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Why Kerry Won

CBS News Political Consultant Monika L. McDermott explains John Kerry's victory in New Hampshire.



Solid support from voters who put such bread-and-butter issues as health care, the economy and education at the top of their agenda helped to propel John Kerry to a convincing victory in the New Hampshire primary, according to a CBS News exit poll of voters.

The Massachusetts senator also did well among voters whose top concern was choosing a candidate capable of defeating President Bush, and voters who said last week's televised debate among the candidates was an important factor in their decision-making.

Second-place finisher Howard Dean built his campaign on opposition to the war in Iraq, but Kerry defeated the former Vermont governor by 10 percentage points among voters who disapprove of the war. And Dean managed to get the support of only 9 percent of the voters who made Bush's defeat their top priority.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired General Wesley Clark, while battling tightly for third place, appealed to voters on very different grounds. Edwards did well among voters who wanted a candidate who cared about them, and who had a positive message. In contrast, Clark did relatively well among those interested in a candidate with experience. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman's 5th place showing appears to reflect a campaign that never caught on with New Hampshire's primary voters.

Kerry is a popular figure in New Hampshire – over seven in ten primary voters said they have a favorable impression of him, while only one quarter view him negatively. Part of his popularity may stem from his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, and his confident presence in New Hampshire in the days following.

Among voters who made up their minds whom to support just after the Iowa caucuses (but before Sunday), half chose to support Kerry. And among voters saying that last Thursday's candidate debate was very important in their decision-making (24 percent), 41 percent voted for Kerry.

Voters' issue priorities also worked largely to Kerry's advantage. Health care topped the list for voters – 28 percent said it was the most important issue to their vote – and Kerry won these voters with 43 percent. On voters' second most important issue – the economy – Kerry won 47 percent of the vote. Dean only narrowly carried voters most concerned with Iraq with 36 percent (to Kerry's 32 percent), and they made up just one–fifth of the primary electorate.

Overall, Dean faced an electorate that should have been receptive to his message. Forty-six percent of primary voters described themselves as "angry" about the Bush administration, and 63 percent of voters expressed disapproval at the administration's decision to go to war with Iraq.

In addition, nearly seven out of ten primary voters agreed with Dean that the United States is not safer from terrorism as a result of the Iraq war. And finally, despite negative media attention following Dean's concession speech in Iowa, most New Hampshire voters feel he has the temperament to be president. Fifty-seven percent of primary voters said Dean has the temperament to be an effective president (and Dean won these voters with 42 percent). Thirty-eight percent feel he does not have the temperament.

Unfortunately for the Dean campaign, however, the New Hampshire primary seems to have come too late, or maybe too soon. Dean's early momentum clearly paid off – among those voters who made their minds up before the start of the New Year (26 percent of all voters), Dean received 39 percent of the vote.

And while his momentum stalled directly following the Iowa caucuses, he started to gain ground again very late in the game. Among voters who made up their minds in the final three days of the campaign (a third of all those who turned out), Dean started to catch Kerry, winning 25 percent support to Kerry's 32 percent.

Despite conventional wisdom that primary voters were placing a priority on finding a candidate who could beat Bush in November, when asked whether that or issues were more important to them, 57 percent of voters chose issues. Among those voters Dean split the vote with Kerry 30 percent to 28 percent. But among the third of voters who said beating Bush was more important than issues, Kerry dominated strongly with 54 percent of the vote.

While Edwards and Clark battled closely for third place, they appealed to primary voters for very different reasons. Edwards did well among voters who were looking for someone who cared about them (receiving 24 percent of the vote), and who had a positive message (receiving 29 percent of the vote).

Clark did better among those looking for experience – winning 22 percent of those votes. In addition, Clark performed well among the seven percent of voters who said terrorism and national security were their top concern – he received 34 percent of these votes, topping Kerry who received 28 percent. In general, Edwards is viewed more positively than Clark by New Hampshire primary voters. Nearly three-quarters of primary voters said they have a favorable view of John Edwards, compared to 63 percent who view Clark favorably.

Joe Lieberman's fifth place finish reflects a campaign that seemed out of step with New Hampshire's Democratic primary voters. Lieberman prided himself on being the only candidate fully supportive of the Iraq war, but only 29 percent of New Hampshire voters were similarly supportive of the war. And even among these voters Lieberman only received 18 percent of the vote. Lieberman's relatively conservative stands also may have hurt him – only 9 percent of primary voters described themselves as conservative.

The CBS News exit poll was conducted for the National Election Pool by Edison / Mitofsky. The poll includes 1,848 voters leaving the polls, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Monika L. McDermott is assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, where she teaches and conducts research on voting behavior and public opinion. Before joining the University of Connecticut, McDermott worked in election polling for CBS News and the Los Angeles Times. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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