The results, though predicted, were earth shattering nonetheless: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primaries. The two outsiders who came from nowhere are now on top of the hill. Carried by their populist rhetoric, riding a wave of resentment and dissatisfaction, the two confounded the pundits and the experts and overcame the obstacles that party leaders had placed in their path. Their victories give them the momentum, and their followers the motivation, to go from strength to strength.
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Sanders also made Jewish history: He is the first Jew, the first non-Christian in fact, to ever win a presidential primary. Perhaps that is the reason there was something grating, at least in Jewish ears, about his victory speech, in which he described himself as a “son of a Polish immigrant”, without mentioning his Jewishness. Never mind, someone will eventually remind him down the road in the not-too-distant future.
The evening’s main loser, and a humiliated one at that, was Hillary Clinton. She was trounced by a 20+ point margin, which precludes the claim that it was an honorable defeat. She lost among all demographic sectors, including women, with only voters over 50 staying by her side. Among younger voters, she was completely wiped out.
Instead of sparking excitement at the prospect that she could become the nation’s first woman president, Clinton was viewed in New Hampshire as a symbol of a corrupt and decadent regime. Her loss ensures that the battle for the Democratic nomination will be longer and far bitterer than what party leaders had anticipated: the odds are still on her side, but far more equivocally than before. Invigorated by his victory, Sanders and his fans will now try to break down the walls that separate him from African Americans, without which, despite everything, his astounding drive will fail.
Trump’s big win, also by 20 points, ensures a long and bitter battle in the Republican Party as well. Ohio Governor John Kasich, who had already been written off by many analysts, can rightly be proud of his second place, but his image and positions still seem too moderate for the ultra-conservative GOP electorate that will set the tone in the upcoming primaries. The Republican establishment’s hopes that New Hampshire would yield a clear anti-Trump frontrunner that party stalwarts could unite around were dashed: Marco Rubio did not recover from his robotic glitch at Saturday night’s debate though his nemesis Chris Christie’s even poorer showing may have given him small consolation. Republican leaders might take a second look now at Jeb Bush, who had already been written off, as a last line of defense against Trump, whom they distrust, and Ted Cruz, whom they dislike. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are done, or should be, even if they don’t know it yet.
Sanders’ and Trump’s separate victories have much in common: They reflect Americans’ disgust with what they view as the dens of iniquity in Washington and the salons of sleaze in the political system; they express a general revulsion with laundered and bleached political jargon and a yearning for straight-talking, no holds barred politicians; they are a product of a popular uprising against the overbearing role of big money in politics and its predominance in economic life; and it is an outgrowth of good old waspish America’s trepidation that the country’s days as the world’s top honcho are over, as are the dreams of eternal personal gain.
Sanders and Trump both represent ideologies - or lack thereof, in Trump’s case - that significantly deviate from what was hitherto accepted as their party’s center of gravity. Sanders’ tax-the-rich “democratic socialism” is far to the left of both Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump, whose beliefs are hard to discern beyond his jingoistic and often racist rhetoric, is a foreign body in the hard-core conservative framework that was supposed to have defined the party in recent years. For many Republicans, Trump’s main attraction is that he is a go-getter and a winner who might succeed where the party’s chosen, both establishment and Tea Party, have so abjectly failed: in stopping Obama and reversing his gains.
Nonetheless, the similar backdrop to their extraordinary victories does not contradict the fact that Sanders and Trump couldn’t be more different or that their respective parties are growing farther apart. The exit polls showed that New Hampshire Republicans are growing more conservative while the state’s Democrats are much more liberal compared to four years ago. Trump’s supporters want to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S., as he suggests, and to deport all illegal immigrants as well. Sanders’ fans aren’t concerned so much with immigration as with income inequality and health care: unlike Clinton supporters, they don’t fret about an imminent terrorist attack either.
Trump is a player and an entertainer, some would say a charlatan, trying to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger who used their ease in front of camera and audiences to gain a foothold in politics. Trump shoots from the hip and takes no prisoners: the tone of his remarks is often much more persuasive than their substance. Sanders, on the other hand, is a serious kind of preacher-politician with solid ideological underpinnings of a species that was thought to be extinct: it’s easier to imagine him engaging in heated polemics in a Soviet Komsomol or a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz than to see him as an American idol of cool campus kids. Somehow his old world manners and his quaint devotion to revolutionary notions have turned him into a symbol, at the age of 74, of radical chic.
Nonetheless, his road ahead is far more complex than Trump’s: even if Sanders scores another upset at next Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, he will be hard pressed to overcome Clinton’s 30 point advantage in the party’s February 27 primaries in South Carolina. Then he’ll face Super Tuesday on March 1, in which 15 states, including seven southerners, will head for the polls on the same day. If Clinton doesn’t deliver a coup de grace under such favorable circumstances, Sanders’ candidacy will take off along with inevitable calls by party donors and insiders for the Joe Biden or John Kerry cavalry to register in those primaries still open in order to try and save the day.
Trump, on the other hand, is already leading in many of the upcoming states in which primaries will be held: after New Hampshire, his main and perhaps only rival seems to be Cruz. As long as Bush, Rubio, Kasich and perhaps Christie remain in the race together they will split the moderate vote and give Trump and Cruz a clear field to duel it out between them.
Nonetheless, even in the glow of their victory and the expected swing of the conventional wisdom in their favor, caution is advised. New Hampshire, as was often mentioned until the results came in, is a completely unrepresentative state, whiter, more home grown, far less poor and perhaps paranoid than many of the others. It has a dismal record in choosing future presidents: with the exceptions of incumbents Obama in 2012, George Bush in 2004 and Bill Clinton in 1996, the last time it chose a candidate who went on to become president was George H W Bush in 1988.
On the other hand, as Rachel Maddow pointed out on Tuesday night on MSNBC, no Republican has ever been elected president without having won either Iowa or New Hampshire. The former was won by Cruz, the latter was taken by Trump, so establishment Republicans will have to choose between the frying pan and the fire, or between bobkes and makes, as famous Yiddishist Leo Rosten would say. I’m sure Sanders’ “Polish father” would have understood.