How the Media Expectations Game Manufactured Winners and Losers in New Hampshire

In both politics and public relations, perception is reality -- and this was never truer than in the New Hampshire primary.   The candidates, of course, can’t shape their own perceptions.  Just as Wall Street analysts set expectations for public companies’ performance -- and those companies are stuck with what the analysts say -- candidates are saddled with expectations created by the media.

To understand how the New Hampshire primary turned out, let’s consider the candidates’ performance -- not in absolute terms of votes or percentages, but in terms of what the chattering class’s conventional wisdom predicted.  In other words, let’s look at the perception, which shapes the reality in forthcoming primaries and caucuses.

Sanders and Clinton:  Let’s start with the easier campaign -- the Democrat dust-up.  At the start of his campaign, Bernie Sanders was down in the polls 50 points against Hillary; however, by the time of Iowa, he was as high as 30 points ahead of Hillary in the polls.  However, following Iowa, the polls showed that Hillary was closing in.  While few pundits expected her to pull it out, the buzz suggested that she could close the vote to a single-digit loss, which she was prepared to spin into a victory.  This was supported by the late-breaking and usually-reliable Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll, which had them within single digits of one another.

However Sanders ended up 22 points above Hillary, 60 to 38.  Clearly, Sanders exceeded expectations and Hillary fell flat on her face.  This unexpected result is so extreme that some pundits are actually pitching scenarios where Bernie might grab enough minority votes to give Hillary a decent run in Nevada and South Carolina, both expected to be Clinton states.  New Hampshire’s results have not made it an open race -- Hillary is still the odds-on favorite (unless she’s indicted) -- but Bernie is now much more “real.”  Victories in primaries don’t get much bigger than this.

Trump:  In the Republican primary, Trump wiped away his under-performance in South Carolina by out-performing his poll numbers leading up to the vote.  That same late-breaking poll showed Trump at 29 percent, yet the actual vote gave him 35 percent -- six points ahead of expectations, and more than twice as strong as the next-in-line candidate.  This is a big, necessary win for Trump, whose sense of inevitability had been tarnished in Iowa.  He is now once again seen as back-in-the-saddle.  He’s leading in the polls in South Carolina, though these polls are pre-Iowa, but his victory in New Hampshire should shore up his leadership position in the Palmetto State.

However, the real excitement in the Republican Party can be found in the race for second, third, fourth and even fifth -- the fast-shifting “ticket out of New Hampshire.”

There were two big winners here, though only one of them will achieve any lasting benefit from the perception of a sub-Trump victory.

Kasich:  Ohio Governor John Kasich bet everything on New Hampshire, and he “won,” coming in a strong second, at 16 percent.  However, this will prove to be a pyrrhic victory -- his strong showing in New Hampshire is, in effect, a “one-trick pony” act. 

Kasich did as well as he did in the primary because of the time he spent in the state -- more than 100 days -- as well as his superb ground-game organization and the money he invested in New Hampshire.  Yet because of that single-minded focus, the Ohio governor has little or no organization, little or no money, and no time to spend time in South Carolina or the Super Tuesday states.  Unless the establishment Republicans decide that he’s their “Trump-killer,” he won’t have time to raise money or build an organization in time to cash in on New Hampshire.

Cruz:  The other winner in the under-card is Ted Cruz.  He spent relatively little time in New Hampshire and spent just a half-million dollars for about 400 ads.  By comparison, Jeb Bush, who got 0.7% less of the vote than Ted, spent -- with the Bush Super PAC -- more than $35 million dollars buying more than 11,000 ads.  Ted was not expected to do well here -- because of the supposed dearth of evangelicals and hard-core conservatives, and because of his limited campaign -- which means that his 12 percent of the total vote will be seen as a win.

Carson and Fiorina:  Now, let’s look at the Republican losers.  First, let’s lump together the single-digit candidates as dead and gone, even if they refuse to acknowledge it.  Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson -- with 4 and 2 percent of the votes, respectively -- are done. Firina is already out, and you can put a fork in Carson -- he's done. Both of them are good and decent people and strong conservatives, but this is not their year.  However, despite the outcome, Ben Carson has already gone to South Carolina -- even as he cut his staff in half -- and he says he’ll stay in the campaign.   I could see Carly as a Secretary of Commerce and Ben as either Health and Human Services or Surgeon General in a Republican administration, but that’s a best-case scenario for the two of them.

