When Donald Trump tried to explain away why he had donated so much money to the Clintons over the years, he said that it was merely the cost of doing business. He gives the loot they ask for, and they hop on the next plane for Mar-a-Lago to wrap their arms around Trump and his new bride at his wedding.
Hillary Clinton said she never got Trump a wedding gift. With the New Hampshire primary just three days away, Hillary needs some payback of her own. Forget Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or Elizabeth Warren or any other of the members of the Democratic cavalry Hillary would like to have; the one person who can save Hillary Clinton right now is Donald Trump.
To win New Hampshire and help end the Bernie Sanders insurgency, Clinton doesn’t need Trump to tone down the brickbats he has thrown her way. Thanks to the peculiarities of the New Hampshire primary, the more Trump calls Clinton’s husband an abuser of women, taunts her bathroom habits or says she got schlonged, the more he helps her.
All Hillary needs Trump to do, in other words, is to be himself.
That’s the thing about Trump — it’s impossible to look away. He is such a different manner of species from the rest of the crowd of staid political players, that it is hard not to creep toward the edge of your seat when he talks. Most voters, and especially most unaffiliated voters, don’t have really strong feelings about, say, John Kasich. Everyone has an opinion about Trump, either for or against. And so the more of the voters, regardless of which way they are leaning on the Trump question, vote in the Republican primary rather than the Democratic one, the better the chances are for Hillary Clinton.
Democratic partisans like her far more than independent voters do, and in a primary purged of as many unaffiliated voters as possible, Clinton has a shot at an upset, especially considering the fact that her opponent isn’t even a Democrat at all.
That’s because in the New Hampshire primary, voters who aren’t aligned with either the Democratic or Republican Party can still vote in either party primary. Independents make up 43 percent of all New Hampshire primary voters, a figure that dwarfs the percentage of registered Democrats (who make up 26 percent of the vote) or registered Republicans (who make 30 percent). And political operatives with long experience in New Hampshire politics say that the group tends to decide late not only whom to support, but which primary to participate in. And they tend, in the words of Tom Rath, a consigliere to a host of GOP presidential contenders trying to navigate New Hampshire, “to go where the action is.”
Sanders and Clinton may trade barbs over healthcare policy or whose plan to regulate the banks is more robust, but the real action is on the Republican side. It’s not just Trump and his Van Halen reunion tour-size crowds and carnival barker insults. It’s all of them who sound like they brought Triumph the Insult Comic Dog to a debate: Chris Christie calling Marco Rubio a boy in a bubble, Jeb Bush calling Ted Cruz a backbencher, Ted Cruz inveighing against the Washington cartel and John Kasich calling out the whole lot of them for calling out each other. Democrats are debating the meaning of what it means to be progressive; Republicans are talking about ISIS chopping off heads, religious liberty, killing babies and carpet-bombing the Middle East.
“All of the flash and sizzle this year is on the Republican side, that’s true,” added Rath. “Even independents who lean one way or the other can vote in a primary just to cause mischief, or just because that is where the action is.”
Those who pay only partial attention to politics — as most unaffiliated voters do — could be forgiven for not even realizing there is a contest on the Democratic side.
All of which spells better news for Hillary Clinton. The more likely it is that her primary against Sanders is purged of independents, the better chance she has of pulling off an upset. According to a survey released last week by the University of New Hampshire polling center, Sanders beats Clinton among registered Democrats 50-40 — and 40 percent of those polled said they hadn’t completely decided and could still change their minds. Among independents, though, Sanders smothers Clinton, 64-27. A survey from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling from a couple of weeks prior is even more striking: It found that Clinton led Sanders 55-36 among Democrats, a lead that was completely canceled out by independents who planned to vote in the Democratic primary. They favored Sanders over Clinton 55-29.
When upsets happen in New Hampshire, unaffiliated voters tend to be a major reason why. Back in 2000, Al Gore was fending off his own upstart challenge from Sen. Bill Bradley. Polls consistently showed Bradley winning, but John McCain’s Straight-Talk Express was tearing through the Granite State. Gore won by a nose, and according to Tad Devine, who was a top Gore strategist–and who, incidentally, now serves as a senior adviser to Sanders–their victory was largely a credit to the fact that independents went over to the GOP side.
“I am not sure people realize it, but we were incredibly fortunate that the Republican race drew so many independents,” Devine said in an interview. “Independents voting Republican cost Bradley that election. Our big hope this year is that they decide to vote in the Democratic primary.”
In 2008, independents made up a record 41 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, but they also bested their 2000 showing over on the GOP side. Barack Obama easily won independents from Hillary Clinton, but there were not enough of them to overcome her advantage among Democratic partisans, while they powered McCain–an all-time favorite among the New Hampshire independent set–to a narrow victory over Mitt Romney.
Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump. A recent WBUR poll found that 41 percent of unaffiliated voters hadn’t decided which primary to vote. Trump currently leads among GOP-leaning independents, with 26 percent of the vote, followed by Cruz and Kasich at 15 percent each. But 8 percent of respondents said they were considering voting in the GOP primary just to stymie Donald Trump. Throughout the early primary season, Trump’s antics have had a paradoxical effect: the more outrageous he is the more his voters flock to him, while the number of voters who say they will vote for anybody but Trump rises too. But so long as they flock to picking the GOP ballot, all the better for Clinton.
Anecdotally, this phenomenon is already underway. Stories about independent voters in both the New York Times and the Boston Globe featured examples of voters trying to decide between voting in the Democrat or Republican race, but certain that they needed to slow Trump or risk giving New Hampshire “a big embarrassment,” as one unaffiliated voter told the Globe. (Another told the Timesthat she was torn between Clinton and Bush, and “wouldn’t even consider” Trump.)
And so for Trump to save Clinton, all he really needs to do is keep on being Trump: wave his arms, flail about, and make sure for better or worse that all the cameras are on him. After the Clintons showed up to his wedding, it is really the least he could do to thank them.