The art of spin: Pulling victory from New Hampshire’s jaws of defeat

February 11, 2016
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives with her daughter Chelsea Clinton and her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, to speak to supporters at her final 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary night rally in Hooksett, New Hampshire February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Hilllary Clinton arrives with her daughter Chelsea Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, at her final New Hampshire primary rally in Hooksett, New Hampshire, February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Tuesday night at around 8:30, as the New Hampshire primary returns were still coming in, an aide to Jeb Bush told CNN that the former Florida governor’s double-digit percentage showing amounted to “something of a win already.” Bush ended up finishing fourth, more than 20 points behind the GOP winner Donald Trump.

When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was projected to lose her race against Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Clinton supporter, pointed out that New Hampshire is 2 percent African-American and 1 percent Latino — unlike the key states ahead.

And in the coming days, the spinning of the New Hampshire primary results is sure to intensify. After all, spinning results and resetting expectations is a quadrennial New Hampshire ritual as venerable as town hall meetings and drinks at the Wayfarer Inn.


Senator Eugene McCarthy at a news conference, 1968. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

In the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary, President Lyndon B. Johnson defeated challenger Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was voicing the public frustration with LBJ’s continued prosecution of the Vietnam War. Yet, McCarthy’s strong second-place finish so fatally weakened the incumbent president that Johnson swiftly chose to withdraw from the race.

Four years later, Senator Ed Muskie, the liberal Democratic front-runner, beat Senator George McGovern, who was allied with the party’s left-wing. But Muskie’s slimmer-than-expected margin of victory in New Hampshire hurt his candidacy and helped his rival’s.

Ever since, the New Hampshire primary “winner” has been determined not just by the electorate but by what the political journalist Hendrik Hertzberg dubbed the “expectorate.”

So candidates spend each primary night spinning frantically to show that they’ve met or exceeded expectations. Though it’s easy to laugh at the candidates’ chutzpah as they try to spin a third-place showing into a big night, for example, or a razor-thin win into a cakewalk, the dirty little secret is that post-primary spin only works when the candidate has a legitimate case to make, when there’s a sizable kernel of truth underneath the rhetorical froth.

Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton reaches into a sea of hands as he works the crowd at a rally at the hold state Capitol in Jackson,Miss,October 28.

Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton at a campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi, October 28, 1992. REUTERS/Archive

Bill Clinton did it best, as usual, when in 1992 he parlayed a second-place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic primary into front-runner status as the “Comeback Kid.” And this was actually true. Clinton, a relatively little-known Arkansas governor, had been pummeled in the media for weeks because of an alleged extramarital affair and his avoidance of combat in Vietnam. So Clinton had indeed bounced back — to finish close behind Senator Paul Tsongas, of neighboring Massachusetts. A drubbing would have made his subsequent campaign much harder.

Strong contenders can sometimes get the news media to accept the way they frame the New Hampshire results, even if it’s self-serving. In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale, upset by Senator Gary Hart, rationalized, “What happened was that here in New Hampshire, the voters decided they didn’t want the debate to end.” Texas Governor George W. Bush, stunned by Senator John McCain’s 2000 New Hampshire triumph, insisted, “He spent more time in this great state than any of the other candidates, and it paid off.” Neither man was wrong.

On the other hand, a weak finisher’s spin is usually — and rightly — mocked. In 2004, placing fifth in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Senator Joe Lieberman ludicrously crowed about his “three-way split decision for third place.” He ended his campaign a week later.

Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, finishing third in the 1996 New Hampshire Republican primary behind front-runner Senator Bob Dole and the surprise victor Patrick J. Buchanan, disingenuously proposed, “Why doesn’t Senator Dole step over to the side and let Pat and me have a contest of ideas?” Alexander himself stepped aside soon after.

Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan pauses for a moment of reflection near the end of the presidential debate February 22 at Arizona State University. Candidates Lamar Alexander, Senator Bob Dornan and publisher Steve Forbes also participated in the debate. CAMPAIGN DEBATE

Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan near the end of the presidential debate at Arizona State University, February 22, 1996. REUTERS/Archive

The worst spin typically comes from sore losers. Even as Trump was headed for a win in New Hampshire, he did not give up on his charges from last week that Senator Ted Cruz stole the Iowa caucus from him. But Trump was downright sportsmanlike compared to Senator Bob Dole who, after losing to Vice President George H.W. Bush in New Hampshire in 1988, told a reporter, “Tell him to stop lying about my record.” Bush didn’t stop, and Dole didn’t do much better in the ensuing contests.

This suggests that we needn’t be too cynical about the primary-night sound bites hurtling our way.

Virtually every theorist of spin — or propaganda, or publicity or whatever the dark art has been known as over the decades — agrees that effective messages don’t persuade us of things we didn’t believe before. Rather, they resonate with and amplify notions we’re already inclined to put stock in. “Propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds,” explained the author Eric Hoffer in the 1950s; “neither can it inculcate something wholly new. … Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already ‘know.’ ”

Our everyday human skepticism helps us sift the reasonable claims from the absurd. Spin that’s egregiously self-serving or too detached from reality to be plausible is usually identified by the press and the public as such. Arguments that make sense, we take seriously.

New Hampshire’s failure to impose any clear resolution on this year’s nomination races means that South Carolina, Nevada and the Super Tuesday states will take on greater importance in choosing the nominee. And it thereby ensures another month of audacious spin.


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Yeah, maybe. I’m not sure anyone is buying spin right now. The efforts of Clinton’s machine probably cause her more damage than benefit. Trump is using media reaction and sick-of-spin to field a leading campaign devoid of content. Media Matters is a cliche for stooge, RealClearPolitics has become the default source for evaluating polls, Nate Silver spends most of his time arguing that everything right now is more noise than signal. It’s become like Literary Criticism – more thought, commentary, and analysis goes in to interpretation than went into the original creation.

Posted by DavidHume | Report as abusive

Trump’s antics are entertaining. However, the Republicans are the minority party, and could never reach 50% without a lot of votes by Democrats. Only a moderate could accomplish that. The New York Times thinks that man may be Kasich.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Trump’s antics are entertaining. However, the Republicans are the minority party, and could never reach 50% without a lot of votes by Democrats. Only a moderate could accomplish that. The New York Times thinks that man may be Kasich.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

YEA – well as much as such “genteel” or politico type persons might wish – TRUMP will be the next President, because he IS what America and the world needs to break the dominance of the media to decide who we even have a chance to vote for – not to mention the special interest PAC groups and conventional party politic money.

Trump needs none of that – he is able to pay his own way with NO donations if necessary and is able to speak his own mind with a mix of both conservative and liberal policies he has that shake up the status quo of both parties. His policy is simply pragmatic – and right on time to our TRUE intersts here in America.

So – spill your guts all you want media – Trump will Trump you as he commands his own media too – you will not drown him out.

If Trump does nothing else – he will show how to break the media bias that permeates and corrupts the true intent of the American election process by selling their “spin” to the highest bidder.

Posted by klapa | Report as abusive

Reuters represses pro Trump comments.

Posted by klapa | Report as abusive

So Trump pays his own way? He’s hardly spent anything because of the ‘media’ coverage of his outrageous statements, lies, bigotry, and racists views, the media coverage you claim he hates so much. Every time someone from the media does challenge him he has a temper tantrum. He’s made a fool of himself twice because of Megyn Kelly. If your a protester at a Trump rally he encourages his followers to rough you up. He’s a blowhard that makes the United States look horrible to the rest of the world. While he drags his base around by their nose rings he wouldn’t give any of them the time of day if they ran into him on the street. Not a chance in the world he’ll ever be elected.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive