.

But the literal winner of the race basically doesn't matter. New Hampshire just doesn't supply that many delegates. The value of winning New Hampshire, as with Iowa, isn't to gain those delegates; it's to shape media expectations and set the stage for future wins in states that actually have people in them. And by that standard, New Hampshire can produce a great number of "winners" who didn't come in first.

It's a dumb way to pick a president, but it's the one we've got. With that in mind, here are the three candidates who left New Hampshire as stronger contenders, and three who lost ground.

But, of course, the biggest loser of all is the establishment of both parties.

Winner: Donald Trump

Donald Trump Greets Voters In Manchester
Trump meets the enemy.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Might as well start with the obvious one. Trump suffered a real setback when he substantially underperformed his polling to finish second to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucuses, barely above Marco Rubio in third.

In the past, underperformance in Iowa has resulted in a collapse in support for candidates. Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire after losing Iowa in 2008, but she won by a much narrower margin than how she was polling before Obama's victory in the caucuses, and she trailed substantially in preprimary polling.

That didn't happen to Trump. He fell a measly 2 points relative to his February 1 average, according to HuffPost Pollster's averages:

Meanwhile, the rest of the field lined up in a way most beneficial to Trump. The longer the establishment lane stays fractured, the better off Trump will be.

The biggest potential threat to Trump heading into New Hampshire was Marco Rubio unifying the "establishment lane," drawing support from John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie and finishing a close second to Trump. But that didn't happen. Rubio did gain in polling, but only 2.3 points; Kasich, meanwhile, gained 3.4, and Jeb Bush gained 1.3. The establishment remained divided, with three candidates bunched together in the low double digits, rather than one candidate whose numbers could rival Trump's.

Worst of all for the establishment, Rubio didn't even finish second. After his better-than-expected performance Iowa, a strong second-place finish in New Hampshire could've made him the consensus establishment favorite even if he only beat Kasich and Bush by a little bit. But Rubio's second-place polling place in New Hampshire didn't translate into actual second place — perhaps because of his "robotic glitch" gaffe during Saturday's debate in which he repeated the same talking point ad nauseam, even after Christie called him on it.

The cherry on top is that Ted Cruz remained in third place. If Cruz had gotten second — as appeared plausible, given that his numbers rivaled those of Kasich, Rubio, and Bush — that would've suggested that he wasn't a social conservative Iowa fluke, like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, but was actually a viable nominee with appeal outside evangelical-heavy electorates.

By finishing in third, Cruz weakened momentum he might have had going into South Carolina, another evangelical hotbed where Trump leads but Cruz was gaining pre-Iowa (it hasn't been polled since, bafflingly).

Winning New Hampshire is good for Donald Trump. Keeping the establishment divided is good for Donald Trump. Marginalizing Ted Cruz is good for Donald Trump. So tonight was, in every conceivable way, very, very good for Donald Trump.

Winner: Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Campaigns On New Hampshire Primary Day In Concord, NH
The closest thing to a Bernie smile I could find.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's tempting to dismiss Sanders's win tonight as a fluke win in a state that is next door to Vermont and shares many media markets with it. Moreover, Bernie's natural base is white liberal voters (African Americans overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton), and the only state whose Democratic electorate is more heavy on white liberals than New Hampshire is … Vermont.

But no one would've expected this win eight months ago. Don't ask me — ask me eight months ago, when I wrote a post trumpeting the fact that Sanders was "only" 12 points behind Clinton in New Hampshire according to one poll. It was very dismissive of his prospects, noting that other polls put him much lower in New Hampshire and that he was still struggling in Iowa. "There's a history of upset wins in the New Hampshire primary by insurgent candidates who wind up going nowhere," I noted.

The odds are still that Bernie Sanders joins the ranks of Pat Buchanan in 1996, John McCain in 2000, and Gary Hart in 1984, waging an insurgent campaign that serves as a major thorn in the side of the frontrunner. But it looks like he's more like Hart — who fought Walter Mondale to the bitter end in June — than Buchanan, who was routed by Bob Dole on Super Tuesday and exited the race in March. Despite those early polls, he tied in Iowa. He didn't just get close in New Hampshire, he won. The revolution is real.

The sheer scale of the victory is also notable. Sanders didn't just beat Clinton. He demolished her. It was a total landslide. It was the kind of win that can fuel a campaign's momentum for some time, at least until the Nevada caucuses in a little under two weeks and the South Carolina primary the week after that.

