New Hampshire voters sent a loud and clear anti-establishment message on Tuesday.
In a result unimaginable just one year ago, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders won New Hampshire’s Democratic primary and New York billionaire Donald Trump won the state’s Republican primary.
Neither race was close. Sanders and Trump both won by double digits, handing resounding defeats to their opponents.
The Sanders and Trump victories make clear that polarization is a potent force in the 2016 campaign.
Young and female voters rallied to Sanders
The come-from-behind Sanders campaign is a truly remarkable story, the political equivalent of David versus Goliath.
When Sanders announced his presidential candidacy last year, the Democratic establishment viewed the Vermont senator as little more than a left-wing fringe candidate. The idea that Sanders – the only socialist in the U.S. Senate – would win the New Hampshire primary seemed ludicrous.
Indeed, until a few weeks ago the Clinton campaign looked invincible. Last spring Hillary Clinton commanded a 50-point lead in New Hampshire polls and maintained a solid lead into the fall. She also had a well-established campaign infrastructure already in place in New Hampshire, a state she carried over Barack Obama in 2008.
But on Tuesday Sanders defeated Clinton in decisive fashion. Sanders won every income bracket except voters who earn US$200,000 or more per year. Even more impressive, he won a majority of female voters, a crucial constituency for Clinton, who seeks to become the nation’s first female president.
The fact that a 74-year-old candidate appeals so powerfully to young voters is a sign that the normal rules of politics do not apply in 2016.
How did Sanders do it?
There is no mystery as to why Sanders prevailed in New Hampshire. He won because he ran as a committed and passionate liberal candidate at a time when the Democratic Party as a whole is becoming increasingly liberal.
Since 1992, when Bill Clinton won the presidency by running as a moderate, Democratic presidential candidates have positioned themselves in the center of the American political spectrum. Hillary Clinton has followed precisely that centrist model throughout the 2016 campaign.
But the fundamental problem Clinton faces is the liberal base of the Democratic Party is no longer interested in merely winning elections. After years of following the centrists’ lead, liberal Democrats want to see the party – and the country – move to the left.
New Hampshire is a case in point. In 2008 about 56 percent of New Hampshire Democrats identified as liberal. But in 2016 the percentage of liberals surged to two-thirds of New Hampshire Democrats. As more Democrats self-identify as liberals, issues such as income inequality have moved to the forefront of the Democratic agenda for the first time in decades.
Accordingly, the centrist politics of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the cautious politics of Barack Obama no longer satisfy the liberal base of the party.
Liberals want to take their party back from the moderates, and they see the Sanders candidacy as the right vehicle to achieve that goal. The New Hampshire results thus make clear that the deep connection between Sanders and the liberal base of the party is a potentially grave threat to the Clinton campaign.
Trump won every GOP demographic
A similar antiestablishment mood is sweeping through the Republican Party, but it’s headed in the opposite ideological direction.
Donald Trump won New Hampshire by skillfully capitalizing on conservative anger with the Republican leadership on issues like immigration and trade.
Trump’s message of protectionism and xenophobia resonated in New Hampshire, where anti-immigrant sentiment and economic insecurity run deep among the state’s working-class voters.
Crucially, New Hampshire also offered a better cultural fit for Trump than Iowa. Social conservatism is a defining feature of the Iowa Republican Party. It therefore came as no surprise that the brash, twice-divorced Trump never fully connected with the state’s voters. Trump’s vulgar and confrontational approach alienated many Iowans and ultimately resulted in Trump’s underwhelming second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.
New Hampshire, however, is very different from Iowa. New Hampshire is the least religious state in the United States and it has far more in common culturally with New York – Trump’s home state – than Iowa does. Trump’s campaign was thus much better suited for the secular, East Coast culture of New Hampshire.
The election results on Tuesday unequivocally demonstrated that point. Trump finished in first place with about 35 percent of the vote. Ohio Governor John Kasich finished in a distant second place, about 20 percentage points behind Trump.
What is most notable about Trump’s New Hampshire victory is that he carried every major GOP demographic group. Trump won men, women, young voters, old voters, high school-educated voters, college-educated voters, voters who make less than $50,000 per year and voters who make more than $100,000 per year.
It was a truly comprehensive victory and an undeniable sign that Trump has staying power in the GOP race.
South Carolina and Nevada are up next
The next date on the presidential calendar is February 20, when South Carolina holds its Republican primary and Nevada holds its Democratic caucuses.
Trump has a large lead in South Carolina polls, and Kasich’s moderate profile is unlikely to find a favorable reception in the archconservative southern state. Trump will therefore emerge from New Hampshire as the clear favorite to win the South Carolina primary.
The Democratic race in Nevada is much less clear. Nevada’s large Latino population gives Clinton an advantage, as she has found her strongest base of support among minority voters. But as Iowa and New Hampshire revealed, Sanders likes to run from behind. He cannot be counted out of any Democratic contest from now on.
Above all, the fact that a socialist won the New Hampshire Democratic primary and a billionaire won the GOP primary demonstrates that the two parties are headed in profoundly different directions. Polarization is shaping the 2016 presidential campaign in unpredictable ways as Americans grow ever more divided.