The New Hampshire expectations game

Rich Edson reports from Manchester


**Want FOX News First in your inbox every day? Sign up here.**

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. – They say winning is the only thing, but how you win matters when it comes to the New Hampshire Primary.

There is a lot of lazy talk in the world of pundits about how many “tickets” there are out of New Hampshire this year on the Republican side. Since the Democratic race is only two people they’re not counting tickets, but for the GOP side the main priority now is winnowing their field of candidates.

Republican voters have been like shoppers in a grocery store, overwhelmed by the choices in the cereal aisle. This one has too much sugar. That one is too dry. The other one is bland. When the options seem limitless we are always quick to find fault with the choices.

In that way, Republican voters have been immobilized by the tyranny of multiplicity.

As has been the case in every recent cycle, the priority for Republicans is to come to as quick a conclusion as possible with the least amount of damage inflicted to the eventual nominee. The members of the red team failed in that goal in the past two cycles. But this year, New Hampshire might give the party a chance to do just that.

So with all this talk about “tickets out of New Hampshire” always remember that each candidate has a specific threshold to meet in order to advance to South Carolina on Feb. 20 and beyond.

With those high-stakes in mind, let’s look at what each of the viable candidates needs to do today in order to keep on moving.

[What are the three keys to winning in New Hampshire? Chris Stirewalt has the answer in 60 seconds. WATCH HERE.]

Donald Trump -The New Hampshire frontrunner in polls since the beginning of August, Trump stands atop a 17-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average for the Granite State. Even if Trump were to underperform here as he did in Iowa – a 5-point slip – it would still leave him 12-points ahead of his closest competitor. That wouldn’t be the kind of dominance shown by the two prior GOP nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney who won the states by margins of 54 points and 41 points respectively. But it would be enough to get Trump back on track following his Iowa disappointment.

What Trump should be worried about here isn’t a loss but rather a larger shortfall than he saw in Iowa last week. In Iowa, Trump did worse than expected but his rivals did slightly better. But if there is greater evidence that Trump’s supporters don’t show up to vote or that he actually drives up support for other candidates, this could be start of a long, painful season for the celebrity billionaire.

So while margin of victory matters, the real key for Trump is clearing the 25-percent mark that would be consistent with his Iowa underperformance. If he falls short of that threshold it would mean that Trump’s coalition isn’t a coalition after all.

But if Trump wins here by 10 points or more and with more than a quarter of the vote, he will have fully reclaimed his frontrunner status.

Marco Rubio - The Floridian would certainly rather have not endured his Saturday night suplex from Chris Christie. But there is a silver lining: If he had been untouched in the debate, the expectations for Rubio today would have been entering dangerous territory. Sans suplex, Rubio would be facing a required second-place finish to avoid an embarrassment.

But the last round of polling actually showed Rubio still rising. Perhaps his debate brain freeze slowed his roll, but there’s no evidence of freefall or even reversal here. If Rubio does finish second, he can count on a “comeback kid” narrative. But if he finishes third or perhaps even fourth it will not be debilitating. But that depends on who is ahead of him in the stack.

The Iowa bronze winner can afford to finish behind Trump or even Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has a one-state campaign focused on New Hampshire. Kasich is already discounted in the process. Heck, Rubio could fall behind Sen. Ted Cruz if Cruz pulls a stunner.

The only real imperative for Rubio is to not fall behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. That would scramble Rubio’s chance to unite the traditional GOP coalition and start duking it out with Cruz and Trump for South Carolina. Bush may not have a path to the GOP nomination, but he and his group have enough money to take Rubio out of the money.

John Kasich - The Ohio governor could have run as a conservative, but he made a decision long ago to play up his Huntsmanian qualities as a liberal Republican with trans-partisan tendencies. Democratic-leaning independents in New Hampshire and in the political press eat that stuff up.

Kasich has yo-yoed in the polls here, some have shown him vaulting to second place by huge margins, but Real Clear Politics’ average has him at third place with 13.5 percent of the vote. But Kasich is also-ran nationally and Republican voters obviously resent his Democratic dabbling.

Lacking a plausible path to the nomination, it’s not clear what a second-place finish would do for Kasich. For him to really remake the race here, Kasich would need to pull off a super stunner and win here. But as John McCain learned in 2000, even that probably wouldn’t be enough given power of the South in early GOP primaries.

Ted Cruz - The Texas senator doesn’t draw a lot of water up here in New England. And that’s probably okay with him. Cruz booked his ticket out of New Hampshire in Des Moines. He’s got a win under his belt, big money and a great organization in the Southern states just ahead, starting with South Carolina.

