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

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.

Meanwhile, Trump altered his view of Washington politicians, whom he repeatedly has called stupid. But, in his New Hampshire victory speech, he said they really aren’t so stupid when they cut their political deals. “They make them,” he said, “for their own benefit, not for the country’s benefit.” Thus did he echo Bernie Sanders’s suggestion that the country’s political system seems to be veering toward oligarchy.

The New York businessman emphasized the significance of his self-funding campaign. The other candidates are pouring money into campaign commercials, he said, “but it’s not their money. It’s special-interest money.”

It was interesting to contrast Trump’s headquarters speech with those of Sanders and Clinton. Sanders, speaking from notes, hit all the points he wanted to hit in language that was forceful, defiant and crisp. Clinton delivered a polished campaign speech that ignored the magnitude of her defeat and reached for eloquence and coherence. She seemed to be speaking through a teleprompter. Trump, by contrast, spoke off the cuff, in rough, disjointed language that conveyed this was not a man who practiced the political arts before a mirror. In introducing his family—including his parents and a brother, “up there, looking down”—he employed a gush of expression that seemed just a bit embarrassing—not contrived but perhaps a bit of an overreach in attempting to capture the occasion.

But New Hampshire voters didn’t seem to care about any particular degree of sophistication of expression in this campaign year. Those wanting an assault on the status quo got it from Donald Trump, and he captured 35 percent of the GOP vote. That was nearly 20 percentage points more than his nearest rival, Ohio Governor John Kasich, who represented most successfully the party’s establishment sensibility and who had scoured New Hampshire for months with the  most extensive and painstaking ground game of the primary campaign.

But Trump took a commanding position throughout most of the state and among most voter groups. He won among moderates as well as conservatives, among those who favored an outsider, among early deciders and among those without college backgrounds. What’s more, exit polls indicated that 66 percent of voters agreed with Trump’s call for a temporary ban on new Muslim immigration into the United States pending a review of how the influx could pose terrorist threats. This proposal was considered so outlandish that many establishment Republicans felt compelled to attack it as beyond the pale. And yet it seemed to touch a nerve in New Hampshire, demonstrating further the weakness of the status quo and the emergence of new political fault lines in America.

Late on Tuesday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz was locked in a tight battle for third place with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, each with just over 11 percent. Florida Senator Marco Rubio was in fifth place with between 10 and 11 percent.

Those five candidates now seem to be the surviving field. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, with some 7.5 percent, said he was heading back to New Jersey to “take a deep breath” and assess his next move. The performances of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson seemed to place them out of contention.

And so it’s on to South Carolina, where Trump and Cruz appear to be the strongest contenders, where Kasich and Rubio will have to overcome their establishment identities, and where Bush likely will face a make-or-break challenge. It’s not what anyone predicted a few months ago. But predictions go out the window when the political status quo is seriously challenged.

Robert W. Merry is a contributing editor at the National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.