Well, as they charge into the snows of New Hampshire, it’s neck-and-neck in the race for the Democratic primary, between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, with both polling at around 35% for electability according to CNN.

The principal reason for Obama’s rise was a perception that he was more electable than hitherto. And therein hangs the paradox of the New Hampshire primary, and one of the reasons why polls are less than great guides to it.

Since it became the established first primary in 1952 (actually earlier but the details are too complicated to go into), New Hampshire has grown increasingly conscious of its role as the state that picks the candidate, though the impact of Obama’s Iowa win may have finally established that idiosyncratic process as an equal king-maker.

The effect of that self-consciousness is to make much of the voting in the Granite State a meta-election – party voters increasingly think about which candidate would have the best chance of winning over uncommitted voters in the nation as a whole.

Wariness around Obama related to his inexperience, which is to say that he’s young and black, while Clinton was seen as both dependable and exciting at the same time. The Iowa whammy has deprived Hillary of both those qualities – she can’t get out the vote, and she was knocked off the perch by the rising young thing.

Yet the whole thing is based on the votes of 10% of registered, active voters in one small Mid-Western state – a self-selecting group willing to go out of a winter evening and stand in a school basketball court moving from one group to another like they were in some demented party game at a creche fundraiser. It’s indicative of the feelings of people who take mainstream politics waaaaaay more seriously than the rest of the population.

The other big variable is that New Hampshire is a ‘semi-open’ primary – people registered as ‘uncommitted’ voters can vote in either big party primary (but not both). This means that the meta-electoral process also becomes a strategic vote. Blocs of ‘uncommitted’ voters – often loyal Dems or GOP (Republicans) keeping their powder dry – can thus act as either boosters or spoilers.

Mostly they cancel each other out, but they also make the process complex in the mathematical sense — ie utterly unpredictable. The victory of the unknown Jimmy Carter in 1976, or of the paleoconservative Republican Pat Buchanan – protectionist, anti-foreign war, anti-immigration – in 1996 would seem to be due to this effect.

As far as the Democrats go, New Hampshire seems pretty much make-or-break for Clinton – a fact acknowledged by the pretty obvious ganging up on her by Obama and John Edwards (polling at 20% in NH) in the most recent televised debate. So bad was it in fact that fourth participant Bill Richardson – running dead at 4% and presumably about to leave the race – virtually stepped in to protect her from the mean boys.

If Hillary goes, then Edwards is in with a good chance – southern White boy who could bring back a tranche of Dixie voters who still won’t vote for a black kid, even if it’s a lightish black.

With the Democrat vote widely perceived as a de facto presidential choice, the Republican contest has become the one people can actually watch with the light amusement of a demolition derby. Mike Huckabee is highly unlikely to repeat his Iowa performance, but he has the luxury of no-one thinking he would – and the prospect of South Carolina coming up on January 26, a place where they still fly the Confederate stars and bars, and perhaps have good reason for doubting evolution.

McCain is on 33%, with Romney on 27% and Giuliani at 14%. Essentially the latter two are running against themselves – they don’t need to win (neither Clinton nor Dubya won New Hampshire) but they can’t dip below expectations, before ‘Tsunami Tuesday’ – the 19 primaries being held on February 5.

McCain of course has to win and big. Curiously enough he’s a victim of Hillary’s loss – seemingly suddenly part of ancient history, his fixed smile and wave like a snapshot from a full colour textbook. Huckabee’s victory in Iowa made NH a straw poll on a Huckabee-killer, and Mormon Romney’s disadvantage is that both secularists and Christians find his beliefs weird and disturbing. He’s still in the race if McCain wins NH, but a close result between them would be the worst possible for the GOP, and by far the most interesting for everybody.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey