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First Read: Nightmares Come True for Clinton, GOP Establishment

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
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First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Nightmares become reality for GOP establishment, Clinton

MANCHESTER, NH -- You couldn’t have dreamed a worse outcome for both the Republican establishment and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign than last night’s results here from the New Hampshire primary. And for gloating national Democrats (“Haha, Donald Trump won!”) and national Republicans (“A democratic socialist beat Hillary by more than than 20 points!”), it’s time to take a look into the mirror. Let’s start first with the GOP establishment: Donald Trump won by more than a 2-to-1 margin over his nearest competition; second-place finisher John Kasich doesn’t have a simple path to victory in a state until *after* the March 1 primaries; Ted Cruz ran a surprising third; and Jeb Bush even topped Marco Rubio after the Florida senator’s rough debate Saturday night. Bottom line: If establishment Republicans were banking on the New Hampshire results to consolidate support around a single contender going forward (Rubio?), well, that didn’t happen. And while it’s possible that Rubio or another establishment-backed Republican could catch fire in South Carolina 10 days from now, it seems more likely that the race turns into a showdown between Trump and Cruz. The good news for establishment Republicans: There’s a way out of this mess -- 45% of GOP voters last night want the next president to have experience, versus 50% who want an outsider, according to the exit polls. The bad news: Five candidates (Kasich, Bush, Rubio, Christie, even Cruz) essentially split that 45%, while Trump took the lion’s share of the 50% wanting an outsider.

Brooklyn, we have a problem

Meanwhile, if Clinton supporters were hoping to reduce the final margin to single digits, they didn’t come close. Bernie Sanders bested Clinton by 22 points (!!!) in a state she carried in the 2008 presidential contest. And the exit poll numbers seem even worse, even among the groups Clinton is supposedly strong with: Sanders beat her among women by 11 points (55%-44%), Democrats (52%-48%), and moderates (58%-39%). He crushed her among his core groups, winning young voters (83%-16%), independents (72%-25), and liberals (60%-39%). And then there are these terrible numbers: Clinton lost among Democrats caring the most about honest and trustworthiness by 86 points (91%-5%), and she even lost among the Dems who want their candidate to care about people like them by 65 points (82%-17%). Warning sign: Caring about people like them is the Bill Clinton brand, folks!!! The silver lining for Hillary: The map is about to get a lot better for her (see below). But as we wrote yesterday, it will get worse first -- Sanders is going to continue to outraise her, the Nevada caucuses (on Feb. 20) are going to be closer than anyone thought, and the outside forces are set to be unbearable (Bloomberg! Biden! Shakeup!). And now Sanders has the expectations on side in Nevada and South Carolina, while Clinton needs a big win or two in February to keep another billionaire (Bloomberg) from possibly getting into the race.

For action in politics, there’s a reaction

Yet for every action in politics, there’s a reaction -- and we’ll see that for both the Clinton campaign and the GOP establishment. After all, the Clinton camp is already bringing in a new hand (former Obama campaign official Jennifer O’Malley Dillon as a strategist), according to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. And now they have to go after Sanders more forcefully, especially as he now tries to shore up his own weaknesses (by heading to Harlem today to meet with MSNBC’s Al Sharpton). As for the GOP establishment, it now has to confront Trump and Cruz if it doesn’t want either of them to be its nominee; in modern times, every nominee has won either Iowa or New Hampshire. Turning to South Carolina, it looks like it will be a showdown between Trump and Cruz -- with Kasich, Bush, and Rubio battling to represent the establishment wing. The only problem with that: What if an establishment alternative emerging after South Carolina and the March 1 contests is too late? It looks like Trump and Cruz have punched their tickets into April. We just don’t know if there will be another punched ticket.

Was the damage to Rubio temporary or permanent?

Beyond Trump’s win and Kasich’s second-place finish, maybe the most striking storyline from last night’s GOP race was Rubio’s descent -- in the span of less than a week -- from surging candidate (into second place and maybe into first) to finishing fifth. And with South Carolina in 10 days, the question is: Was the damage from the debate temporary or permanent? In his little-noticed speech last night, Rubio took personal responsibility for the debate performance. “It is on me,” he said. “And it will never happen again.” Do establishment Republicans still rally to Rubio’s side (“Help me, Obi Wan Rubio, you’re my only hope”)? Or do they see a politician whose greatest strengths -- as a speaker, debater -- are now a big liability?

Reality check: New Hampshire doesn’t look like the rest of the country

After spending the last 750 words hyping up the results from last night, here’s some important perspective: New Hampshire doesn’t look like the rest of the country, especially on the Democratic side. Just look at these Democratic exit polls:


Iowa: 91% (2016)

New Hampshire: 93% (2016)

South Carolina: 43% (2008))


Iowa: 9%

New Hampshire: 7%

South Carolina: 57%


Iowa 68%

New Hampshire: 69%

South Carolina: 44%

Moderates or conservatives

Iowa: 32%

New Hampshire: 31%

South Carolina: 57%

Consider yourself a Democrat

Iowa: 78%

New Hampshire: 58%

South Carolina: 73%

Reality check: New Hampshire doesn’t look like the rest of the country, Part 2:

And this true on the Republican side, too. Just look at these numbers:


Iowa: 64% (2016)

New Hampshire: 25% (2016)

South Carolina: 65% (2012)

Consider yourself a Republican

Iowa: 79%

New Hampshire: 55%

South Carolina: 71%


Iowa: 85%

New Hampshire: 71%

South Carolina: 68%

Supreme Court temporarily blocks Obama’s climate-change plan

Lastly, while we were focused so much on last night’s primary results, maybe the MOST consequential political story from yesterday was this one. “In a major setback for President Obama’s climate change agenda, the Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked the administration’s effort to combat global warming by regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants,” the New York Times says. “The brief order was not the last word on the case, which is most likely to return to the Supreme Court after an appeals court considers an expedited challenge from 29 states and dozens of corporations and industry groups. But the Supreme Court’s willingness to issue a stay while the case proceeds was an early hint that the program could face a skeptical reception from the justices. The 5-to-4 vote, with the court’s four liberal members dissenting, was unprecedented — the Supreme Court had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court.”

On the trail

Donald Trump holds a rally in Pendleton, SC at 7:00 pm ET… Ted Cruz holds two events in the Palmetto State… Marco Rubio also holds two in the state… Jeb Bush and John Kasich are in South Carolina, too.. And Bernie Sanders is in New York.

Countdown to Dem Nevada caucuses: 10 days

Countdown to GOP South Carolina primary: 10 days

Countdown to GOP Nevada caucuses: 13 days

Countdown to Dem South Carolina primary: 17 days