In New Hampshire, an angry populist who calls for a revolution and assails the Washington establishment, special-interest lobbyists, big-money politics, and rapacious corporations won an election in a historic move that could shake up and remake American politics.
And Bernie Sanders did, too.
Donald Trump triumphed in the GOP primary, bagging about a third of the vote. He lapped the rest of the pack, while John Kasich placed second with about 16 percent, and Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio clumped together at about 11 percent. Trump’s conquest of the GOP came after the xenophobic tycoon and reality-show star honed his populist message in a manner that echoed Sanders’ approach. Sanders, the democratic socialist who only recently identified as a Democrat, bested Hillary Clinton, the poster child for the Democratic establishment, by about 20 points. This was a commanding showing for Sanders, after the Clinton campaign tried mightily—with Bill Clinton deriding Sanders’ supporters—to close the gap to single digits. Sanders achieved this win by sticking to his trademark lines: Enough is enough, the banks have to be broken up, the billionaires cabal must be busted so it cannot buy elections, and a “revolution” is needed to smash corporate power, tax “Wall Street speculation,” and deliver universal health care, a living wage, and tuition-free college to the citizenry. He roused young voters and apparently fared well among white working-class men, who presumably share Sanders’ fury regarding what he calls a “rigged economy” that generates income inequality. (These blue-collar voters backed Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.)
Sanders, who also promoted his standard progressive stances on gay rights, abortion, and climate change, demonstrated the powerful resonance of a change-the-system message in a state that once was Clinton-friendly territory. Though the Clinton camp believes the next primary in South Carolina, with the state’s large population of African Americans, affords her the chance to halt Bernie-mentum, she and her crew ought to be damn nervous that a 74-year-old self-proclaimed socialist has figured out better than she how to tap into the hopes and frustrations of an array of Democratic voters. (Look at the depth of the Feel the Bern passion Sanders inspired at this rally for young voters the day before the election.)
Sanders clobbered Clinton by consistently presenting a coherent indictment of modern-day power and economics. And Trump has turned the Republican Party inside out with a similar assault. He entered his last New Hampshire rally—thousands of people at the Verizon arena in Manchester on a snowy night—with the speakers blaring “Revolution,” the John Lennon-written Beatles song. (Talk about a body spinning in the grave.) And Trump pumped up the populism in his final pitch to Granite Staters.
His speech was full of the usual bluster and bravado. He bragged about being on the cover of Time magazine yet again. (“It’s a movement, folks.”) He claimed, “I did win Iowa.” (No, he did not.) He boasted of the “phenomenal” ratings he brought to the last GOP debate. He slammed Jeb Bush for being a supporter of Common Core and slapped Rubio for “sweating like a dog.” He essentially called Cruz a “pussy.” He pooh-poohed climate change. He did his usual rap about illegal immigration and called for building The Wall—”walls work…Trump walls”—claiming his wall will stop the heroin epidemic in New Hampshire. But he did not repeat his bigotry-driven proposal for banning Muslims from entering the United States. He embraced anger and declared, “If I get elected president, all of things you can’t stand…You’ll be very happy. It won’t take long.” It was as if he were a therapist promising to turn people’s misery into satisfaction. “We’re going to win every single time we do something,” he told supporters who looked as if that often does not happen in their lives.
Most intriguing was his attack on the corrupt power elite. He started off this portion of his speech by bashing the Republican National Committee for handing out tickets to Saturday’s debate to donors and special-interest lobbyists. (By the way, do you know that he “won” the debate?) And then Trump offered this assault on a “they” he didn’t bother to identify:
They want to chop away at Social Security like they want to chop away at the Second Amendment [on guns]…like they’re chopping away at Christianity. Very soon, we’re going to start saying Merry Christmas.”
That line about holiday greetings drew one of the loudest cheers of the night from the Trumpites. But here was Trump melding a Sanders-like populist proclamation (I won’t let them weaken Social Security) with a libertarian populist declaration (I won’t let them take away your guns) with a social-conservative populist vow (I won’t let them stop you from saying, “Merry Christmas”). He next blasted big drug companies for hiring lobbyists and donating to politicians in order to prevent the government from negotiating lower drug prices. He pledged, “We want to take care of people without health care…the Republican way—if people can’t help themselves, we have to help them. Those drug companies are going to hate me so much.”
It’s always unclear how much of what Trump does as a politician is planned. Is he driven by instinct? Does he cunningly calculate his moves? But by the end of the New Hampshire campaign, he had crafted an ideologically muddled populism with appeal mostly to conservatives but also to economically insecure independents who are pissed off at the powers that be, whoever the hell they are.
So far, the Republican race has been a tale of two universes: There’s Planet Trump (a wonderful, amazing planet, the best!) and Planet Everyone Else. And the GOP electorate has been divided into Trump voters (many of whom may be independents and people who do not regularly engage in politics) and traditional Republican voters (who subdivide roughly into social conservative, libertarian, and establishment-minded tribes). The results in New Hampshire suggest that chaos reigns on this (loser!) planet.
