The New Hampshire Vote

by John Lawrence

Daniel Webster, that great son of New Hampshire, once advised, “How little do they see what really is, who frame their hasty judgment upon that which seems.” Webster’s cautionary admonition is always timely, especially following the eye-popping results in his home state’s presidential primary on Tuesday. Nevertheless, some conclusions do jump out quickly from the preliminary data, and they suggest a long, messy and potentially seriously demoralizing primary season.

Webster also cautioned to “Keep cool; anger is not an argument,” but coolness had nothing to do with the results in New Hampshire. The blow-out victories by the two candidates most hostile (and that is saying a lot)to business-as-usual politics certainly gave a definitive coloration to the 2016 race, at least thus far.
If nothing else, the NH results illustrate the differences between the complex machinery of a caucus state like Iowa, where turnout is unpredictable and behavior inside the caucus venues is often idiosyncratic. NH was a straight out primary: you show up, you vote, you don’t have to confront your neighbors or reveal your choices. And in this more common form of American voting, Trump and Sanders blew away opposition that had flummoxed them in Iowa.

Where does it go from here? How predictive is tiny NH when compared to the coming primary in South Carolina, or Super Tuesday, or the long slew of other primaries and caucuses? No one knows, but some “hasty judgments” seem worth noting.

The most obvious conclusion is that the loud voices of anger (sorry, Sen. Webster) with government, and especially the federal government, made their point, and not just among the predictably hostile Republicans. Sixty-one percent of Democratic voters were “dissatisfied or angry with the federal government,” and that sizeable group favored Sanders by a 42-point margin. Unless Democrats elsewhere feel much more warm and toasty about Washington, or events merit a dramatic reversal of sentiment, that number would not suggest enthusiasm for Sanders is going to cool off any faster than his allegation (perhaps a little misplaced coming from someone with three decades as a public official) that Clinton embodies “the establishment.”

There are two more troubling statistics coming out of NH for Clinton, however. The first is that independent voters broke almost 2-1 for Sanders. If at least a significant portion of those Sanders votes were attributable to his being perceived as an outsider, it may suggest a trend that could damage Clinton not only through the remaining primaries but in the fall, especially if she emerges with the nomination and faces a Republican who can claim the “independent” or “outsider” mantle.

Even more problematic is Clinton’s performance with what I always consider the key polling question: “Who cares most about people like me?” Voters can forgive many transgressions by politicians – bad votes, ideological misalignment, behavioral misconduct – but it is really difficult to win over a voter who doesn’t believe a candidate cares about them. Not “understands” or “is compassionate towards” or “sympathizes,” but “cares.” Sanders won this crucial cohort of voters 82% to 17%. Less surprising, but equally important, Sanders crushed Clinton 91% to 5% among the one-third of voters who said that being “honest and trustworthy” mattered most.

Those are numbers that should make even the most loyal Clintonistas or pundits who believe her nomination and even election are inevitable (if not messily achieved) ponder alternative scenarios.

One cautionary note to the Clintons: Bill and Hill often do not seek to reach the electoral mountaintop, following a bruising setback, via the high road. That was certainly the case in South Carolina 8 years ago.   Sanders seems to recognize it might get a little nasty. “They are throwing everything at me except the kitchen sink,” he said Tuesday night, “and I have the feeling that the kitchen sink is coming pretty soon as well.” That might be the primal instinct within the Clinton camp, but it would be a mistake of potentially fatal proportions. The very worst thing a politician can do is to confirm voters’ hostile impressions of them. The road back for Clinton must be based upon re-emphasizing her steadiness on national security issues, her longstanding commitment and performance on subjects key to the Democratic base, and a contrasting of her depth of achievements with the fringe performance of Sanders in national politics over the decades before he became “Bernie!”.

This race is a long way from being over, but Clinton needs to act and sound gracious, compassionate and calm as she plows forward. For all the noise and drama of Iowa and NH, she still leads Sanders in delegates, largely because of superdelegates falling in line behind her. The next few weeks are going to be brutal for her, as the media smells danger in the Clinton campaign and will emphasize every miniscule piece of evidence that the wheels are coming off the campaign plane. She needs to send a much clearer and far more succinct message of what she stands for, downplay the substantive differences between her and Sanders, and highlight the need for experience and maturity in the Oval Office. Bernie has a clear and resonating message and 110% of the enthusiasm right now, but most skilled political hands are being wrung at the prospect of his emerging as a nominee.

As for the Republicans, the big losers certainly were Christie, who proved to be an outstanding attack dog (as only a fellow New Jerseyan can fully appreciate) and Rubio, who has the teeth marks of a New Jersey attack dog to thank for a dismal collapse. Christie decamped to New Jersey to reassess; one can only imagine how pleased he was with his campaign’s decision to play the Bon Jovi song, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” at Tuesday night’s rally.

Rubio has always sounded like he was running for class president rather than U.S. president (and not of a very impressive high school, I might add) but it took Christie to make the point effectively on national television. We will always be indebted to Rubio for confirming the charge so guilelessly just micro-seconds after Christie hurled it at him, and for assuring us in his concession speech on Tuesday night that he would not be caught mechanically repeating himself. “That won’t happen again,” Rubio promised his supporters. “That won’t happen again.” OK, maybe he was kidding, but it was an awkward time for self-deprecating humor.

Although Bush treated his fourth place finish as some sort of “Comeback Kid” moment, that conclusion is a bit premature. While Trump ran true to the polls, Cruz’ third place finish deserves attention since the evangelical community in NH is pretty thin compared to that in Iowa which delivered last week’s victory. But Cruz’ 12% indicates he isn’t going anywhere soon, and combined with Trump’s 34%, illustrates there remains a very sizeable outsider faction in the GOP that is going to be hard for any “establishment” Republican to corral not matter how much pundits add up the “establishment” GOP “majority” opposed to Trump and Cruz.

John Kasich spent a lot of time and money in NH and it paid off, especially with what appears to have been a significant defection from Rubio. Kasich strikes fear into many Democrats because we know him from his days in Congress and he could send a formidable November message of pragmatic politics. But he is so dour and operational that he seems to generate little of the genuine excitement it will take to sustain primary/caucus interest over the long months ahead. He also will always be manacled to his wise decision to take Ohio into Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, Original Sin to base Republicans from which he may never recover.

Which means that, hard as it may be to believe, Jeb! might actually survive as the establishment Republican when all the shouting and voting are over, although selling him to a GOP electorate that has elevated Trump and Cruz is going to be a serious challenge and perhaps an invitation to a third party by Tea Party/Freedom Caucus activists. One can see Sanders’ voters reluctantly accepting Clinton (if not necessarily voting in droves for her) should she prevail and, in fact, polling in NH reflected just such a willingness by Democrats, but less so among Republicans to accept a second or third choice. That polling raises the interesting question of predicting an outcome if the November election, following a season of outsider angst, turns out to be between the two ultimate insiders: Clinton and Bush. Who might be the third party alternative (other than Michael Bloomberg, just what we need, another billionaire swaggering in to confirm the oligarchic drift of American politics)? There was a candidate in the NH Democratic primary I want to investigate: Vermin Supreme. Or perhaps that was editorial comment.