From NBC/NJ's Mike Memoli
MANCHESTER, NH -- New Hampshire voters woke up today and saw a headline in the Union Leader that read: "Iowa upset." Now the question is: What will be the impact on what has lately been a very fluid race in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
According to Andy Smith, pollster for the University of New Hampshire, about 38% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans here say they will make up their mind over the coming weekend, or even as late as election day. That number is higher than was indicated by exit polls in 2000 and 2004.
Smith's polling has shown that a very small number of voters -- less than 4% -- said the Iowa result would impact their decision. But, he added, the reality may be different. "I think the loser of Iowa, both expected winners and those who don't meet media expectations, take a hit," he said in an email earlier this week.
That is more likely in the Democratic race, he says, because the Democratic electorates in New Hampshire and Iowa tend to be similar, while the Iowa Republican is "much more socially conservative" than his or her Granite State counterpart. In fact, no Republican has won both Iowa and New Hampshire in the modern primary era, except for incumbent presidents.
That's a fact John McCain's campaign is certainly hoping repeats itself. The candidate himself said last night that it was unclear what the result would mean. "I think New Hampshire voters are going to decide interdependently in many ways, but also independently of what is happening in another state," he said.
Adding to the dynamic is the fact that undeclared voters can choose either ballot, Republican or Democratic, on Tuesday. McCain has been making a play for these voters -- who cemented his margin of victory in 2000 -- and that means tweaking Republicans and Democrats alike. Just last week, he called Obama's claim that the current situation in Pakistan was partly a result of America taking its eye off the ball in Afghanistan a sign of "inexperience." Most polling has shown that these voters will overwhelmingly choose a Democratic ballot, however, and Smith says only a small fraction of undeclared voters were undecided about which primary to vote in.
Unique this year is that the gap between these first two contests is smaller -- five days instead of eight. Smith says that narrower gap makes it harder for losing candidates to recover. One could argue, however, that the shorter gap also may hurt Huckabee somewhat, since he has more ground to make up in New Hampshire than Obama, who actually leads Clinton in some state polls. And Obama has a large organization and field offices throughout the state, while Huckabee had only recently begun building on what was a bare-bones staff in the Granite State.
But as Secretary of State Bill Gardner said in a previous interview, "five days is not eight days, but it's better than one day, or two days, or three days." And during a conversation in his office earlier this week, he noted that there would be ample opportunities for candidates to make their case, particularly in live, televised debates on Saturday. Gardner, the guardian of primary tradition, added that there is always a "moment" in this period between the first contests that will really seal the deal for voters one way or the other with a candidate, that intangible "something," as he put it.
A smaller debate field on Saturday is certain to increase the back-and-forth among candidates, possibly leading to such a moment. We've seen the field narrow on the Democratic side, with Biden and Dodd dropping out. Smith says there isn't enough Dodd or Biden support to really make a difference, however
In the end, what will most likely be the key, as it always has been in New Hampshire, is that one-to-one voter contact. And that's why candidates are cramming as many retail stops onto their schedules as possible in the days ahead.