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Judd Gregg: Reasons to love the New Hampshire primary

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Very soon, actual voters — not pollsters and pundits — will choose who will lead their parties in the next presidential election, and a few things will come into focus.

The New Hampshire primary will be especially important in bringing this focus to the 2016 campaign.

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Iowa will play a role, but it tends to marginalize itself because of the idiosyncratic nature of the caucus system, which disproportionately empowers small cadres of motivated folks.

This is not the case with the New Hampshire primary. New Hampshire is an election. And because independents can vote in either the Republican or the Democratic primary, it more closely reflects a general election than does a caucus state.

Some who envy its status argue that it is not a representative state or a large enough state. But it is the only non-caucus state where the candidates actually have to meet and answer questions from the people who vote. 

It is the one place where a person who wants to run for president and who is a substantive individual but who has not been anointed as a “serious candidate” by the Washington media elite can actually build himself or herself into a competitive national candidate. Bill ClintonBill ClintonClinton slams Trump on immigration in Arizona op-ed The Trail 2016: Berning embers Poll: Most say Trump should cut business ties MORE did this in 1992, as did Jimmy Carter in 1976 and John McCain in 2000.    

They do this by going out and meeting voters in various forums, but especially at town-hall meetings.    

And voters come out.   

People in New Hampshire take very seriously their role as testers of the candidates. They attend numerous events and ask really interesting and important questions. It is estimated that about sixty percent of the people who vote in the two primaries will have actually met at least one candidate. Many will have attended numerous get-togethers with numerous candidates.

This is part of what makes the New Hampshire primary such a good winnowing process. Candidates are tested in a very upfront, personal way. It is not, for the most part, a process in which candidates can hide behind their media consultants or rely on their friends in the press to carry the day for them.

So, what will happen in New Hampshire this year? 

On the Democratic side, the pollsters have announced that Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders not ready to endorse Clinton: 'Stand up, be bolder' Sanders: 'We lost some very important fights' in Democratic platform Sunday shows preview: Next steps after Trump upheaval MORE has built a lead over Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPerez mum on VP speculation McConnell: Trump needs to 'catch up fast' on fundraising Rubio: I hope I can trust whoever wins with the nuclear codes MORE. Some claim this is because he comes from the neighboring state of Vermont, Others say it is because Hillary has so much baggage and is not connecting with everyday Americans, especially among the Democratic base. 

This is simply wrong.

Bernie is indeed from Vermont. He is also a socialist from Vermont.

The New Hampshire Democratic Party has lurched to the left — there is no doubt about that — but it is not yet a socialist party. In fact, a very strong strain of moderate Democrats and not a small number of what used to be called Reagan Democrats are still present in the state.

Also, the independents who choose to vote in the Democratic primary are definitely not socialist. They tend to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Bernie will not run well with these voters.

In addition, through all her challenges — and they are many — Hillary Clinton and the broader Clinton machine have kept a strong organization in the state. There is virtually no major Democratic office holder in the state who is not supporting Hillary. Call them the establishment if you wish, but they know people by their first name, have followings and know how to deliver votes. 

It is possible that Sanders could do well in New Hampshire, but only if there is a very small turnout on the Democratic side, with most of the independents voting in the Republican primary. The true believers in populist, socialist rhetoric might deliver Bernie a vote. But do not count on it. And do not count Clinton out in New Hampshire. My bet is she wins.

On the Republican side, the pundits and pollsters have already picked a winner: Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcConnell: Trump needs to 'catch up fast' on fundraising Rubio: I hope I can trust whoever wins with the nuclear codes O'Malley: Trump is a 'racist' and a 'bigot' MORE, aka The Donald.

Think again.

All the polls show between 65 and 75 percent of the projected Republican electorate not voting for Trump. That support is split between at least five other candidates. But what the polls do not show is that approximately 40 percent of the voters have not yet settled on a candidate. 

Also, these polls are expressions of frustration. There is no investment in responding to a pollster and venting. The Donald does well because of that. But when people vote they do so with a high degree of seriousness — especially in New Hampshire. The Donald will not do so well when that occurs.  

Then there is, once again, the independent factor. The majority of independent voters in New Hampshire used to identify with the Republican Party. They are disproportionately educated women who left the party because of the harshness projected by some in the national leadership. The Donald will not play well with this demographic. And these independents could amount to as much as forty percent of the actual Republican primary vote.

If, in the next week or so, one or two of the five non-Trump candidates starts to move up from the pack, there is definitely the possibility, if not the likelihood, that The Donald finishes second in New Hampshire. Watch who is coming up on the outside.  

My money is on Jeb Bush. He is getting the classic New Hampshire second look and is scoring well with his intense schedule of town meetings and gatherings. But then, of course, I am supporting him.

At the end of the vote count, the one thing predictable about New Hampshire is that it is unpredictable. This year will be no exception. 

It should be fun.

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.