All the non-Trump candidates had obvious game plans. A flailing Bush tried to find his footing and convince funders he was not roadkill; an affable but weird Kasich attempted to leapfrog Bush as the non-hating, governor-ish candidate in the race; a once-hot Rubio looked to pull away from the other-than-Trump pack; a desperate Christie sought to bully his way to significance; a made-in-Iowa Cruz sought to stay clear of the cluttered “establishment lane” and, with Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum out, moved to consolidate his social-conservative base in preparation for the southern contests to come; and an increasingly irrelevant Carson…well, it didn’t really matter. Ditto, Carly Fiorina.
In the days before the voting, they each—with the exception of Rubio—appeared to be finding success in their own territories. At a town hall meeting in Bedford on Saturday, Bush held a crowd of several hundred people rapt as he gave long and detailed answers to a series of policy questions. Kasich topped 100 town hall meetings, where he mulled aloud about the problems of our stressed-out modern-day society, decried the national debt, and cheerfully championed Reaganomics. Christie went Tony Soprano on Rubio in the debate and drew decent-sized crowds that cheered when he claimed he had the executive experience and cojones to be commander in chief. Cruz held events where he did his version of stand-up (“The Democrats should hold the next debate in Leavenworth…so Hillary can attend”) and repeated his “constitutional conservative” case, and the PA played Jesus rock songs.
Only Rubio did not implement his plan—to give inspiring speeches and convince voters he is the next big thing. His pitch at campaign events combined sharp assaults on President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with gazing toward the future, positive new-generation-ish rhetoric. His goal was to straddle the line between rage-ridden tea partiers and more moderate GOPers—and persuade Republican funders and establishment poohbahs that he was a better bet than an anemic Bush and could be the insiders’ candidate who could excite the grassroots. Well, oops. His robot moment—which was followed by a second brain freeze—put all this on hold. (Prior to the debate, full-of-beans Rubio advisers were informing reporters that Bush funders were telling Team Marco to talk to them the day after the New Hampshire primary.) Now the freshest face in the race has to pass an I’m-not-an-empty-suit test. He’s turned his biggest asset (being able to memorize stirring talking points and deliver them with conviction) into a liability.
With Trump’s victory and a band far behind him, New Hampshire (thank you very much) has not decided much for the GOP. Trump remains a front-runner who can expect to do well in South Carolina and then in the Super Tuesday states. Second-placer Kasich gets bragging rights. Rubio is in deep doo-doo and must find a way to reboot. Cruz can claim that when the race heads south soon, he’s better positioned than the other non-Trumpers. Bush, who early in the night seemed heading toward a weak fourth-place finish, can crawl on bloody knees to South Carolina, a state that helped his brother in 2000. Christie, who couldn’t escape single-digit land, is probably cooked. The question is where will his (small) pool of voters head? And Carson and Fiorina—will they continue on with increasingly pointless efforts? That depends on how much pain they want to absorb to sell books and obtain future speaking gigs. At the end of all the hoopla, there’s no compelling reason for the GOP establishment forces and money people to coalesce yet behind any of the I’m-not-Trumps.
Before the official results were in, Kasich’s crew was contending that New Hampshire does change the landscape. A top Kasich adviser told me that Bush’s rationale to remain in the race was in the dumpster. Bush started at about 20 percent in the polls, spent gobs of cash, and now barely reached double digits. He should de-Bushify the contest, this Kasich adviser said, not surprisingly. He also claimed the Kasich campaign was poised to take advantage of his New Hampshire showing and in the weeks ahead could be competitive in Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan, Alabama (where the GOP governor has endorsed Kasich), and Mississippi (where Trent Lott, the former senator, will use whatever network he has left to assist Kasich). Well, maybe. But all these states come after South Carolina, where Trump, Cruz, and Bush could perform well.
Also-rans aside, Trump was king tonight for the Republicans. His brand of immigrant-bashing, hate-spewing populism ruled. In exit polls, two-thirds of Republican voters said they backed his ban on Muslims coming to the United States. The dilemma he poses the party has only intensified. And what has he learned? Attacking the GOP is good for business. Shortly before the results came in, Stuart Stevens, who was chief strategist for Mitt Romney, told me that it was imperative for the Republican Party that the other candidates start firing away at Trump. I asked, who’s going to do that? “Whoever wants to win,” he said. For now, though, the Republican world is Trump’s, and the other candidates only live in it.
Meanwhile, Clinton is facing what may be the longest 17 days of her political life. The South Carolina primary is on February 27, and until then she will have to bear unrelenting questioning from the politerati and the frustrations of her spouse. There will likely be some kind of campaign shake-up. And there will be an inclination within Clinton World to lash out at Sanders. But Clinton’s challenge is a simple one: to become a better candidate who inspires support across Democratic demographics.
The two winners of New Hampshire each demonstrated that there is an audience for decrying the current political order with passion. The day before the voting, Sanders exclaimed before a crowd of excited supporters, “We’re no longer accepting establishment politics or establishment economics.” That indeed was true for many New Hampshire voters.