Orwellian New Hampshire: Win by losing, lose by winning

    A voter leaves a polling site at dawn after casting a ballot. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    A voter leaves a polling site at dawn after casting a ballot. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    Put your hands together for the voters of New Hampshire! After kicking the tires of 10 prospective presidential vehicles, after haunting umpteen town hall meetings, after considerable earnest angsting, they’re finally poised to designate winners and losers.

    But of course it’s not that simple. A “loss” or a “win” may ultimately be defined by the spin. I’ve consulted at length with the late George Orwell, and we’ve crafted a tip sheet for tonight’s tallies. We really don’t know anything – nobody does, not the pollsters, nobody — so we’ll be guided by that Orwellian line from “1984” — “Ignorance is strength.”

    Here we go:

    Donald Trump may well win the Republican primary, if “win” is defined by the most votes tallied. He’s been consistently topping the polls (75 straight), with roughly 30 percent of the projected GOP total. But if he wins in the high 20s — probably because, as in Iowa, the late-deciding voters moved decisively against him — his win would look like a loss.

    If Trump’s win looks like a loss, whoever finishes second will appear to have won. Especially if it’s Ted Cruz, who left Iowa with an actual win. Tonight Cruz isn’t expected to score a second-place loss (and thus a perceived win), but since there are so few right-wing evangelicals in New Hampshire, even a third- or fourth-place loss might look like a win.

    Then we have the so-called “establishment” sub-primary. Marco Rubio finished third in Iowa, a loss that looked like a win, and he supposedly rode some big mo into New Hampshire, where he has never been expected to win the balloting, but was expected to win perceptually by scoring a respectable loss in the balloting. Then came the Saturday night debate, where robo-Rubio made a fool of himself. If he finishes a weak second, his perceived win might look like a perceived loss, unless finishing second at all is taken as a sign of resilient strength, and thus his loss might look like a win.

    But his standing might hinge on whether one of his “establishment” rivals sneaks ahead of him. If Jeb! Bush, long given up for dead, manages a second-place loss, that would be hailed as a win, the story of the week. He will have earned his exclamation point. And Rubio would truly be tagged with a loss, because there’d be no greater indignity than finishing below his intra-Florida foe. Unless he finishes ahead of Jeb, which by itself would look like a win and prompt Jeb’s donors to cut their losses.

    If John Kasich or Chris Christie finishes second, that loss would also look like a win. The downside is, either of those perceived winners would probably be spurred to fight on in Nevada and South Carolina, where their money would dry up, where the voters would be more inhospitable, so ultimately a perceived win in New Hampshire — maybe a third-place loss could also be spun as a win — would likely end in ultimate loss.

    Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina don’t matter much. Knowing the good doctor as we do, he’ll spin a 2 percent tally as a triumph over political correctness. Knowing Carly as we do, she’ll spin a 2 percent tally as a major win, akin to her stellar track record at Hewlett Packard.

    On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is expected to score a big win (double digits, perhaps a margin of 20 points), which means that if his margin over Hillary Clinton is minor (single digits, or a margin of, say, a dozen points), it might look like a loss. And since he’s a Vermonter, and since New Englanders typically do well in New Hampshire (past Democratic winners include Maine’s Ed Muskie and Massachusetts’ Paul Tsongas), anything less than a Bernie blowout might look like a loss.

    On the other hand, if Hillary — with all her creds and bucks — can’t score respectably against a 74-year-old socialist with a one-note message and zilch foreign policy chops, it’s reasonable to wonder whether there’s any way she can frame a loss as a win. Unless it’s, say, a five-point loss, which would set her up for a winning rebound when the Democratic race moves south, to a region populated by moderate Democrats and Hillary-friendly minority voters, a region where Bernie would be thrilled to proclaim a win after losing by five.

    Got all that?

    Plus, there’s the fact that roughly 40 percent of New Hampshire’s primary voters are independents; under state rules, they’re allowed to participate. They can choose the ballot of either party and weigh in. Plus, there’s the fact that roughly 20 percent of all primary voters make up their minds on the very last day — long after the pollsters have left the field. So the perceptions that will soon be written in stone may well hinge on whatever the fence-sitters decide.

    And those ponderings can seem a tad … well … quirky. One undecided independent said the other day that she’s agonizing over whether to vote for Bernie Sanders — or Jeb Bush. In her words, “I know it sounds crazy.” Rest assured, not even Orwell would be able to explain that one.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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