5 things to know about the New Hampshire primary

An official labels the number of votes candidates received in Hart's Location, New Hampshire Tuesday. The community of Hart's Location is one of three tiny New Hampshire towns that cast the state's first votes of the primary, as the clock strikes midnight. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

An official labels votes in Hart’s Location, New Hampshire, Tuesday. The community is one of three tiny New Hampshire towns that cast the state’s first votes of the primary, as the clock strikes midnight. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

MANCHESTER, N.H. — As voting starts this morning in the first-in-the-nation primary, Donald Trump appears poised to win the Republican contest, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders started the day with a commanding lead over Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side.

Neither victory would come as much of a surprise: Trump has led in GOP polls here for months, and candidates from neighboring states like Vermont and Massachusetts — think of John Kerry in 2004 — have a long record of carrying New Hampshire.

But if Trump and Sanders prevail, their victories will have broad implications for both parties as the primary race shifts to South Carolina and Nevada later this month. Republican Party leaders eager to find an establishment alternative to Trump may be forced to rethink their strategy if the real estate developer has a strong showing in New Hampshire. And Hillary Clinton, after winning the Iowa caucuses, would need to dominate the next round of voting to prevent Sanders from picking up steam.

Trump and Sanders aren’t the only Granite State storylines, however. Several candidates on the right likely need to finish in the top tier to advance to South Carolina. And political experts will be following turnout, as always, to gauge the public’s excitement for the 2016 presidential election. So here are five things to watch for as primary voting (finally) gets underway.

Can Trump deliver a commanding win?

Trump seemed like a sure shot to win Iowa until the last week before the caucuses, when his months-long lead in the polls disappeared and Sen. Ted Cruz emerged victorious. Sen. Marco Rubio nearly finished in second place, which put even more pressure on the New York mogul to deliver big in New Hampshire.

Now, Trump needs to prove — to GOP elites, more than anyone else — that his candidacy is the real deal. A commanding victory tonight would show that conservative primary voters who pick Trump in polls actually will vote for him at the ballot box. A narrow win would give Trump enough of a surge to hold onto his national frontrunner status heading into South Carolina and Nevada. If he defies all expectations and loses, New Hampshire likely would mark the beginning of the end for The Donald’s presidential campaign — and it could signal the rise of Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses.

Can Rubio cement his status as the establishment favorite?

The freshman senator from Florida’s better-than-expected performance in Iowa was a sign that Republican voters appear increasingly comfortable with him as an alternative to Trump or Cruz. Rubio was cruising to a second place finish in New Hampshire, according to polls taken before Saturday’s GOP debate. But he stumbled badly at the debate under aggressive attacks from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who succeeded in painting him as a robotic, inexperienced candidate.

How much the debate will hurt Rubio tonight remains to be seen. If he winds up in a distant third place, or worse, critics will point to the debate as a turning point in his campaign. But if Rubio can eke out a respectable finish, it will further cement his place as the establishment favorite, and force several of his moderate rivals to seriously consider exiting the race.

Crunch time for the governors

Speaking of Rubio’s rivals, Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush all need a top-tier finish to keep their hopes of winning the White House alive. All three have staked their campaigns on New Hampshire, spending significant time (and money) in the state in recent months to convince voters to pick them over Trump.

But now that moderate voters appear to be coalescing around Rubio, the trio of governors has zeroed in on the Florida senator as their top target. If any one of them can finish ahead of Rubio tonight, that would be a major victory — even if that still meant finishing third behind Trump and Cruz. A third-place or higher finish would guarantee a trip to South Carolina. But if Christie, Bush and Kasich don’t wind up in the top tier tonight, they will face growing pressure to bow out and throw their support behind Rubio.

Watch the PBS NewsHour Democratic Primary Debate, 9 p.m. EST Feb. 11, on your local PBS station, and in our live stream, which will begin at 8:30 p.m.

What a win would mean for Bernie Sanders

Clinton beat Sanders in Iowa — but just barely. Her razor-thin margin of victory proved that the Democratic primary process could take longer than expected, if liberal and young voters keep turning out for Sanders. The Vermont senator should win New Hampshire fairly easily — though it’s possible that Clinton will stage a dramatic, fourth-quarter comeback and grab an upset in a state that she carried in 2008 (and that gave her husband a much-needed lift in 1992).

If Sanders holds on, he’ll set his sights on South Carolina with more momentum than anyone reasonably expected when he launched his long-shot campaign against Clinton last year. Still, the primary map will get harder for Sanders from here on out. South Carolina and Nevada both have large African-American and Hispanic populations — groups that are more likely to back the former secretary of state. A win in New Hampshire would be significant for Sanders, but it won’t change the fact that Clinton, right now, remains the favorite to win the nomination.

Making history?

When Clinton won Iowa last week, she became the first female candidate in history to carry the caucuses. That got lost in the shuffle as pundits declared Sanders the “real” winner thanks to his Iowa result. But the fact remains that no woman had ever won Iowa. A second consecutive win for Clinton tonight would be truly historic, and could stop Sanders’ candidacy in its track.

But that’s a long shot, and team Clinton knows it. Assuming Clinton loses, the talk will turn to the margin of victory. If she comes within striking distance of Sanders, Clinton supporters — and Democratic Party leaders — will breathe a secret sigh of relief. If turnout for Clinton is lower than expected, her campaign will pivot quickly to South Carolina and hope to run up a big enough win there to slow Sanders’ rise.

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