New Hampshire primary: what to look out for

Mitt Romney needs to prove that he can win big but South Carolina may be the real ticket.

Following his narrowest of victories in the Iowa caucus last week, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney is under pressure to prove the strength of his presidential bid in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. But according to a tracking poll of Granite State voters his support is slipping here too, however probably not enough to deny him victory.

The six Republican candidates took to the stage together this weekend for the second round of debates. They started in Saint Anselm College, Manchester on Saturday followed by a second debate on Sunday sponsored by NBC News, just 12 hours later. The dialogue quickly turned from policy -- the economy and same-sex marriages -- to personal jibes.

Newt Gingrich, who came fourth in the Iowa race, attempted to embarrass Romney by telling him to "drop the pious baloney" when challenging him about his political history. The former house speaker himself came under fire after Ron Paul called him a "chicken hawk" for not serving in the military during the Vietnam war.

Gingrich -- who is currently placed in fourth in the national opinion polls once again -- has attempted to reach out to minorities during his campaigning in New Hampshire saying in Manchester yesterday:

I think it is very important for us to make a case that we are in favour of many people from many places having the opportunity to become Americans.

He added that while visas should be made easier for "legal people", deportation should also be made easier for people who "are dangerous to the whole community and who threaten the whole community".

Despite the dip, Romney remains a clear winner in the polls, making this a second and third place contest for the other candidates.

Politico's Jonathan Martin argues that New Hampshire is just a stepping stone towards the much more significant South Carolina vote later this month. In a post published this morning, Martin writes:

New Hampshire still matters. But its 2012 relevance is chiefly in how the results will shape South Carolina on Jan. 21.
With Mitt Romney enjoying a wide lead in Granite State polls, the key outcome Tuesday isn't who will finish on top. Rather, it's whether Jon Huntsman places strongly enough to keep going to South Carolina and whether Rick Santorum can outperform Newt Gingrich.

The key is to rally party supporters, and while Romney attempted to show that he had the party's support in Iowa, the eight vote difference between him and Rick Santorum proved otherwise. Santorum's candidacy provides the right with a strong alternative to Romney; if the former Pennsylvania senator can outperform the other candidates again tomorrow night, a strong case can be made in South Carolina that he's the one the right should rally around to stop Romney.

Meanwhile Jon Hunstman, who finished second to last in Iowa, seems to be gaining support following his better-than-usual performance during Sunday morning's debate. According to the New York Times Caucus Blog, Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, is counting on last minute voters tomorrow. The latest WMUR New Hampshire poll, gives Huntsman 11 per cent of the vote, tying him in third place with Santorum.

Ron Paul, who is currently second in the polls with 17 per cent, also reached out to undecided voters stating that he believed he appealed to "independent people who are sick and tired of the two-party system". When asked how he would bridge the partisan divide as president Paul answered:

With difficulty, but with a new approach, completely new... Everybody knows what I'm talking about is different, because I have such a strange, new idea. It's obeying the Constitution.

Rick Perry is almost certainly out of the race with a mere one per cent of the vote, but a last minute confidence burst during the debates may swing some votes in his favour.

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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.