Let’s take stock of where the presidential race stands post-New Hampshire and pre-Nevada/South Carolina.
Republicans: The New Hampshire Primary produced the worst possible outcome for Republican Party elites hoping to avoid a Trump or Cruz nomination. With a campaign that promises “so much winning” that his supporters will eventually get tired of it all and beg for a loss here or there for variety’s sake, Donald Trump would have imploded had he fallen below expectations in New Hampshire after losing to Ted Cruz in Iowa. But he didn’t. Pre-election polls were accurate, and Trump lapped the field, although his 35% share of the vote is impressive only in relation to the paltry 16% won by John Kasich in finishing second.
Marco Rubio, surging out of Iowa on the strength of finishing third (you read that correctly), probably didn’t have enough time or momentum to overtake Trump, but he was positioned to separate himself from the other candidates with establishment appeal and make the duration of the primaries a three-way contest with Trump and Cruz before being shelled like a peanut by Chris Christie in the pre-primary debate. With brutal force, Christie revealed Rubio as an empty suit who retreats to canned talking points when pressured to answer questions. The long-term damage to Rubio is still unknown, although his greatest problem with an electorate looking for an alpha figure is not that he is vapid (history suggests that can be overcome) but that he looked weak and helpless in the face of Christie’s cross-examination.
This is potentially a huge blow to party elites desperate for someone to emerge from the field of not-Trumps and not-Cruz’ and make a serious run for the nomination. Kasich is unlikely to find a receptive audience as the primary calendar turns toward the South. Christie departed the race after his sixth-place finish, a cruel outcome after effectively living in New Hampshire for the better part of a year. Jeb Bush has impressed no one with his lackluster style and air of entitlement. New Hampshire voters failed in their purported role of winnowing the field, and the longer it takes for the Rubio/Kasich/Bush sub-contest to resolve itself, the longer Trump can win primaries with four-tenths of the vote. Although things may change after South Carolina, as of now there appears to be no reason for Rubio or Bush to drop out before the March 15 primary in their native Florida. By then, Trump and/or Cruz should be able to establish themselves as unequivocal contenders. There is a scenario where someone with establishment credentials survives and wins enough delegates in some of the friendlier late contests to force a divided convention. But something has to change quickly for any of them to have a clean path forward, and if Trump wins Florida there is the haunting possibility that none of them will be left standing.
Democrats: Unlike Trump, Bernie Sanders’ New Hampshire victory was impressive in both relative and absolute terms. He swept almost every demographic, winning 60% of the vote and defeating Hillary Clinton by 22 points. This came on the heels of the virtual tie between Sanders and Clinton in Iowa, a contest marked by television reporters trying to explain “delegate equivalents” to viewers used to thinking in terms of simple numbers. New Hampshire offered no such complexity and no ambiguity. Yes, there are caveats: Sanders is from a neighboring state (not really a big issue) and New Hampshire has few minority voters (an enormous issue), but New Hampshire established that Bernie can convert his large crowds into turnout, and that gives him staying power. Remember when Democrats were worried about a coronation? They can put those fears to rest.
In future posts, I will have a lot more to say about what Sanders is doing and what it means for the Democratic Party that he is running a movement insurgency designed to redefine the party in progressive terms. For now, suffice it to say that New Hampshire provided proof of concept. His next big tests will come in Nevada and South Carolina, where he has very little time to get Latino and African American voters to take a first look at him. That is a big order, and the strength of his campaign – like the success of the progressive movement itself – will depend on his ability to build coalitions with Democratic constituencies that do not identify as movement progressives. Like Trump, Sanders appeals to disaffected voters, but for starkly different reasons. His New Hampshire success has caused Hillary to recalibrate her approach and dig in for a long contest. Their clash of perspectives about what it means to be a progressive is healthy and well timed, and can generate long-term electoral benefits for the Democratic Party. But it’s easy to see how this isn’t the outcome party leaders wanted or expected.
These results are darkly ironic when you consider the steps taken by elites in both parties to stack the primary rules in favor of candidates who could build general election coalitions. Republicans cut way back on the number of sanctioned primary debates, recognizing correctly that the 2012 debate calendar did little to showcase their brand; compressed the schedule of contests; and back-loaded the calendar with winner-take-all states designed to ratify the choice of a candidate with appeal in moderate New Hampshire, acceptable to conservative South Carolina, and strong in Florida. Democrats for their part hid their few official debates on holiday weekends and around NFL playoff games when people wouldn’t pay attention to the distractions that were the third-tier challengers to Hillary Clinton. But the voters didn’t care and didn’t cooperate. It is still possible, perhaps likely, that elite Democrats will get their favored candidate, but she will be shaped in ways we may not yet recognize by the strength of the Sanders challenge. Meanwhile, the most likely Republican outcomes post-New Hampshire range from distasteful (Cruz) to unmanageable (a divided convention) to unthinkable (Trump).
During an earlier period of social dislocation and anti-elite sentiment, Bob Dylan sang about forces that threatened to upend the status quo, of the “battle outside” that would “soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.” Although it is still early in the process, the inability of insiders in both parties to guide voters to the outcome they seek is telling. It is not unreasonable to conclude from New Hampshire that the times may be changing once again.