I awoke Wednesday, the day after the critical New Hampshire primary, to a headline unthinkable just six months ago:
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders won their respective political contests.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
As recently as Halloween Republican and Democratic pundits alike presumed comfortable victories in that New England state for establishment (and dynastic) candidates Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
Further, both Trump’s and Sanders’ candidacies were seen at that point as so fringe as to be near jokes.
Here’s Jon Stewart mocking Donald Trump’s announcement of his candidacy last summer:
While this week’s results in New Hampshire may have little bearing on the ultimate nominations because it’s still early in the primary process, here are a few salient takeaways from just the Democratic side:
Sanders is a contender
Let’s be clear. The problem for Clinton isn’t that Sanders won in New Hampshire; the problem is that he won by more than 20 points.
In a state where prior victory revived both Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and Hillary’s own in 2008.
Hillary Clinton’s operation seemed to be operating from Day 1 as if her future presidency were assured, a journey somewhere on the continuum between a cakewalk and a coronation.
The Democratic establishment fell in line, somehow convincing other strong contenders (Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick among them) not to run.
Then we had a debate schedule seemingly designed to rig the nomination process for the frontrunner.
The Democrats scheduled just six debates over the first five months (October through February). Two of first three on Saturday night. The fourth debate, while on a Sunday, just happened to be be the Sunday before MLK day, thus a 3-day weekend.
The practical effect of this scheduling was to limit the public’s exposure to lesser-known candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.
The first step in any sales cycle is brand awareness.
What we saw in the debate scheduling looks suspiciously like a concerted effort to limit exposure to alternatives, intentionally handicapping those who deigned to challenge presumptive nominee Clinton.
In contrast, the Republicans scheduled ten debates during those same five months (October through February) and precisely zero of the first seven took place on weekends, when television viewership is typically lower.
Clinton has a demographic problem
Part of what we’re seeing with Clinton’s failures in the first two primary contests is not just a failure to deliver resounding victories, but a failure to connect with three key demographics:
- Blue collar whites
The truth is that the youth who were so inspired by Bill Clinton’s presidential race back in 1992—and its message of optimism—have grown up.
We live in a more cynical age today, an age fragmented by social media and an electorate who has lived through the 9/11 attacks, two Bush presidencies, an economic recession and disillusionment after 8 years of President Obama.
More importantly, it’s a different generation.
Clinton is used to running as her husband did – as the youthful alternative to a stodgy political establishment candidate.
She now finds herself as standard bearer of the old guard with little appeal to Millennials who hunger for real change—the sweeping revolutionary changes promised by Bernie (and Obama before him) rather than incremental (if more practicable) work within the existing political system.
If Clinton loses she has no one to blame but herself
New Hampshire’s results should serve as a wake-up call, not because she lost (that was a given as of even a week ago) but how and whom she lost.
- Hillary lost women overall to 74 year-old Bernie Sanders by 53% to 46%.
- Bernie outperformed Hillary among Democratic women 45 and under, who voted 64% for Bernie vs. just 35% for Hillary.
- 82% of women under 30 & under voted for Bernie.
- In fact, literally the only groups that Clinton carried in New Hampshire were
- women over 65 years old and
- households with incomes of $200,000 or more.
Hillary lost the 2008 Democratic nomination because for the first few months of her campaign she took the female vote for granted.
And it would have worked – that year she was unbeatable against her expected opponent – a white male.
But what she did not expect was a credible threat from a young African American in Sen. Barack Obama, and despite all of the advantages and name recognition accorded to her then, she lost.
Much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, likeability matters far more in general elections than qualifications.
To a very real extent, Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000 on the basis of one polling question: “Who would you rather have a beer with?”
On that scale, the average American picked Bush rather than the stiff, nerdy – yet far more qualified – Gore.
This is a serious problem for Hillary Clinton. Many people simply do not like, let alone trust, her.
Further, the Kennedys and Bushes aside, Americans don’t actually like dynasties, as they run counter to our ideals of self-betterment – that anyone could become a self-made success if they just work hard enough at it.
All of this may be moot
As many articles have pointed out in last few days, due to Super delegates, Hillary actually walked away from New Hampshire with more delegates than Sanders, despite losing the vote by more than 20 points.
Super delegates account for roughly 15% of the overall delegate count and have never proven dispositive (i.e., ultimately mattered) to the outcome of a primary.
Further, just because the Democratic establishment that comprises the Super delegates backs Hillary as the obvious choice now doesn’t mean their votes are assured come the convention.
If Bernie does somehow manage to continue with improbable wins through more racially diverse states such as South Carolina, Nevada and beyond – if youth, women and the middle class continue to choose him over Hillary, those early pledged Super delegates may mean little as they will be loathe to go against a true populist mandate that favors Bernie.
In fact, the slate of articles (and attendant outrage) educating voters about Super delegates and describing how the party is system rigged may well energize the youth base to choose Bernie over Hillary in other states.
(Click here to read more about why Super delegates don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.)
Whatever the final count over the coming weeks and months, I’m glad to see an insurgent elderly socialist successfully buck the odds and give Hillary Clinton a true fight for the Democratic nomination.
In a system literally designed for her to cakewalk toward the nomination, that anyone has managed to outflank her in these early contests is a testament both to the American democratic process, and to a surprising distaste among many for Hillary Clinton herself.