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Why we shouldn’t give Hillary Clinton a pass for losing New Hampshire

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke to supporters after conceding to Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary. (Video: Reuters)

Update: At 8 p.m. Eastern time, with the last of the polls in New Hampshire closing, most of the major news outlets called the race for Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton conceded at the same time. The below post was written earlier Tuesday.

To hear Hillary Clinton and her supporters talk about her chances in Tuesday's New Hampshire presidential primary, you would think she was an underfunded upstart challenging a sitting president of the United States.

It's an "uphill climb." Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who is challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination, is a native son (or close to it) in a state that has shown a tendency to favor neighbors. He's way ahead in polls. Some people said Clinton should just skip the state, but she said no way. And, just in case you missed all of that dampening of expectations, the former secretary of state spent the day in Flint, Mich., on Sunday — just two days before the primary vote.

Yes, Sanders is from a neighboring state. And, yes, he is far ahead — and has been for quite some time — in New Hampshire polling.

But the idea that a Clinton loss here was a fait accompli or should have been expected misses the mark — by a lot.


* Clinton has the endorsement of the state's Democratic governor (Maggie Hassan) and the state's lone Democratic senator, who used to be its governor (Jeanne Shaheen).

* In 2008, Clinton won the New Hampshire primary in stunning fashion, collecting more than 112,000 votes (just over 39 percent of all the votes cast in the primary)

* Sixteen years earlier, her husband, Bill Clinton, finished second behind Sen. Paul Tsongas (Mass.), promptly declared himself "The Comeback Kid" and went on not only to win the Democratic nomination but also the presidency. Clinton carried the Granite State in the 1992 and 1996 general elections as well. "We have a pretty big part of our heart committed to New Hampshire," Clinton told a group of Democrats at an event in the state last April.

* Although Sanders has held a steady — and wide — lead for the past few months, it wasn't always so. In June 2015, when Sanders proclaimed he would win the state, he trailed Clinton by as many as 40 points. As late as November, the two were still neck and neck.

Then there is this broader point. Clinton is a former first lady, senator from New York and secretary of state. She is a pillar of the Democratic establishment and, when this race began, the biggest non-incumbent front-runner of either party in modern presidential history. Her opponent is a 74-year-old self-described democratic socialist who announced his presidential candidacy by press release and then followed it up with a sparsely attended news conference on Capitol Hill in which he never said the words, "I am running for president."

All of the above doesn't mean that if Sanders wins New Hampshire — even if it's by double digits — the fundamental dynamic of the race will change. It (probably) won't. Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the whitest states in the country. As the primary calendar rolls forward, the states that vote get less white — and Clinton gets stronger. Regardless of what happens Tuesday, Sanders has yet to demonstrate the ability to win over older white voters as well as minorities. Without that ability, he can't win.

That said, on paper, the Clinton-Sanders race — in New Hampshire and nationally — should have been a massive mismatch. That Sanders looks likely to improve on Clinton's winning margin in New Hampshire over Barack Obama in 2008 is a big deal. Period. Full stop.

On the ground at the New Hampshire primary

CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE-FEBRUARY 9 : Bernie Sanders greets his supporters with his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, at Concord HS after winning NH. (Lucian Perkins /for The Washington Post)