Christie:  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie learned -- to his chagrin -- that attacking another candidate doesn’t automatically build your own standing in the polls.  He certainly hurt Rubio, but he hurt himself even more, coming across as a bully.  Worse, in attacking Rubio, Christie didn’t say anything meaningful about why people should support him.  His low-vote -- 8 percent -- means he’s out at the plate.

Rubio:  Florida Senator Marco Rubio came in well below expectations. Until Saturday night, he was on the rise, looking to be a shoe-in as the Number Two candidate.  Then Christie took him down -- though in truth, this was a self-inflicted wound.  Worse, he doubled-down, claiming after the debate that he’d meant to repeat himself, and suggesting that he’d do it all over again, which helped keep the story in play.  This was so implausible that it hurt his perceived ability to win even more.  However, he redeemed himself in his concession speech, where he admitted that he’d blown it -- taking sole responsibility for the Saturday Night meltdown.  He then promised that it would never happen again, and he did so believably. 

Had Marco done this right away, the self-inflicted damage would have been limited.  With luck, this admission will now stem the hemorrhaging.  There are several reasons why this might happen. First, he’s got an excellent organization and a good-sized political war chest he can use in South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states.  Still, he’s dug himself a deep hole, and it will take another Iowa to pull himself out.

Bush:  This leaves the big question of the night: Jeb Bush.  Did he win, or did he lose?  Bush is New Hampshire’s Goldilocks candidate.  He didn’t exceed expectations, but he didn’t come in below expectations, either.  However, to achieve this, as noted, he and his Super PAC spent $35 million on more than 11,000 ads.  He had to spend 70 times what Cruz spent to come in a bit behind the Texas conservative. 

In South Carolina, Bush has a lot of money, and South Carolina has always been a Bush state. South Carolina Republicans helped both Bush Presidents to get their campaigns on track -- or back on track.  The family has lined up to campaign for and with him, which can only help -- George W has a 77 percent approval rating among South Carolina Republicans. 

However, the plan for the Jeb Bush South Carolina campaign -- as he announced Tuesday evening -- is not in line with the Bush image, and that makes it risky.  He said he’s going to run a “scorched earth” campaign -- but instead of taking on front-runner Donald Trump, he says he’s going to go head-to-head with Cruz, Rubio and Kasich.  While South Carolina is known as a brass-knuckle political state, this is so far away from the Bush brand that it could backfire.  Worse, Christie has already shown that this kind of campaign doesn’t work. Repeating Christie’s strategy makes little sense.

In handicapping the election returns, Fox News’s Brit Hume summed it up, indicating that Bush is coming out of New Hampshire with no momentum at all.  The Goldilocks candidate didn’t win, and he didn’t lose.  What he needs to do is spend all that money making a good case for himself.  Instead, he’s going to double-down on Christie’s mistake, focusing on attacking others without building up himself.  That’s a fast-track ticket to losing in South Carolina.

New Hampshire has done some winnowing, but it did not live up to his reputation of thinning the field.  This makes South Carolina even more important than it would otherwise have been -- it will indeed serve as the gatekeeper for Super Tuesday.

Among the Democrats, Sanders won bigger than expected, further shaking Clinton’s sense of inevitability.  She’s still the safe bet, but after Iowa and New Hampshire, she’s damaged goods.  It appears that the minority vote will be the tie-breaker -- if Sanders can attract 20 to 30 percent of minority votes, Clinton will be in big trouble, and it could happen.  It’s not likely, but it could work. The far left Nation magazine is doing its best to help far left candidate Sanders by claiming Hillary “doesn’t deserve” black support.

Ned Barnett is a constitutional conservative who has worked on three state-level Presidential campaigns, and dozens of other campaigns.  In 2010, he served as Nevada Republican Party Director of Communications, riding on the Tea Party wave that briefly took over the state’s party.   He has served as professor of public relations, marketing and business for two universities, and has published a dozen books on professional communications.  The owner of Barnett Marketing Communications, he is currently working on a how-to book for winning elections.

