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New Hampshire's Comeback Kids

New Hampshire's Comeback Kids

By Sean Braswell


Because there’s nothing so exciting in presidential elections as a comeback — even if you have to manufacture it yourself.

By Sean Braswell

Political comebacks have become synonymous with the New Hampshire primaries ever since Arkansas governor Bill Clinton pronounced himself the “comeback kid” in 1992, declaring victory from the jaws of defeat after finishing fourth in Iowa — and a distant second in New Hampshire itself.

Clinton is not the only candidate in recent decades to kick-start a comeback in the Granite State that ended with winning a major party’s nomination — even if his silver-medal victory lap was perhaps the boldest. From Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney, several contenders have rehabilitated their candidacies in New Hampshire after disappointing Iowa finishes. And this year, as Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and other Iowa also-rans make their cases, they can take comfort in the stories of candidates who earned a second bite at the apple, even if sometimes, as with Clinton, they had to bring their own.

Ronald Reagan had more than a month after his stunning loss to George H.W. Bush in the 1980 Iowa Caucuses to right the ship of his political career. Although Reagan was the early front-runner, internal polls showed him trailing Bush by as much as 21 points in New Hampshire. And so the former California governor, who had barely set foot in Iowa and skipped a debate just before the caucuses (remind you of anyone?), doubled down, campaigning in every corner of the state and showing up to every debate on offer.

Several underdog candidates this cycle have staked their dreams to a New Hampshire bounce.

One of those opportunities was a one-on-one debate with Bush, paid for by the Reagan campaign because it excluded the other GOP candidates. You’ve probably seen clips of a livid Reagan informing debate officials attempting to silence him that “I am paying for this microphone!” But that theatrical outburst in a Nashua gymnasium was but the climax of an orchestrated effort by Reagan’s team to make sure that the other candidates were included or Bush would be publicly embarrassed for refusing to include them. 

But refuse he did, prompting Reagan, with a former actor’s flair for the dramatic, to tap his microphone and launch into his famous screed while Bush awkwardly stared ahead. The confrontation was all over the news, and three days later Reagan completed his New Hampshire comeback with a 50 to 23 percent drubbing of Bush on his way to winning the nomination and the presidency.

When Bush next returned to New Hampshire as a candidate and sitting VP in 1988, he engineered his own remarkable comeback after a devastating third-place finish in Iowa. The patrician politician literally rolled up his sleeves — throwing snowballs, driving forklifts and visiting truck stops. As journalist Joe Klein observed in 1992 upon Bush’s next journey to New Hampshire, “There is no spectacle more amusing in politics than George Bush running scared in the north country.”

Gettyimages 158785349

Vice President George H.W. Bush goes to shake hands with well-wishers at the East Coast Lumber Yard.

Source Tom Landers/Getty

And Bush had good reason to be scared in 1988: Kansas Senator Robert Dole roared into New Hampshire after his Iowa victory, and Bush saw his early lead there evaporate. So, as Dole rose in the polls, consultants Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes pushed the vice president to run a television commercial attacking Dole for voting for tax increases. Four days before the primary, Bush agreed. The ad ran, Bush won by 9 points and New Hampshire had again sparked a successful presidential run. 

New Hampshire comebacks aren’t always so significant. Michael Dukakis, Bush’s opponent in 1988, and Mitt Romney in 2012 were already well-known to New Hampshire residents and took massive leads into the state, even after underwhelming performances in Iowa. As will likely be the case with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders this year, the rather unsurprising Dukakis and Romney victories provided a boost to their campaigns but left the bigger question — whether they could win anywhere else — for another day.

Romney had similar advantages in 2008 but lost to John McCain, who wrote his own version of a comeback tale after finishing fourth in Iowa. McCain, who had beaten favorite George Bush the younger in New Hampshire in 2000, had a strong, quasi-celebrity presence in the state and demonstrated, in both 2000 and 2008, that a candidate could overcome a better-funded front-runner in the state through a steady barrage of town halls, bus tours and appeals to independent voters.

Several underdog candidates this cycle, from John Kasich to Jeb Bush to Chris Christie, have staked their candidacies to the McCain blueprint, and their dreams to a New Hampshire bounce. It remains to be seen whether they, or any of the other candidates still hoping for a New England miracle, can successfully summon the magic and machinations of comebacks past. 

But you know they are banking on it. “How many times,” Christie recently asked a Granite State voter, “have you people in New Hampshire turned the polls upside down?”


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