The conventional wisdom was that those states are more fertile ground for Clinton, given Nevada's large Latino population, but the Washington Post's Aaron Blake makes a convincing case that Sanders stands a good chance of winning there. Latino voters nationally favored Clinton by 12 points in a recent Public Policy Polling survey — less than her overall 21-point margin, and only slightly bigger than her 8-point margin among white voters. And it's a caucus, which rewards campaigns with passionate supporters like Sanders's.

It's a bit hard to make too many guesses beyond New Hampshire. Nevada hasn't been polled at all since December(!), and the next primary in South Carolina hasn't been polled since Iowa. So we don't really know where the dial is right now. But tonight's massive Sanders win definitely moved it in his favor, proving he poses a real, lasting challenge to Clinton and is not just a fad.

Winner: John Kasich

John Kasich Campaigns In New Hampshire On Primary Day
The Kasich Itch — catch it!
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On paper, John Kasich should be a massively compelling Republican primary candidate. Other candidates talk a good talk about fiscal responsibility and tackling the nation's mounting debt, but Kasich has actually done it. He helped lead House Republicans in making the deals with the Clinton White House that balanced the budget in the late 1990s and has had to do so by law in Ohio every year.

He is a second-term governor in the swingiest of swing states, where he won reelection by more than 30 points and where his approval ratings are at record highs.

And he is a doctrinaire conservative on most issues. His tax plan cuts the top rate to 28 percent — the same as Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, and lower than Marco Rubio's top rate. It also cuts the top capital gains rate to only 15 percent. Kasich is an unabashed supporter of Social Security cuts, arguing for tying benefits to prices instead of wages — a cut that George W. Bush tried and failed to pass in 2005, even with a Republican Congress — and slashing them further for high-income seniors. He signed a bevy of abortion restrictions in his state that have cut the number of surgical abortion providers in Ohio by half.

But Kasich hired Fred Davis and John Weaver — veterans of John McCain 2000 and Jon Huntsman 2012 — who are the two political consultants you hire when you want to lose a GOP primary by being too moderate. And Kasich has played the role that the Davis/Weaver candidate normally plays.

He, as governor, famously expanded Medicaid despite his GOP legislature's misgivings, implying that people opposing the Obamacare policy wouldn't get into heaven. In his campaign announcement, he said of the terrorism threat, "I have to tell you as serious as these are — and they are very serious — we've had a lot worse, much worse in this country." Days before the New Hampshire primary, he joked, "I ought to be running in a Democrat primary."

Maybe! But apparently — perhaps due to independent and Democratic-leaning voters opting to vote in the Republican race, something that's very common in New Hampshire — he can do just fine in the GOP primary too. It'd be going too far to call Kasich's second-place finish a surprise. He, Rubio, Cruz, and Bush were all basically tied for second through fifth in polling going into the primary, and Kasich gained more than any of them in the last days of campaigning.

But the victory is still notable. In 2012, Huntsman wasn't able to ride moderate Republican and independent support to second place; Ron Paul edged him out, and Huntsman dropped out even before the South Carolina primary. Kasich is definitely not dropping out now.

Better yet for him, it appears quite likely that Chris Christie will drop out, and a number of those voters will probably gravitate toward Kasich. If he's really lucky, then some of Rubio and Bush's supporters might move his way as well. A second-place finish in South Carolina is probably too much to hope for; Ted Cruz will probably grab that spot, even after finishing fourth tonight. But third place isn't too much for Kasich to hope for.

Second- and third-place finishes are not the stuff that leads to actual nominations, and Kasich's odds of ultimate victory are still not particularly high. He barely has infrastructure in states other than New Hampshire. But he's become a more formidable candidate than you'd expect for a self-styled moderate in a Republican primary, and severely hampered Marco Rubio's efforts to unify the establishment vote.

Loser: Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton has proposed billions in tax increases for the top 1 percent of income earners.
Disappointed Hillary.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For the second time in history, a Clinton has finished second in the New Hampshire primary after being defeated by a senator from a neighboring state.

But that's where the similarities between the 2016 and 1992 New Hampshire Democratic races end. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton finished a surprisingly close second to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas after enduring a major sex scandal in the first competitive race of the year. (The popular Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was running, and the other candidates didn't campaign in that state.) Hillary Clinton had already won New Hampshire once in the past, has been the frontrunner for this entire cycle, and yet still did even worse than her poor polling suggested she'd do.

