I am reasonably certain that when the Secretary of State of New Hampshire chose yesterday as the date for that state’s presidential primary, the fact that it was Fat Tuesday did not factor into the equation. But, when the coincidence of Donald Trump’s first victory coming the night before Ash Wednesday, who can now say that God doesn’t have a sense of humor?
Trump won big and he really won twice. In the first place, he came in first and even lapped the field, receiving twice as many votes as his nearest competitor. On top of that, the rest of the field did not winnow sufficiently that he might find himself in a two-way or even a three-way race: The results keep Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio all in the race. Only Gov. Chris Christie will probably not earn a ticket out of New Hampshire, coming in sixth after having spent an enormous amount of time on the ground in the Granite State. With 35 percent of the vote, which is what Trump garnered tonight, the New York tycoon can always win in a four-way race and he remains competitive in a three-way contest. Trump’s fear is a one-on-one match-up with a serious establishment candidate. Sen. Ted Cruz’s surprising third place finish keeps him moving forward into a series of southern contests that will be more favorable soil for his uber-conservative credentials.
The results are a huge validation for Trump. Last week, in Iowa, when Trump underperformed, many of us felt again what he had felt last summer, that the Trump bubble was bound to burst, that the American people would, upon reflection, refuse to contemplate such a crass showman as president of the United States. His victory last night returned the Donald to the role he likes best, a “winner.” This was the theme of his victory speech too: Under his leadership, he promises that we will “beat China” and “beat Japan” and “beat Mexico.” He views geo-strategy the way the rest of us view a soccer match. No wonder the crowd erupted him not with chants of “Trump! Trump!” but of “USA! USA!” It was compelling and creepy and concerning all at the same time.
Trump has tapped into the deep sense of frustration and dissatisfaction many Americans feel about our politics. After four election cycles in which the campaigns were built almost exclusively on rallying each party’s base, almost no attention was spent on appeals to the center of the electorate, and voter turnout remains abysmally low, is it any wonder that a large percentage of Americans think that the politicians have all been bought? Is it any wonder that they think the economy is as rigged as the politics? Whatever his failings and limitations, Donald Trump has struck a chord when he says all the politicians have been bought and that he doesn’t want the big donors’ money (and doesn’t need it!), so he can belong only to the American people. He hits a nerve when he complains against trade deals made by presidents of both parties. And, Trump’s authenticity contrasts favorably with the overly cautious politicians produced by the culture of campaign consultants that has become dominant in the last few decades.
Sen. Bernie Sanders hits some of the same points of discontent as Trump, although he has a vastly different diagnosis of the problems and yet more different solutions to those problems. He, too, had a great night. He trounced former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s team has said all along that they considered New Hampshire a home game for Sanders, on account of his coming from nearby Vermont. But, most New Hampshire voters look to Boston, not to Burlington, for their news. Demographically, New Hampshire, like Iowa, is overwhelmingly white and Clinton’s team is hoping she will fare better among black and Latino voters in the upcoming states of Nevada and South Carolina. But, that could change. One demographic, gun owners, is also plentiful in New Hampshire, even among Democrats, and that group gave two-thirds of its votes to Sanders last night.
Astonishingly, Clinton failed to win the votes of women last night. In the final days of the campaign, the limited imagination of Team Clinton was nowhere more apparent than in its ham-handed appeals to women. It is not only that what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said was offensive: Who thought Albright would be a convincing surrogate, especially with younger women? CNN reported that the Clinton team intended to reach out to young women activists in Washington to recalibrate their message, but activists are, almost by definition, myopic and whatever else one thinks of Sanders, he is not myopic.
Clinton’s problem is that her resume-heavy message is not resonating this year anymore than it did in 2008 and her team is not very quick on its feet. Her concession speech last night was a totally missed opportunity to reframe that message, and as Chris Matthews pointed out, a concession speech is one time voters assume the speaker is being authentic. But, she repeated the same tired litanies that made up her stump speech the past few weeks. Compare her speech last night with then-Sen. Barack Obama’s concession speech in New Hampshire eight years ago: That was the best speech of his entire campaign, its invocation of the phrase “Yes we can” and its easy cadences calling forth great advances in the history of justice, so powerfully delivered it was quickly set to music by will.i.am. Obama regained the campaign narrative before the night was through, even though he had lost.
There may be a deeper problem for the Clinton campaign than message. Sometimes, voters just don’t like the candidate. In the mid-1970s, American Motors came out with a new car, the Pacer, which had a strangely wide back end. I can still remember the ad in which the owner of the car bought a super-long grinder (known as a hoagie or sub is less civilized parts) and it fit into the wide hatchback. The problem was not the marketing. The problem was people didn’t like the car. Voters simply may never warm to Clinton and she has failed to come up with a pithy way of explaining why her reticence is not calculation, why there is something to be said for not wearing one’s emotions on one’s sleeves. As the carrier of a brand, she will always be compared not only with her opponent but with her husband. There was a rare moment of authenticity in the CNN town hall last week, when she admitted that politics does not come easy for her, and that her husband was a natural.
Sanders has his own problems and they will become more apparent as his victory demands greater scrutiny of his positions and past. For example, many Democratic voters share his opinion about why it was wrong to vote for the Iraq War, that the invasion would cause chaos and instability. But, if chaos and instability are things to be avoided, why does he think America needs a “revolution”? I posed this question to a political operative who likes Sanders, and he replied that “revolution” was only a metaphor. I rejoined that the second Sanders labeled his revolution a metaphor would be the second his campaign ended. The young people flocking to his rallies are not excited about a metaphor. I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s quip about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist after a dinner party in which the enlightened guests concluded that presence was merely symbolic: “Well, if it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.” Sanders also needs to find better language to argue for his positions than pointing out that European countries do it that way. As it stands, however, he has all the momentum in the Democratic race.
Months ago, I thought that if Clinton lost the nomination again, women would conclude that the game was rigged against them and stay home in November. Not anymore. Sanders has shown he can do well among women of all ages and, like Obama in 2008, he has the “new car smell” in this year’s race. And, like Trump, Sanders is nothing if not authentic.
Gov. John Kasich’s surprisingly strong second place finish keeps him in the race through at least Michigan on March 8 and the fight for the bronze medal in the GOP race is still undecided. Sen. Marco Rubio needs a miracle to recover from his self-inflicted wound on the debate stage last Saturday: Before that debate, he was aiming at a strong second in the Granite State. It looks like he came in fifth. Former Gov Jeb Bush lives to fight on in South Carolina, but he needs Rubio, Kasich and Gov. Chris Christie out of the race if he is to compete with Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz had a good night, competing in a state with few of the evangelical voters that constitute his base elsewhere: He, too, will be around through March.
There is something majestic about voters reminding us pundits that we are often clueless. Few people thought Trump would not have long since imploded on his own bombast. This is the scary part: When he proposed banning all Muslims from immigrating to the U.S., the commentariat concluded he had gone too far, that such extremism would alienate even the GOP base. Instead, he persuaded them and two-thirds of the GOP electorate said last night that they supported such a ban. (So much for religious liberty!) No one thought Sen. Sanders would catch fire as he has. The voters still own the narrative of this election, and they still own the White House they will bestow in November. That is as it should be, although the prospect of a Trump presidency really should lead all thoughtful people to prayer and penance.