New Hampshire’s Primary Lesson: The Status Quo Has Failed

Sanders and Trump hammer at the establishment in the Granite State.

Seldom in American history has the political status quo taken a hammering like the one it is taking in this campaign year. This is reflected not just in the results of the New Hampshire primaries but also in exit-poll results and expressions of candidate defiance. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said it best when he said his campaign was about “having the courage to reject the status quo.”

Consider the number of voters who went to the polls in New Hampshire in both parties combined. The total exceeded 500,000, and the two winners—Sanders for the Democrats and billionaire developer Donald Trump for the Republicans—captured between them almost half of the total. That’s a lot of New Hampshirites with the courage to reject the status quo.

It’s noteworthy also that, just eight months ago, before the pre-primary debate-and-polling extravaganza began, no one gave these two men a ghost of a chance to emerge as significant players in the 2016 campaign cycle. There was Sanders, an aging socialist whose earnestness of conviction was considered charmingly quaint—something of a throwback to the 1930s. But who would vote for a man of such outlandish views? And Trump, a serious businessman, sure, but also a celebrity huckster and low-brow TV personality who seemed to lack even the political vocabulary for any serious campaign initiative.

And yet Sanders, after fighting Hillary Clinton to an essential draw in the Iowa caucuses last week, captured about 60 percent of the Democratic vote in the Granite State, with former secretary of state Clinton languishing with less than 40 percent. This is a blowout, and it is the kind of outcome fraught with implications.

First, Clinton is an inherently weak candidate, beset by a taint of scandal, a less-than-stirring political persona, a record of mostly being there and the wilt of a retread message. She likely will get her party’s nomination, assuming scandal doesn’t upend her, but her lack of political strength is clear now that voters have begun to weigh in. Had the Democratic Party put up a powerful figure with a fresh view of the country’s destiny, she likely would be gasping for political oxygen.

In exit polls, a majority of New Hampshire voters said their most important issue was income inequality and the candidate quality they cared most about was honesty. Clearly, she wasn’t going to outdo Sanders on income inequality, and polls consistently have indicated voters aren’t sure about Clinton’s trustworthiness.

Second, she is a thoroughly status quo figure. Sure, she emphasizes, for example, her willingness and ability to take on Wall Street, as Democratic voters seem to want. But please don’t draw any conclusions from the cool $675,000 she hauled down for three speeches before Wall Street audiences pulled together by Goldman Sachs. After all, that’s what they offered.

The Goldman Sachs episode crystallizes Clinton’s political predicament. She entered the race anticipating that she would breeze to the nomination with the assets she has accumulated through the old rules—a record of long public service; a powerful fundraising and political-operations machine built over twenty-five years by her husband and herself (sometimes, though, through unsavory methods); and close ties to a Democratic establishment never particularly squeamish over inconsistencies or even hypocrisies displayed by apparent winners.

But the rules have changed. Voters these days don’t care much about those kinds of political assets. They think Washington is dysfunctional because it is corrupt, and that it is corrupt because it has been captured by people who have turned the nation’s government into their own little sinecure nest. Sanders captured this sentiment when he said today’s political system is “not what democracy is about; it’s what oligarchy is about.”

Sanders talks about sending “a profound message to the political establishment, the economic establishment, and, by the way, the media establishment” (the latter, he seems to be implying, an institution that operates out of the pocket of the Clinton machine). He talks about the need for “a political revolution.”

And on foreign policy he deftly separates himself from his opponent by noting proudly that he voted against the Iraq war, unlike Clinton, and it was “the right vote.” He adds that the United States “cannot and should not be the policeman of the world.” Again, it is a slam against the political establishment, which most Americans blame for the dangerous chaos in the Middle East.

Clinton, in her primary-night speech, struggled to bridge the gap between who she is and what the voters seem to want. “People have a right to be angry,” she said. “But they’re also hungry—hungry for solutions,” The question, she said, is: “Who is the best change-maker.”

But that isn’t the question this year. It is who best can speak in the idiom of change, with conviction and credibility. In New Hampshire this week, the answer was Sanders, not Clinton.