A Gambler's Guide to the N.H. Primary

For those banking on the polls or the results in Iowa to give them a clue about what to expect from New Hampshire on Tuesday, a few words of caution are due — Granite State voters are notoriously unpredictable and the state takes a singular approach to primaries.

Here are a few rules to know about New Hampshire and its voters before placing bets, translated by a local.  

"Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents."

A variation on "We don't care what the flatlanders did ... we often do the opposite," the motto suggests that New Hampshire voters like to reverse the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

"Polls are a pain. We get so many calls, my neighbors toy with pollsters for fun."

Voters in New Hampshire are about eight times more likely to be polled than in Iowa, where quadrennial complaints about too many annoying polls and robo-calls could be heard long before caucus night. Weekend polling in New Hampshire right before the primary often skews.

"I'll see a speech or two this weekend by the guys I like, and decide on Tuesday."

The political appeals process is considered fun in New Hampshire. People both soak up and feed off of the volatility. Granite Staters are famously tuned in and are notoriously late deciders.

"This is the state sport."

Don't underestimate voter sophistication in New Hampshire. Thousands of activist families have been at this for over a year. Some folks play games just to keep the state in the history books time after time.

Voters force candidates to take "the test" until the very last minute, knowing that in the frantic final days, the chances of a "New Hampshire moment" increase. Those "moments" can alter voters' decisions in the last 24 hours before the primary.

"Don't trust ARG polls; Zogby had Bush-McCain in the margin!"

An insider's guide to polling companies — American Research Group and Zogby International frequently offer different outcomes based on differing polling methodologies. But one thing is clear — there will be lots of polls. The guidance from up here is to take them all, average them, add 3 points to the margin of error and expect to be shocked anyway.

"You can lose while winning and win while losing."

New Hampshire's primary race is all about expectations, gamesmanship and momentum. The candidate who can look ahead is the one who exceeds expectations, carries the momentum, and balances those achievements with campaign cash, viability and a nationwide organization.

"Iowa winnows, New Hampshire eliminates."

The caucuses, known to trim the field substantially, are said to offer "three tickets out of Iowa." But New Hampshire often narrows that down to a two-man race. However, this year's contest is so volatile, it's hard to say which candidates are likely to get passes to the seven Feb. 3 races.

"This is the last time average folks have a chance to really see the candidates up close"

After New Hampshire, the race goes national. Candidates will communicate mostly through ads, news and airport rallies. The policies have all been laid out, now it's stump speeches, sloganeering, tactics and strategy.

"Weather? It could affect turnout, but anything less than a foot is a dusting."

Snow is predicted Tuesday, but this is New England, so that too can change. The advice for voters, as they already know, is to dress for three days of single degree and sub-zero temperatures.

"It ain't about endorsements, it's about insiders."

This is a small state, where it doesn't take six degrees of separation for people to be linked.

For example, John Kerry is backed by Jeanne Shaheen (search). Shaheen is the former governor who ran Gary Hart's prior campaigns here. Shaheen is the only Democrat to develop a statewide organization in New Hampshire in 30 years (Never mind that she lost her Senate race in 2002 to Republican John Sununu (search)).

Shaheen's top deputy throughout her three tough election victories — and her Senate defeat — was Karen Hicks. Hicks backs Howard Dean.  She is a local whiz kid who knows and shaped Shaheen's political machine. In 2002, as she was running Shaheen's Senate campaign, the Democratic Party asked Hicks to go to South Dakota, where she ended up having a major role in Sen. Tim Johnson's narrow re-election victory over John Thune (this happened while Shaheen was losing to Sununu).

Hicks has only one rival when it comes to Granite State tactics and strategy — Steve Bouchard.

Bouchard, a local boy who has helped more Democrats get elected to office in New Hampshire in the last 10 years than any other operative, supports Wesley Clark. In 2002, Bouchard did field organizing for both Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, two big Democratic winners.

And one wild card just to keep everyone guessing is Colin Van Ostern. An Edwards supporter, Van Ostern was the state Democratic Party director during Shaheen's tenure. He knows the state and its activists, but has never run a successful campaign for a major office.

"Watch Derry and Hollis … laugh at Dixville Notch and Hart's Location."

Derry is just south of Manchester and a bellwether of state political sentiment.

Hollis, just west of Nashua, holds the record for voting for the winner most frequently.

Dixville Notch is a tiny community in the White Mountains that has 24 residents, 19 of whom are voting-age. Ten are registered Republicans, nine are undeclared. There are zero Democrats or independents. Most of the residents live and work at the Balsams Resort. The resort is the polling place. The first votes are cast and counted by 12:10 am on primary day.

Hart's Location is another tiny unregistered town that votes at midnight and is always fun to watch. But it gets nowhere near the attention of Dixville Notch because it lacks venue, charm, history and self-promotion. Neither community frequently picks the winner.

"You never know, it gets nasty at the last minute"

New Hampshire is proud of its scrappy, hardball politics. In 1996, "push polling" became a household word in political circles when outside telemarketing firms were hired by candidates to pose as pollsters and "push" negative information into the minds of New Hampshire voters.

In 2000, Michael Whooley, now a Kerry adviser, ordered volunteers to clog the highways to keep supporters of Bill Bradley from getting to the polls. After 40 years of first-in-the-nation primaries, voters have built up a resistance to and have an expectation for rough stuff.

"There is a long tradition of Back Bay hacks playing in New Hampshire."

Those neighbors from nearby Boston and its environs have occasionally contributed a great deal to New Hampshire politics. Kerry, who hails from those parts, has a huge advantage in this regard.

"It's never over until Bill Gardner says so."

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (search) is the guardian of the primary. He is a local hero, author and champion of the first-in-the-nation law. The election is over when he certifies the results.