The Establishment Tanks

AP Photo/J. David Ake

Senator Bernie Sanders reacts to the cheering crowd at his primary night rally Tuesday, February 9, 2016, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Nashua, New Hampshire — New Hampshire on Tuesday became the graveyard of both political parties’ establishments. Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primary, and just as important, the fleeting emergence of John Kasich as the leading establishment-lane candidate and the not-so-fleeting debacle of Marco Rubio’s fifth place finish, all add up to the likelihood that Trump will emerge as the Republican nominee. Bernie Sanders’s landslide victory over Hillary Clinton—he won all age groups save those over 65, and all income categories save those with household incomes in excess of $200,000—means he’s a credible contender for the Democratic nomination. He will need to improve his standing among voters of color, of course, which poses a significant challenge to his campaign.

But Sanders has already cleared one hurdle that no Democratic insurgent in past presidential contests has managed: He’s become the party’s beer-track candidate, at least among white voters. In past election contests, stretching from Eugene McCarthy in 1968 to Barack Obama in 2008, the underdog outsiders won the support of the young and the upscale, but couldn’t gain a majority of the working-class vote. Sanders, by contrast, won the vote of lower income caucus attendees in Iowa, and in New Hampshire, he ran strongest among voters with annual incomes beneath $30,000, and beat Clinton handily, though with declining margins, up to the $200,000-plus category, where she prevailed by 7 percentage points.

The age gap between the two candidates’ supporters was so vast that that could have affected the outcome among income categories, as voters under 30 invariably have lower incomes than their elders. What’s particularly impressive about Sanders’s support from young voters is less his immense margins of victory—he won 82 percent of voters under 25 and 85 percent of voters between 25 and 29—and more the level of their turnout. Voters under 30 constituted 19 percent of the Democratic turnout on Tuesday, while voters 65 and older constituted 17 percent—a notable reversal of normal voter participation levels, and clear testament to Sanders’s ability to mobilize the young.

The leftward shift of Democrats nationally was clearly on display in New Hampshire. In the 2008 exit polls, 56 percent of New Hampshire Democrats identified themselves as liberal; on Tuesday, that figure rose to 68 percent. That leftward shift is evident in Clinton’s increasing embrace of progressive positions she had previously avoided—her recent declaration that she favors increasing Social Security benefits being just the latest example. In her election night speech, she made a forceful case that if Sanders is the scourge of economic inequality, she has the bona fides to credibly take on racial and gender discrimination.

Will that be enough to secure Clinton the nomination? She clearly leads in surveys of black and Latino voters. Polling by Reuters over the course of January showed Sanders’s performance among African Americans was, not surprisingly, strongest among voters under 30, but even there, he failed to clear 40 percent. On Saturday, Sanders supporter Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, told me that just as young African Americans turned away from Clinton in 2008 to support Obama, only then bringing along their elders, so the same progression would repeat itself on Sanders’s behalf this year, albeit in numbers less decisive than those that powered Obama to victory. It’s a contestable assertion, but as the primaries move to the South, we can test it soon enough.

On the Republican side, the contrast between Trump’s working class appeal and Kasich’s hold on more traditional country-club Republicans became apparent in their performance among the various categories of educational attainment. Trump won a whopping 46 percent backing among voters whose education extended no further than high school, then declined with each successive category: 38 percent among those who attended college but didn’t finish; 32 percent among college graduates; 23 percent among those with post-graduate degrees. Kasich’s standing was the mirror image of Trump’s, running weakest among those whose education ended in high school (8 percent) and then rising in each successive category, finishing in a virtual tie with Trump in his level of support (22 percent) among post-grads.

