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Why Hillary Clinton is still in good shape after New Hampshire

Why the results from New Hampshire don't tell us much about the Democratic nomination contest.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

The Democratic New Hampshire primary went very differently for Hillary Clinton in 2016 than it did in 2008. Eight years ago, she was able to turn a surprising defeat in Iowa into a late and stunning rally. This year, she lost the contest rather resoundingly. What can we learn from the differences between these contests, and how damaging is this to her pursuit of the party's nomination?

A comparison of New Hampshire primary exit polls from 2008 and 2016 is instructive. Below, I've charted out Clinton's performances among several demographic groups in both New Hampshire primaries. The red line shows where Clinton would have performed had she done as well in 2016 as she did in 2008. Any point above the line means that she outperformed 2008; points below the line indicate underperformance compared with 2008.

These are not, of course, perfect comparisons, since Clinton faced two competitors in the earlier contest: Both Barack Obama and John Edwards won substantial numbers of votes. But the numbers are still instructive.

Notably, Clinton did worse in most of the groups this year, compared with 2008. Her performances among young voters, first-time voters, and the poorer and less educated are particularly striking. She did about as well among women and self-described liberals as last time, and actually made modest gains among wealthier and older voters. But overall, the coalition she'd managed to assemble in New Hampshire eight years ago showed significant signs of fraying.

Now, what does this tell us about upcoming races and the nomination contest as a whole? Not a ton, actually. Yes, it suggests that Bernie Sanders poses a threat to her among some key demographic groups, especially young people. Barack Obama took the nomination from her in 2008 with the help of young voters, and they appear to be even more in Sanders's camp than they were in Obama's eight years ago.

But there's good reason to believe that New Hampshire's results — and Iowa's, for that matter — won't really map onto subsequent contests. Sanders has spent most of the past six months in Iowa, betting everything on doing well in a key early contest, and he's spent his entire public career in New Hampshire's media markets. What's more, these two early contests represent some of the highest concentration of white liberals in Democratic electorates. The primary and caucus map from here on out is a lot friendlier to Clinton.

We could also just as easily see Clinton's 2008 showing in New Hampshire as an overperformance, rather than seeing 2016's as an underperformance. Clinton benefited from some sympathetic media at a key time right before that earlier contest, so it's possible that she did about as well this year as we should expect.

Finally, we should remember the role that early contests like Iowa and New Hampshire play. They're much better at picking losers than winners. That is, they winnow. They narrow a field of 10 candidates or more down to a field of two or three very quickly. So while Sanders has every right to be proud of his showing last night, there's little historical reason to assume it brings him much closer to the nomination.

To the extent it can, the party has signaled that it wants Hillary Clinton to be its nominee. The results from New Hampshire do little to change that.

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