Politics

What the final New Hampshire polls are saying about the projected winners (and losers)

The final round of New Hampshire polls all project that Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders will win their respective primaries on Tuesday.

After that, it's anybody's guess.

On the GOP side, Trump has slumped a bit and Ohio Gov. John Kasich has been moving up. Several late surveys show Kasich in second place, still well behind the leader but inching ahead of his rivals.

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If Kasich does take second, that would represent a big setback for other candidates with appeal to the GOP's establishment wing, particularly Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who came into the state with momentum from a strong third-place finish in Iowa last week.

On the Democratic side, the big question appears to be the size of Sanders' win. Recent polls have shown anything from a seven- to a 26-point victory for the Vermont senator. Given how high expectations for Sanders have risen, Hillary Clinton's campaign would probably claim a single-digit loss as a success.

New Hampshire is notorious for confounding pollsters. A lot of voters make up their minds at the last minute; non-party voters, known as "undeclared" in New Hampshire, can vote in either party's primary; and the multitude of candidates gives voters lots of choices.

But, setting aside those caveats for a moment, some polls have shown Clinton gaining ground in the final days. A tracking poll -- a small nightly sample designed to track changes in the race -- by the American Research Group showed Sanders' support remaining steady but the remaining undecided voters breaking Clinton's way.

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Even those polls still indicate that Sanders will win. Keep in mind, though, in 2008, polls taken late in the race still showed then-Sen. Barack Obama leading Clinton by about 10 points. He lost.

One factor that might hold down Sanders' vote: He does better among independents than registered Democrats. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner says he expects most non-party voters to choose the more suspenseful Republican primary this year. Kasich has also shown strength among independent voters.

Trump consistently had been getting about one-third or more of the vote in New Hampshire. The final polls show him doing a little worse -- between 28% and 34%.

Even if significant numbers of Trump's backers fail to show up, as happened in the Iowa caucuses last week, that level should still be enough for a win in a field with eight serious candidates.

Although Trump has the odds with him, his current lead is not so big that it guarantees a win. A loss by him would qualify as an upset, but not an enormous shock. Moreover, even if Trump does win, an important question will be what his  level of support signifies about his strength down the road.

Patrick Buchanan, the former Nixon administration speechwriter and conservative commentator, got 27% of the vote in New Hampshire in 1996, beating Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas in a six-person field. Dole had little trouble dispatching Buchanan after the roster of candidates slimmed down.

Trump has strengths Buchanan lacked -- lots of money, for starters -- but his populist campaign resembled Buchanan's in several ways, and if Trump fails to do much better than he did, it would not be a sign of lasting strength.

Rubio also has a lot riding on the order of finish. Last week, his backers talked up their 3-2-1 strategy -- that the Florida senator would follow his third place in Iowa with second in Florida and then a victory in the next round of states. Another third-place showing, or worse, would clearly set him back.

Averages of the publicly released, nonpartisan polls showed Rubio's support rising sharply after Iowa, hitting a peak late last week, then gradually declining. His shaky performance in Saturday's candidate debate may have worsened that decline.

Given how tightly bunched the candidates are below Trump, however, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Iowa winner Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas both have realistic prospects of a second- or third-place finish. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seems a longer shot.

For more on politics and policy, follow @DavidLauter

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