Donald Trump scored a solid victory in New Hampshire's primary Tuesday night and his top rivals finished so close together they dashed the hopes of the Republican establishment wing that a clear alternative would emerge out of the Granite State.

On the Democrat side, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders also enjoyed a commanding win over his opponent Hillary Clinton, who knew she was headed for defeat but was hoping to close the gap.

With nearly 90 per cent of precincts reporting Trump won 35 per cent of the vote, way ahead of second place finisher Ohio Gov. John Kasich who had just under 16 per cent. New Hampshire gave Trump the rebound he was looking for after his loss to Ted Cruz in Iowa.

Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — within 3,000 votes of each other — rounded out the top five, followed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

In his victory speech Trump thanked New Hampshire voters, who have a tradition of making up their minds at the last minute, and his campaign staff for quickly stepping up their ground game after Iowa.

He also congratulated his opponents. "Now that I got that over with," he said, before going on to describe how he will "make America great again."

Given Trump's lead in the polls, the bigger unknown was not who would win but who would come second. Rubio had the momentum going into New Hampshire and expectations were high that he would leave as the anti-Trump alternative.

But then in Saturday night's debate he got hammered by Chris Christie and knocked off his game. The headlines the next morning were embarrassing for Rubio and when he addressed his supporters Tuesday night, he took responsibility for not doing better at the polls.

"I'm disappointed," he told a packed room at a hotel in Manchester. "It's not on you, it's on me. I did not do well Saturday night. That will never happen again."

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Chere Choppa, left, Brandon Castle, and Emma Sheehan, 18, and other supporters of Marco Rubio react to the disappointing results for the Florida politician. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)

One of his campaign workers, Jeb Golinkin, said Tuesday's fifth place finish wasn't ideal but he's confident Rubio will recover in South Carolina where the next primary is on Feb. 20, and that he will prevail as the eventual nominee.

"It's not the end of the world but there was opportunity here to put away some of the establishment support and break away and be the guy," said Golinkin, who lives in Texas. "It was a missed opportunity."

He acknowledged the debate hurt Rubio and changed the narrative of the campaign in the crucial final hours.

"He screwed up, it happens, he's a human being," said Golinkin.

Rubio's misstep provided an opening for someone else to slip into second. Kasich, who had been singularly focused on New Hampshire and virtually skipped campaigning in Iowa, played a dedicated ground game and had a good debate performance.

His path going forward, however, will be a rocky one, said Chris Galdieri, an assistant professor in political science at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.

"He's put all his resources, all his money, staff here in New Hampshire, which means he doesn't have anything down there in South Carolina," he said.

Kasich also ran as more of a moderate, a positive "happy warrior," which went over well with New Hampshire voters, but Galdieri said South Carolina Republicans are more conservative and there are more evangelical Christians there.


John Kasich gets a congratulatory kiss from his wife Karen on Tuesday night. The Ohio governor will now hope his second place finish will translate into donations for a campaign that poured most of its resources into New Hampshire. (Mary Schwalm/Reuters)

With Rubio, Kasich, Bush and Christie all clustered in a pack there's still a traffic jam in what's called the establishment lane. Those in the party who want anyone but Trump or Cruz were hoping New Hampshire would help clear the field.

"Instead, it's done the exact opposite," said Galdieri. "No clarification except with regard to Rubio not living up to the hype and expectations after Iowa."

The failure for a candidate to emerge as the anti-Trump alternative in New Hampshire means a longer fight among these candidates, and their fracturing of the vote could allow Trump to keep sailing along.

But another consequence of the pack remaining tight is that it puts a damper on donations. Some donors have held back on digging into their pockets until there's a narrower field. Golinkin said Texas donors, for example, aren't giving to Bush anymore, despite his deep family ties to the state. But they aren't ready to give to Rubio or anyone else.

"The money is frozen," he said.

Democrats: Geography or demography?

When Sanders made his victory speech he talked with pride about how his campaign isn't being funded by Super PACs but rather by individual donations averaging $27 US each.

Unlike Iowa, the polls proved accurate. Sanders was widely expected to win New Hampshire.

Clinton knew she had an uphill battle here, even though she won the state the last time she ran for president in 2008. Back then her opponent wasn't from Vermont, however, and her campaign partly blames geography for Sanders's popularity.

"Neighbouring state candidates have always done well in New Hampshire, it's a historic trend that's hard to beat," said Julie McClain, press secretary for Clinton's operation in the town of Nashua. At the campaign office on Main Street Tuesday, volunteers were busy working the phones to get out the vote.

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One of them, Claire Naughton, said Clinton can absorb the loss in New Hampshire, and predicted she'll pick up wins in Nevada and South Carolina, the next two contests.

"I will be absolutely shocked if she doesn't," said Naughton, a retired teacher.

Those states have higher African-American and Latino populations than New Hampshire, which is almost all white, and Clinton has stronger support than Sanders with those demographic groups.

Naughton said Clinton's not taking those votes for granted, though, she will work hard to earn them.

Sanders supporters, predictably, rejected the notion that he's popular in New Hampshire because of where he's from.

That's not why Sharon and Edward St. Onge voted for him, they said outside a polling station.

"I feel that he's more for the people," said Sharon, adding she liked his positive campaign. "I'm hoping he'll get in and give Hillary the boot and bring us something new."

A fresh face is also what appeals to her husband: "We've had enough Clintons, enough Bushes, it's time for a change."

Hillary-Bill Clinton

Hillary Clinton and husband Bill put on a brave face after Tuesday's one-sided defeat. It remains to be seen if the support the Clintons have enjoyed in the past from African-American and Hispanic voters will be sustained against Bernie Sanders. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

The couple believes a Sanders win in New Hampshire will send a message to the rest of the country and will give the boost he needs to keep his campaign going. "I think he's got a lot of momentum," Sharon said.

Though there was tension between Sanders and Clinton in the final days before the primary, Sanders called for party unity in his victory speech, urging Democrats to work together to block the Republicans from winning the White House.

When Clinton spoke to her supporters she congratulated Sanders and said, "I still love New Hampshire and I always will."