The New Hampshire stunner threw whatever conventional wisdom was developing about the Democratic and Republican races out the window. And given just how off the polling was for the Democratic contest, it seems downright dangerous to make any predictions at this point. Even so, here's what the Granite State results could mean for the candidates and the race overall:
No need for Clinton to panic
Speculation that would pull out of Nevada and South Carolina has been quickly squashed.
McCain: the establishment candidate?
Yes and no. Exit polling in New Hampshire showed tied with among the 61 percent of primary voters who defined themselves as Republicans. This is a much better showing than he had in 2000, when he lost Republicans to then-Gov. George W. Bush by 5 points. Not surprisingly, McCain carried independent voters, but his 9-point advantage over Romney was nowhere near his 43-point margin over Bush in 2000.
Yet New Hampshire Republicans still regard the Arizona senator as more of a maverick than a team player. Even though McCain supports Bush on controversial issues like immigration reform and the surge strategy in Iraq, he did very well among voters who said they were dissatisfied with the Bush administration. And remember, New Hampshire Republicans are some of the most dour in their assessment of the president. Sixty-eight percent of Iowa Republicans said they were enthusiastic about or satisfied with the Bush administration; in New Hampshire, that number was just 48 percent. McCain also did poorly among voters who described themselves as "very conservative." This portends some trouble for McCain in more conservative states like South Carolina.
And it doesn't. Sure, McCain needs a strong showing there on Jan. 15 to keep up momentum before South Carolina on Jan. 19. But given the state's demographics, a win there won't likely put to rest concerns about McCain's ability to win over conservative Republicans. First, McCain is likely to benefit from the open primary that allows Democrats and independents to vote in the GOP primary. Second, with Democrats boycotting the election, there should conceivably be even more "free-floating" voters for McCain to capture.
How does in Michigan will be interesting. His populist message should resonate in this economically struggling state. But he didn't appear to appeal to New Hampshire voters with a negative outlook on the economy. Among Republicans who thought the economy was either not good or poor, Huckabee took just 14 percent of the vote. McCain carried these voters handily with 42 percent.
Illegal immigration and Iraq are paper tigers.
Both issues were supposed to define the nomination contests (immigration for the GOP and Iraq for the Democrats), yet the economy has become the dominant issue. Even more interesting, the GOP winners in Iowa and New Hampshire are the same candidates who had serious disagreements with parts of the GOP base over illegal immigration. And it's not as if Romney didn't inform voters of those disagreements with lots and lots of ads.
Polling is dead.
Long live the polls. Yes, polling on the Democratic side in New Hampshire was off. In some cases, way off. Still, it's important to remember that polling would not have captured reaction to Clinton's tearful response to a voter question on Monday.
On the GOP side, where there wasn't any last-minute game changers, nine of the last 10 polls showed a McCain victory. The final CNN/WMUR poll [PDF] showed McCain and Romney statistically tied among Republicans, while McCain led Romney among independents by 11 points. Exit polling showed almost exactly the same margins.
Meanwhile, the last CNN/WMUR poll taken on the Democratic side showed Clinton tied with Obama among Democrats and losing independents by 25 points. The exit polls in New Hampshire showed Clinton carrying Democrats by 8 points. Although Obama won big with independents, it was by a smaller margin (15 points) than the poll indicated.
We have always known this was going to be a historic election. But no one could have predicted how completely out of the ordinary it's going to be.