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Scott MacKay Commentary: Tuesday's New Hampshire Primary

The moment of truth in the presidential primary campaign comes tomorrow as voters in New Hampshire head to polls for the New Hampshire primary. RIPR po...

The moment of truth in the presidential primary campaign comes tomorrow as voters in New Hampshire head to polls for the New Hampshire primary. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay, who has covered Granite State primaries since 1980, has a roadmap to the contest.

As the hours dwindle to the first primary, White House aspirations rest with the voters in one of America’s smallest, most educated states, a place where the population is almost as white as the snow that covers the White Mountains.

All of the leading campaigns are focused on New Hampshire’s famously finicky and late-deciding voters, who hold the crucial sway in an election that will surely winnow the large Republican field and determine how serious is the Bernie Sanders challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

After months of the shadow campaign played out in the news and social media, the endless fund-raisers and bigwig endorsements, decision day has arrived. New Hampshire, unlike the insider-dominated Iowa caucus, is the first actual election of the presidential cycle. Turnout is usually well above 50 percent in a state where election law allows same-day registration and independents can cast ballots in either party’s contest.

What should juice turnout in both primaries is that, for the first time since 2000, there is neither an incumbent president nor a consensus leader for either party.

Among Republicans, Donald Trump, the mogul who has never held any elective office, has been leading in public opinion  surveys, but he is a polarizing figure who has not built a substantial turn-out-the-vote effort in a retail contest, says Andrew Smith, pollster and political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. As the primary neared, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was making a last-minute surge, according to a Boston Globe poll. Ted Cruz, the Texan who won Iowa with support from Christian evangelicals, will be hard-pressed to reprise that finish in a New England state with few fundamentalist religious voters.

Tomorrow will also decide the future of the three governors –Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie. It is difficult to imagine all three having viable White House campaigns after the polls close.

On the Democratic side, the contest between Sanders and presumptive front-runner Clinton has become as chippy in the closing days as a UNH-Providence College hockey game. Clinton has abandoned her strategy of ignoring Sanders and focusing on Republicans. Sanders, from neighboring Vermont, pressed Clinton to a virtual tie in Iowa. He has been leading in pre-primary polls but even his allies acknowledge that he must win tomorrow to keep his underdog quest alive though the next round of events in Nevada and South Carolina.

The challenge for Clinton is to keep the race close enough to avoid the perception of a blow-out in a state that since 1992 has voted in the general election for every Democratic presidential nominee except Al Gore in 2000. She needs to cut into a slice of Sanders lead among the young and liberal. The Democratic joust has sugared off to Clinton’s pragmatism against Sanders idealism.

There is the New Hampshire of primary myth, a Norman Rockwell tableau of fleece clad voters courted one-on-one  by candidates,  making their choices after listening carefully to debates and personally questioning candidates in union halls, high school gyms and diners.

These days, most New Hampshire voters get their information from the media, legacy and social, and the ubiquitous television spots that flood the airwaves in the final days.  The decisions are made in the vote-rich communities along the Massachusetts border; the Currier & Ives communities near the Canadian border hold scant sway in the modern Granite State.

Roughly 70 percent of the vote is in what locals dub the triangle, from Concord in the north, south through Manchester and Nashua, east to the seacoast city of Portsmouth.

Yet, inside the myth is a truism. This contest is celebrating its 100-year anniversary Tuesday and it is embedded into the state’s civic culture as deeply as Mount Washington. Locals take it seriously.

They know this: Nobody gets to be the most powerful person in the world without submitting to primary rituals, which means campaigning for president as if you were running for state rep or mayor.

If you are watching from home, the crucial communities to watch in the Republican contest are Massachusetts bedroom towns along the Interstate 93 corridor, such as Bedford, Derry, Londonderry, Salem, Pelham and Hudson. On the Democratic side, Sanders must run up the score in the liberal western communities up the Connecticut River Valley, winning such college towns as Keene and Hanover, then taking Concord, Durham, Portsmouth and doing well in Nashua. It is difficult to imagine a Clinton upset without  a victory among the older, blue-collar Democrats in Manchester, the state’s largest city.

After this verdict, everything about this presidential campaign changes. The field is sifted. The campaign quickly goes national; candidates do not spend so much time in any one state. They don’t greet voters personally unless it is to get on television. The race becomes a blush of airport rallies, social media entreaties, and t.v. appearances, as scripted as a sit-com. But until the votes trickle in tomorrow night, there is New Hampshire. Let’s hope for democracy’s sake, there is always New Hampshire.

Scott MacKay Commentary: Tuesday's New Hampshire Primary
Scott MacKay Commentary: Tuesday's New Hampshire Primary