In both politics and public relations, perception is reality -- and this was never truer than in the New Hampshire primary.   The candidates, of course, can’t shape their own perceptions.  Just as Wall Street analysts set expectations for public companies’ performance -- and those companies are stuck with what the analysts say -- candidates are saddled with expectations created by the media.

To understand how the New Hampshire primary turned out, let’s consider the candidates’ performance -- not in absolute terms of votes or percentages, but in terms of what the chattering class’s conventional wisdom predicted.  In other words, let’s look at the perception, which shapes the reality in forthcoming primaries and caucuses.

Sanders and Clinton:  Let’s start with the easier campaign -- the Democrat dust-up.  At the start of his campaign, Bernie Sanders was down in the polls 50 points against Hillary; however, by the time of Iowa, he was as high as 30 points ahead of Hillary in the polls.  However, following Iowa, the polls showed that Hillary was closing in.  While few pundits expected her to pull it out, the buzz suggested that she could close the vote to a single-digit loss, which she was prepared to spin into a victory.  This was supported by the late-breaking and usually-reliable Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll, which had them within single digits of one another.

However Sanders ended up 22 points above Hillary, 60 to 38.  Clearly, Sanders exceeded expectations and Hillary fell flat on her face.  This unexpected result is so extreme that some pundits are actually pitching scenarios where Bernie might grab enough minority votes to give Hillary a decent run in Nevada and South Carolina, both expected to be Clinton states.  New Hampshire’s results have not made it an open race -- Hillary is still the odds-on favorite (unless she’s indicted) -- but Bernie is now much more “real.”  Victories in primaries don’t get much bigger than this.

Trump:  In the Republican primary, Trump wiped away his under-performance in South Carolina by out-performing his poll numbers leading up to the vote.  That same late-breaking poll showed Trump at 29 percent, yet the actual vote gave him 35 percent -- six points ahead of expectations, and more than twice as strong as the next-in-line candidate.  This is a big, necessary win for Trump, whose sense of inevitability had been tarnished in Iowa.  He is now once again seen as back-in-the-saddle.  He’s leading in the polls in South Carolina, though these polls are pre-Iowa, but his victory in New Hampshire should shore up his leadership position in the Palmetto State.

However, the real excitement in the Republican Party can be found in the race for second, third, fourth and even fifth -- the fast-shifting “ticket out of New Hampshire.”

There were two big winners here, though only one of them will achieve any lasting benefit from the perception of a sub-Trump victory.

Kasich:  Ohio Governor John Kasich bet everything on New Hampshire, and he “won,” coming in a strong second, at 16 percent.  However, this will prove to be a pyrrhic victory -- his strong showing in New Hampshire is, in effect, a “one-trick pony” act. 

Kasich did as well as he did in the primary because of the time he spent in the state -- more than 100 days -- as well as his superb ground-game organization and the money he invested in New Hampshire.  Yet because of that single-minded focus, the Ohio governor has little or no organization, little or no money, and no time to spend time in South Carolina or the Super Tuesday states.  Unless the establishment Republicans decide that he’s their “Trump-killer,” he won’t have time to raise money or build an organization in time to cash in on New Hampshire.

Cruz:  The other winner in the under-card is Ted Cruz.  He spent relatively little time in New Hampshire and spent just a half-million dollars for about 400 ads.  By comparison, Jeb Bush, who got 0.7% less of the vote than Ted, spent -- with the Bush Super PAC -- more than $35 million dollars buying more than 11,000 ads.  Ted was not expected to do well here -- because of the supposed dearth of evangelicals and hard-core conservatives, and because of his limited campaign -- which means that his 12 percent of the total vote will be seen as a win.

Carson and Fiorina:  Now, let’s look at the Republican losers.  First, let’s lump together the single-digit candidates as dead and gone, even if they refuse to acknowledge it.  Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson -- with 4 and 2 percent of the votes, respectively -- are done. Firina is already out, and you can put a fork in Carson -- he's done. Both of them are good and decent people and strong conservatives, but this is not their year.  However, despite the outcome, Ben Carson has already gone to South Carolina -- even as he cut his staff in half -- and he says he’ll stay in the campaign.   I could see Carly as a Secretary of Commerce and Ben as either Health and Human Services or Surgeon General in a Republican administration, but that’s a best-case scenario for the two of them.

Christie:  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie learned -- to his chagrin -- that attacking another candidate doesn’t automatically build your own standing in the polls.  He certainly hurt Rubio, but he hurt himself even more, coming across as a bully.  Worse, in attacking Rubio, Christie didn’t say anything meaningful about why people should support him.  His low-vote -- 8 percent -- means he’s out at the plate.

Rubio:  Florida Senator Marco Rubio came in well below expectations. Until Saturday night, he was on the rise, looking to be a shoe-in as the Number Two candidate.  Then Christie took him down -- though in truth, this was a self-inflicted wound.  Worse, he doubled-down, claiming after the debate that he’d meant to repeat himself, and suggesting that he’d do it all over again, which helped keep the story in play.  This was so implausible that it hurt his perceived ability to win even more.  However, he redeemed himself in his concession speech, where he admitted that he’d blown it -- taking sole responsibility for the Saturday Night meltdown.  He then promised that it would never happen again, and he did so believably. 

Had Marco done this right away, the self-inflicted damage would have been limited.  With luck, this admission will now stem the hemorrhaging.  There are several reasons why this might happen. First, he’s got an excellent organization and a good-sized political war chest he can use in South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states.  Still, he’s dug himself a deep hole, and it will take another Iowa to pull himself out.

Bush:  This leaves the big question of the night: Jeb Bush.  Did he win, or did he lose?  Bush is New Hampshire’s Goldilocks candidate.  He didn’t exceed expectations, but he didn’t come in below expectations, either.  However, to achieve this, as noted, he and his Super PAC spent $35 million on more than 11,000 ads.  He had to spend 70 times what Cruz spent to come in a bit behind the Texas conservative. 

In South Carolina, Bush has a lot of money, and South Carolina has always been a Bush state. South Carolina Republicans helped both Bush Presidents to get their campaigns on track -- or back on track.  The family has lined up to campaign for and with him, which can only help -- George W has a 77 percent approval rating among South Carolina Republicans. 

However, the plan for the Jeb Bush South Carolina campaign -- as he announced Tuesday evening -- is not in line with the Bush image, and that makes it risky.  He said he’s going to run a “scorched earth” campaign -- but instead of taking on front-runner Donald Trump, he says he’s going to go head-to-head with Cruz, Rubio and Kasich.  While South Carolina is known as a brass-knuckle political state, this is so far away from the Bush brand that it could backfire.  Worse, Christie has already shown that this kind of campaign doesn’t work. Repeating Christie’s strategy makes little sense.

In handicapping the election returns, Fox News’s Brit Hume summed it up, indicating that Bush is coming out of New Hampshire with no momentum at all.  The Goldilocks candidate didn’t win, and he didn’t lose.  What he needs to do is spend all that money making a good case for himself.  Instead, he’s going to double-down on Christie’s mistake, focusing on attacking others without building up himself.  That’s a fast-track ticket to losing in South Carolina.

New Hampshire has done some winnowing, but it did not live up to his reputation of thinning the field.  This makes South Carolina even more important than it would otherwise have been -- it will indeed serve as the gatekeeper for Super Tuesday.

Among the Democrats, Sanders won bigger than expected, further shaking Clinton’s sense of inevitability.  She’s still the safe bet, but after Iowa and New Hampshire, she’s damaged goods.  It appears that the minority vote will be the tie-breaker -- if Sanders can attract 20 to 30 percent of minority votes, Clinton will be in big trouble, and it could happen.  It’s not likely, but it could work. The far left Nation magazine is doing its best to help far left candidate Sanders by claiming Hillary “doesn’t deserve” black support.

Ned Barnett is a constitutional conservative who has worked on three state-level Presidential campaigns, and dozens of other campaigns.  In 2010, he served as Nevada Republican Party Director of Communications, riding on the Tea Party wave that briefly took over the state’s party.   He has served as professor of public relations, marketing and business for two universities, and has published a dozen books on professional communications.  The owner of Barnett Marketing Communications, he is currently working on a how-to book for winning elections.