New Hampshire Primary Preview: Networks Will Look For A Definitive Front-Runner, But It Might Not Be So Simple

The Strokes perform at Bern Sanders rally in New Hampshire Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP/Shutterstock

Bernie Sanders held his final New Hampshire campaign rally on Monday night with a mini-concert from the Strokes, with a playlist that included a cover of “Burning Down the House.” Twenty miles away, Pete Buttigieg closed out his bid at a high school gymnasium where actor Kevin Costner spoke said he was a “not only a man who understands how the world is looking at us but how history will.”

Pete Buttigieg addresses New Hampshire crowd Elise Amendola/AP/Shutterstock

As they reached across pop culture generations in making closing statements in the Granite State, Sanders and Buttigieg widely are viewed as the most likely to come out on top when returns start coming in shortly after 7 p.m. ET tonight. And media attention also will focus on who ranks No. 3 and No. 4, as Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar seek a placement that keeps their campaigns going and the donations flowing.

Following the debacle of the Iowa caucuses, the broadcast and cable networks are looking to the primary as a bigger deal, much more likely to shake out the race or harden the divisions within the Democratic Party. But there also is the very real possibility that the evening will end in a muddle, just as the presidential race has been throughout.

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Early on Tuesday, the first results came in from Dixville Notch, NH, traditionally the first to vote and report its results, and the winner was Michael Bloomberg, a write-in who is skipping the early states and going all-in on Super Tuesday, March 3. It was a reminder of the volatility ahead.

That is not to say that New Hampshire isn’t any less the media event it has been for generations. At the Doubletree Hotel, MSNBC has created a studio out of a restaurant tavern space. ABC News set up an Erector-set like tower platform near City Hall. About 15 minutes from downtown, Fox News took over the Bedford Village Inn as space for two studios and to house its talent and staff.

Throughout the past few days, reporters, pundits and other media figures have been in a race to read the tea leaves, trying to discern the mood of the electorate or get intel of the ultimate mood of the campaigns.

Joe Biden in New Hampshire CJ Gunther/Shutterstock

A common theme in pre-primary coverage has been the potentially poor showing of Biden, who signaled at the debate on Friday that he likely would “probably take a hit” in New Hampshire. The future of the campaign has been a focus of media interviews with Biden and, in a meeting with reporters on Monday, his deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield. On Tuesday, the campaign announced that Biden and his wife Jill won’t even be hanging around the state for the results — they will be in South Carolina, where he has a sizable lead.

So will this be the night that Biden is written off?

Chris Hayes, the opinion host of MSNBC’s primetime show All In with Chris Hayes before a live studio audience from a Doubletree ballroom, said: “I think that there is a little bit of false certainty that we see a lot in political coverage, like ‘This person can’t win. This person is definitely is going to win.’ I mean, who knows? The future is unwritten. But I think that finishing third or fourth in the first two states is a very tough way to kick off a campaign. I don’t think there is really any escaping that.”

He added: “It is true, and they are correct when they make the argument that the demographics of the first two states don’t reflect the reality of the modern Democratic Party, and they are making the case — and I think it has some merit — that it would be really unfortunate if that essentially ended up acting as kind of a veto. That is a legit argument for them to make.”

Elizabeth Warren at New Hampshire town hall Robert F Bukaty/AP/Shutterstock

Also the focus of doubt is Warren, primarily because of perceptions that Sanders has consolidated support on the left but also because she comes from the neighboring state of Massachusetts and hasn’t been doing better in the polls.

A New York Times story on her campaign opened with an anecdote about one of her weekend events, when she finished off her remarks by saying: “It’s up to you, Massachusetts, to decide what to do.” Other outlets picked up on the mistake, which she quickly corrected, but it speaks to the atmosphere in the final days of the race. These unscripted moments and missteps are looked upon as metaphors for campaigns themselves, sometimes working in the candidates’ favor (as it did with Hillary Clinton in 2008) but more often not (as with Edmund Muskie’s “tears” in 1972).

By the same token, Biden’s seemingly light-hearted remark to a voter that she was a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” didn’t play well. His campaign quickly noted that he had used the remark, a quote from a John Wayne movie, at other points of his presidential bid, but it didn’t matter.

“With some candidates, it just feels when you are out there listening to them at these events, it just feels they are on their way up, and his feel the opposite,” said Martha MacCallum, the newsside anchor of Fox News’ The Story. 

Fox News reporter Griff Jenkins talked to the woman right afterward, MacCallum noted, “and she said, ‘You know, it is all a downer. He’s talking about cancer. He’s talking about things that are sad. And I want something that is more upbeat. I thought she perhaps encapsulated what is going on with him in that moment. But we’ll see.”

Over the past few days, MacCallum and other network news personalities have fanned out to events across the state, gathering anecdotal information in trying to get a sense of the mood of the electorate.

“There’s nothing definitive you can tell from the field in these rooms, but when you are in places like Pete Buttigieg events or Amy Klobuchar events, the feeling is just very upbeat, very passionate,” MacCallum says. “People are engaged. They want to lean in, and it just feeds those candidates too, because they want to get more confidence and I think that breeds more success for them.”

Amy Klobuchar talks with New Hampshire voters Holly Ramer/AP/Shutterstock

The biggest beneficiary of the primary and media expectations might end up being Klobuchar, whose debate performance on Friday night drove attention to her campaign and in turn may have helped boost crowds over the weekend.

On Monday, Klobuchar spoke to Bret Baier for a Fox News two-hour special and told him, “We’ve had record crowds, and surging in one of the polls today, and also in newspaper endorsements like the more conservative Union Leader.”

“Is that especially for us?” Baier asked her.

“That was especially for Fox News,” she said. “But the message there is I can unite people, bring them together.”

That will be a daunting task. While there is no doubt that President Donald Trump will win the Republican primary, he might have succeeded in adding to the anxiety of Democrats by holding a rally in downtown Manchester, right in the midst of this media event. His supporters lined up throughout the day in front of the arena, and seemed to draw a Super Bowl-size number of campaign merchandise vendors.

A supporter at Donald Trump’s New Hampshire rally Justin Lane/Shutterstock

As Trump rallied thousands at a glass-covered arena, Hayes tried to assuage some of the Democrats’ anxieties about the president’s electoral strength.

“He is vulnerable politically,” Hayes said on his show and to his audience. “He’s beatable. He wants you to believe that he’s strong, but he’s not.”

As Hayes did his show, William Weld was making appearances at media outlets in other parts of the hotel. The former Massachusetts governor is waging a quixotic bid by running against Trump in the Republican primary.

Asked what he thought of the size of the Trump crowd, Weld quipped to Deadline, “I’m not exactly going to go talk to them and find out.”

“It’s impressive to see that dedication,” he added, before attacking a caveat. “The only thing is, it wasn’t raining.”

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