At 6:25 this morning Nashua, New Hampshire, was a balmy 38 degrees. No need to scrape ice from the windshield before driving through the early morning darkness to the Charlotte Avenue Elementary School to cast my vote. Voter turnout was pretty light at that hour. Three people with Obama signs milled around on the sidewalk leading into the polls and about a half a dozen voters waited to receive their paper ballots inside. I went in to cast my vote for Mitt Romney.
Up the road in Manchester, WGIR-AM reported that voter lines at the Brookside Congregational Church extended out the door. Candidates had turned up there for some last minute campaigning. The radio said Mike Huckabee brought coffee for the voters there. Back on Charlotte Avenue in Nashua there were no future presidents to be found.
During the weeks leading up to primary day our phone rang incessantly. We’d let the machine get it and then we’d listen while campaign staffers, or their recorded voices, announced the latest town hall meeting where we might meet the candidate if we chose to venture out. In our unscientific study John McCain held the lead in telephone messages, but Barack Obama won big in the glossy flier competition. Fliers were tucked in the door. Fliers filled the mail box. Obama had about a two to one lead over any of the other candidates.
Returns were already in from the northern villages of Dixville Notch and Hart’s Location where voters had gathered at midnight to cast their First in the Nation ballots. Republican voters went with John McCain who collected 10 votes to Mike Huckabee’s 5, Ron Paul’s 4, Mitt Romney’s 2 and Rudy Giuliani’s 1. On the Democratic side Barack Obama took the villages in a landslide winning 16 votes, while John Edwards and Hillary Clinton got 3 each and Bill Richardson collected 1.
As primary day wore on, it became evident that turnout would be record setting. The southern New Hampshire temperature approached 60 degrees and the sun was bright and warm. But it wasn’t just the weather that promised a heavy turnout. This presidential campaign has been in high gear for a full year giving this primary the suspense of a presidential election. The truth is there’s a lot riding on it.
We picked up Fox News coverage at about 6:00 in the evening. The last poll closings would not be until 8:00. There would be no exit coverage and no indication of which way the votes were going for another couple of hours. The most recent Rasmussen polls had John McCain with a slim lead over Mitt Romney, when only a few months ago McCain was all but written off. On the Democratic side, the inevitable Hillary Clinton suddenly seemed not so inevitable as Barack Obama surged out to a 7-point lead.
But the mystery turned out to be the independent vote, and suddenly pre-primary polling seemed incoherent. Nobody could guess which side the independents would pick to vote on. Surprises came early. It soon became clear that McCain would defeat Romney and the 7-point Obama lead projected by Rasmussen never turned up in the actual voting. Instead, Hillary inched out to a 4-point lead which occasionally drifted as low as 2 points but never lower.
It’s over in New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton and John McCain move on as front runners, for tonight anyway, and it was apparently the independent voters, somehow undetected by the pollsters, who put them there.
It had been my faint hope that Hillary and husband Bill would finally go away. They may yet, but it won’t be this year. But in spite of Hillary Clinton’s unexpected win, and even though my choice on the Republican side was not John McCain, I can’t say tonight’s outcome was horrible.
The War on Terror and the battle for Iraq are still the most important issues before us, even though they are no longer at center stage. Iraqi and American forces have put al Qaeda on the run, making Iraq almost useless as a campaign issue for Democrats. As a result Democratic campaign rhetoric has turned to universal health care and accusations of corporate greed, but Iraq is still a crisis and New Hampshire voters seemed to know it. They chose Clinton and McCain, the most hawkish candidates in their respective parties.
John McCain’s national defense credentials are unassailable. But all of the Democrats campaigned on promises to end the war in Iraq, and for almost all of them that means surrendering to al Qaeda under the pretense that they would be freeing up resources to pursue Osama bin Laden in Pakistan instead.
Hillary, too, says she will “end the war in Iraq now” by pulling troops out in a phased redeployment. But her phased redeployment plan sounds way too much like the one that has already been started by President George Bush and General David Petraeus.
Let us also not forget that Hillary voted in favor of invasion in the first place. Oh sure, she says it was a mistake and she regrets it. But will she be saying it so loudly when the primary campaign moves into the southern states? Hard to imagine.
Tonight New Hampshire came down in favor of a strong national defense. That’s not a bad thing, and it won’t be terrible if the rest of the nation follows along.