New Hampshire's humbling lessons

Candidates as well as media must learn that voters often have different ideas on what they expect.

The candidate of "experience," Hillary Clinton, found the campaign experience had more to teach her. The candidate of "change," Barack Obama, felt a gust of change as runner-up. They now head to new contests, made wiser by voters who defied Iowa's results and the polls.

On the GOP side, too, New Hampshire's campaign and results seemed to humble the leading candidates, leaving the remaining primaries refreshingly still up for grabs in both parties.

Mitt Romney, once the Republican frontrunner in the Granite State, found that money can't buy votes and that appearing to pander by shifting positions can only lose them – a lesson he has hopefully absorbed after his second-place finishes in Iowa and now New Hampshire.

John McCain, although the winner in this latest contest, admitted he had to relearn how to revive people's trust in his "truth telling," one voter at a time, from the depths of a fumbled campaign just months ago.

Mike Huckabee, who won a distant third place, hopefully learned he can't rely mainly on one Christian group, as he did for his victory in Iowa.

The media, too, discovered once again not to trust opinion pollsters, who admitted that, in forecasting an Obama victory, they missed Mrs. Clinton's late surge and the power of her organization.

Journalists also learned that Granite State voters – who pride themselves on their "independence" – often look beyond issues and positions, and especially the phoniness of TV campaign ads, to focus on each candidate's identity and character, especially their authenticity as a person.

Clinton, for instance, learned very late in the campaign to reveal more of her genuine self rather than to run mainly on her record in the Senate and as first lady. It was a growing experience.

In tearing up over her anguish at possibly being rejected by voters, Clinton found resonance with many women, who helped tip the balance for her in New Hampshire – unlike in Iowa, where she lost the women's vote to Mr. Obama.

For Obama, the mantra of "change" forced voters to take a hard look beyond his youth and homilies about hope to see if he has the ability and record to bring about the kind of change he vaguely champions.

He may have helped focus all the campaigns on the idea of "change," but he himself now needs to change by defining more precisely what he means.

One obvious, but largely unspoken point of change that Obama's strong election results do show is that America may well be ready to elect an African-American as president.

He has wisely kept his campaign above the issue of race. Yet a large part of his surging popularity in largely white states like Iowa and New Hampshire is based on a deep desire to break out of the nation's traditional dialogue about race. He should not now panic at his second-place finish and alter his strategy.

Primaries can bring humbling lessons. Perhaps the overall one in New Hampshire is that voters reject the dichotomy between change vs. experience, and value both.

It's up to coming primaries to further sort out the candidates as they themselves learn from their mistakes.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.