MANCHESTER — It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Last Thursday in Des Moines, a weary Hillary Clinton took the stage to concede defeat in a state that she had poured a massive amount of money and resources into, while across town Barack Obama delivered a rousing speech in which he declared a “defining moment in history” — and electrified an audience of thousands.
All the signs in the next few days pointed to a changing of the guard. Obama’s speeches drew larger and more energetic crowds in New Hampshire, and polls predicted a possible double-digit blowout win in the state for the freshman Senator from Illinois.
On Monday, when Clinton teared up on a stop in Portsmouth when asked how she continued on each day, it looked like the emotional collapse of a candidate who had been brought to the brink under the stresses of a long campaign.
But in reality, that moment may instead have saved her candidacy.
“It showed the human side of Hillary Clinton, the passionate side, that Hillary Clinton is passionate about these issues,” Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe told reporters at the campaign’s primary night rally, just as the Associated Press declared her the winner of a stunning victory in the state. “The people saw the real Hillary Clinton like I see the Hillary Clinton I’ve known for 27 years.”
As the primary results rolled in on Tuesday, they had pundits scratching their heads, because they were so wildly off from the polling done just days before voting. But it is important to keep in mind that the final CNN/WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll that had Obama with a nine-point lead, was taken on Saturday and Sunday, and did not reflect her emotional episode that occurred the following day.
Most noteworthy is that in the poll, Obama had a 38 percent to 34 percent lead among female voters, which was roughly the same as the five-point advantage Obama had among that demographic in Iowa.
But exit polls taken on Tuesday, after the Hillary-in-tears incident, showed that Clinton won 46 percent of the female vote to 34 percent for Obama. Considering that female voters comprised 57 percent of the electorate in the Democratic primary, their overwhelming support for Clinton made the difference.
EARLIER IN the night, the mood at the gym at Southern New Hampshire University where the Clinton campaign had scheduled its primary night celebration felt like a funeral.
The large gym was mostly empty, and the cheers seemed forced. The media presence wasn’t large, because most reporters were in Nashua for the expected coronation of Obama.
But as the night went on, and Clinton’s lead held up with more and more precincts reporting, the chants of “Hill-a-ry!” and “Let’s Go Clinton!” grew louder and more passionate.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer, as the campaign waited with trepidation for the results to come in from the college towns where they feared Obama would overtake her.
At about 10:30 p.m., the AP called the primary for Clinton, and a roar broke out in the gym.
Before long, she appeared with Chelsea and Bill alongside her, and echoed the spin that McAuliffe had been pumping reporters with earlier in the evening. After a year of campaigning, and 16 years in the public spotlight, America finally got to know the real Hillary.
“I want especially to thank New Hampshire,” she said. “Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process, I found my own voice.”
While it would be easy to read the news of another Clinton comeback in New Hampshire and conclude that she’ll now coast to the nomination, if we’ve learned anything in the past week, it’s that we should never consider a candidate dead until the votes are counted.
After beating Clinton in Iowa and coming close in New Hampshire, Obama could still win Nevada and South Carolina, and pick up John Edwards’s supporters once the former Senator exits the race.
But for now, I’m out of the prediction business.