Cruz is running a respectable fourth in the RCP average and doesn’t need to do any better than that in order to shift southward with vigor. And if Cruz could somehow slip into third place it would give him quite a boost.

But Cruz did take some lumps here over his campaign’s sharp elbows against the gentle Ben Carson in the Iowa caucuses. That combined with pro-lifers rallying around Sen. Marco Rubio could cost Cruz here. There’s almost nothing that could happen here to take Cruz out of contention, but he would surely rather have a pleasant surprise than be a cellar dweller here.

Jeb Bush - The presidential bid of the former frontunner could end tonight. What would have been an impossible thought a year ago, Bush is facing elimination in the first primary.

Bush is running fifth both nationally and in New Hampshire and needs to do substantially better than that tonight to keep on keeping on. And the presence of his family and longtime supporters in New Hampshire in the past week suggests that the family knows that the end is nigh.

Bush can only continue if he finishes third or very close to whoever does. If Bush does so he can use his remaining funds to kill Rubio and open the way to a Trump nomination. And in that way, Bush really needs a big surprise showing to make the case to a party that has spurned him that he could really make things happen. Otherwise, pressure will mount for his departure.

Chris Christie - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has long pegged New Hampshire has his path to victory. Donning a pin of the Granite State next to his home of New Jersey, Christie hasn’t quite caught the fire he hoped, mostly staying in the single digits according to the Real Clear Politics average in the state where he currently sits at approximately 6 percent. He will have to have a shocking result here in the Granite State in order to have any path forward, but his path would require a refiguring of the Republican Party that is about as unlikely as him being the nominee.

[Watch Fox: N.H. primary night special coverage begins tonight at 7p.m. ET.]

Live Free or Die is the state motto of New Hampshire, and many take pride in the phrase today as a symbol of the state’s rebel spirit against big government and taxation. But how exactly did the Granite State become associated with the famous phrase? N.H. Tour Guide tells: “The phrase was taken from a toast on July 31, 1809 which was written by General John Stark, a famous New Hampshire soldier of the American Revolutionary War. General John Stark was invited to an anniversary reunion for the battle of Bennington but he became ill just prior to the reunion and could not attend. In his absence, he sent his toast in a note. Part of that toast read ‘Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.’”

Got TIP from the RIGHT or the LEFT? Email FoxNewsFirst@FOXNEWS.COM

Real Clear Politics Averages
National GOP nomination: Trump 29.5 percent; Cruz 21 percent; Rubio 17.8 percent; Carson 7.8 percent
New Hampshire GOP Primary: Trump 31.2 percent; Rubio 14 percent; Cruz 11.8  percent; Kasich 13.5 percent; Bush 11.5 percent
National Dem nomination: Clinton 49.3 percent; Sanders 36 percent
New Hampshire Dem Primary: Sanders 54.5; Clinton 41.2 percent
General Election Clinton vs. Trump: Clinton +4 points
Generic Congressional Vote: Republicans +0.5

Fox News’ Senior Political Correspondent, Mike Emanuel, and The Hill’s, A.B. Stoddard, discuss whether neighboring Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will actually pull out a win here in the Granite State, and if he does, does it matter? The panel weighs in on the Democratic battle and whether it will bubble over today. But the GOP side is the one to watch, and the panel says that there are only four clear tickets out of New Hampshire. Who are they and what does that mean for folks looking for a miracle win? The panel gives their take to Chris Stirewalt. WATCH HERE.

[Keep up with the incoming results from the N.H. Primary throughout the day here.]

NH.GOV: “Early historians record that in 1623, under the authority of an English land-grant, Captain John Mason, in conjunction with several others, sent David Thomson, a Scotsman, and Edward and Thomas Hilton, fish-merchants of London, with a number of other people in two divisions to establish a fishing colony in what is now New Hampshire, at the mouth of the Piscataqua River…Thus the settlement of New Hampshire did not happen because those who came here were persecuted out of England. The occasion, which is one of the great events in the annals of the English people, was one planned with much care and earnestness by the English crown and the English parliament. Here James the first began a colonization project which not only provided ships and provisions, but free land bestowed with but one important condition, that it remain always subject to English sovereignty. So it remained until the ‘War of the Revolution.’ Smith first named it ‘North Virginia’ but King James later revised this into ‘New England.’”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. Want FOX News First in your inbox every day? Sign up here.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.