Trump’s appeal is rooted in his self-proclaimed expertise at the art of the deal: That he will restore the American middle-class by making better deals than the politicians who stood idly by while jobs flowed to China and Mexico. Just as Sanders tells his already politicized supporters that the revolution can only come if they become a permanent movement for greater equality, so Trump tells his largely depoliticized cadres that they can leave the task of revolution to him, once they do their bit by electing him. The force to make America “win again,” he told his supporters in pure Trump-ese at an election eve rally in Manchester, comes from “the package that is called you, but maybe it takes the form of me.” More particularly, Trump vows to employ businessmen like himself to cut smarter deals with the Chinese. Problem is, those businessmen as a class were responsible for pressuring Congress to cut the very deals that shipped jobs to China, because it was in their financial interest to offshore production to take advantage of the cheaper labor. Trump’s prescription for making America great looks suspiciously like placing foxes in the henhouse—a point Democrats will doubtless make if Trump emerges as the nominee.

As Kasich’s election night talk made clear, there’s something both nostalgic and soporific about his appeal to his compatriots to take things slower in this digital age. In his stump speeches, Kasich notes how thrilled he was as a child when he met Ronald Reagan and, even more, Jimmy Stewart, and there’s more than a little Stewart in his mannerisms. That’s more his problem than his ticket to win: He’s the candidate of calm in an age of Republican rage. Though a doctrinaire conservative, Kasich is nowhere near rabid enough for today’s Republican party. He wants to extend citizenship to law-abiding undocumented immigrants, and as governor of Ohio, he accepted Obamacare’s extension of Medicaid—either one of which is sufficient to place him beyond the pale with most Republican voters. By boosting Kasich rather than Marco Rubio (who, as Rubio acknowledged on election night, has no one to blame but himself for his debate debacle and subsequent poor showing), New Hampshire’s relatively moderate Republicans failed to sufficiently winnow the “establishment lane” in the GOP primary process. Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Rubio all live to fight another day, which means that, with Ted Cruz continuing to win the evangelical and Tea Party vote, Trump can continue to win a third of the vote and still secure enough delegates to win the nomination. At the moment, Cruz looks like his only competition, though it’s possible that Bush, if he can clear the field of Kasich and Rubio before too many primaries have elapsed, could secure enough delegates to keep either Trump or Cruz from winning a majority before the convention. It’s probably a safer bet that Trump will steam into the GOP convention with enough delegates to prevail.

On the Democratic side, for the first time since this election cycle began, it’s conceivable, if still not probable, that Sanders could best Clinton for the nomination. He will need to diversify his campaign, not just by winning more African American and Latino support, but topically and rhetorically as well. He’s right to keep emphasizing his central theme: That the nation needs to radically reverse its turn toward plutocracy if it’s to remain a democracy, and that his campaign offers the clearest opportunity to do that. But this is not 1896, when William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech was sufficient to win him the nomination: Sanders needs to address a greater range of topics with greater specificity, and needs to assemble a broader stable of advisers as he goes forward. Breadth and expertise will enhance, not diminish, his credibility and appeal.

(The possibility that Trump and Sanders could win their respective parties’ nods creates the further possibility that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg could enter the race as a self-funded independent. The outcome of such a three-way contest is impossible to predict, though it could result in no candidate winning an Electoral College majority, in which case the Constitution throws the election of the president into the sure-to-remain-Republican House. All we can be sure of is that a field of three candidates, two of them billionaires, two of them septuagenarian secular Jews, all three of them New Yorkers in their bones, would plunge us deep into terra incognita—and an election process that culminated in the House picking the president would plunge us into something worse than that.)

By any conventional metric, even after the New Hampshire blowout, Clinton should still be the stronger candidate to win the Democratic nomination. But one impression I take with me from my week in New Hampshire is how personally popular Sanders is across the political spectrum—how even the Republicans I spoke with admired his sincerity, dedication, and attacks on Wall Street and the dominance of money in politics. (Then again, some of that surely just reflects their loathing of Clinton.) Is the personal admiration that Sanders engenders sufficient to overcome what was the original definition of American exceptionalism—the nation’s unique resistance to socialism and socialist candidates? Probably not. But then, 2016 is shaping up as a very strange year.  

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