The collapse in her support in New Hampshire happened early enough for Sanders's win to not be surprising, per se. But that doesn't make the sheer scale of the collapse any less striking:

As the race started, she held a 40-point lead. Sanders won by nearly 20. That's just a gigantic fall of the kind that brings to mind Clinton's decline in 2008. At least there she won one of the first two states by a healthy margin. Now she starts out with one draw and one huge loss.

It's important not to overstate how much this hurts her. Iowa and New Hampshire really are unusually white, liberal states. While Nevada and South Carolina haven't been polled since before the voting started, Clinton at least used to be dominating there, and given how strong her lead among African-American voters remains nationally, it's reasonable to predict that at least in South Carolina she'll stay in the lead.

And given her national lead, she's still probably the slight favorite for the March 1 races in Texas, Massachusetts, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and other states. She's still the frontrunner, however slightly.

But the fact remains that a 74-year-old avowed socialist from Vermont performed better against her in New Hampshire than Barack Obama did. That's embarrassing, and gives his campaign crucial momentum. Clinton hoped to nip Bernie's challenge in the bud. That clearly hasn't happened.

Loser: Marco Rubio

I guess gaffes matter now.

Rubio was averaging second place in polling going into New Hampshire. It wasn't a super secure position, as Kasich, Bush, and Cruz were all bunched closely behind him. But it was second nonetheless, and until Saturday, given his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Rubio had the momentum. If anyone was going to unify the establishment, it was him.

That obviously didn't happen, as Rubio wound up in fifth place. And while causality is tricky to suss out in cases like this, it seems that his disastrous performance in the Saturday debate likely had something to do with it:

Rubio's biggest weakness has always been the perception that he's another Barack Obama, whom many conservatives assail for his relative lack of experience upon assuming the presidency. So Rubio felt the need to counter this critique, and insist that Obama was in fact a maniacal supergenius who knew exactly what he was doing and how dastardly it was.

The problem was that he countered this critique using the same words again, and again, and again. And when Chris Christie pointed it out, he repeated it again.

This would normally just be a silly gaffe that went nowhere. But as my colleague Ezra Klein noted, it reinforced the knock on Rubio from Republicans backing other establishment candidates (Kasich, Bush, Christie):

That he's a "stump speech attached to a pretty face," that "he had no accomplishments and no executive experience, and he was going to fall apart under pressure," that "pundits who dipped in and out of the campaign thought Rubio was a good speaker, but if you watched him closely you learned he only had that one speech, and he delivered it the exact same way every single time."

To make matters worse, Rubio then did something very similar during a stump speech in New Hampshire, repeating the same line almost verbatim seconds later:

Maybe the inference here — Rubio keeps repeating talking points, therefore he's a lightweight — is unfair. As Matt Yglesias says, people who collaborated with Rubio on the 2013 immigration reform effort (which Rubio has disavowed) speak highly of him. His college transparency proposal with Ron Wyden is legitimately excellent, and his tax plan and wage subsidy proposal are, love them or hate them, more intellectually ambitious than standard Republican fare.

But the New Hampshire results suggest this impression of Rubio has stuck, and now it's hard to imagine how he recovers. If literally anyone else finished third in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, the assumption would be that he'd drop out soon. Is Rubio really any different?

Loser: Chris Christie

Chris Christie has never really made an impact during the 2016 campaign. Nationally, his numbers have been around those of Carly Fiorina and the now-exited Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee. But if he was going to do well anywhere, it was in New Hampshire. He got the endorsement of New Hampshire's influential conservative Union Leader newspaper, as well as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, whom many New Hampshirites know from being in the same media market as Boston.

And he focused all his campaign energy there, even staking out a sympathetic position on opioid addiction that emphasizes harm reduction and treats addiction as a public health problem (even as he remained a hardcore drug warrior on marijuana) — a stance specifically calibrated for New Hampshire, which has the third-highest death rate from drug overdoses (overwhelmingly heroin and prescription opiates) of any state.

Christie appeared to have gotten a late burst of energy on Saturday, when he wiped the floor with Marco Rubio and generally put in a very impressive debate performance:

But it wasn't enough. Christie did better than Fiorina or Ben Carson but still finished in sixth, behind every other establishment lane contender. It's hard to see how he stays in the race at this point, and if he does, it's even harder to see how he does better in later states where, unlike New Hampshire, he hasn't personally campaigned for months.

Correction: The original version of this post referred to the New Hampshire vice presidential primary, which has been abolished. We regret the error.