New Hampshire’s populist primal scream

     From left: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in August 2015; Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in October 2015. (AP Photo, file)

    From left: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in August 2015; Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in October 2015. (AP Photo, file)

    What a wild night in New Hampshire! In the words of one political reporter, “The voters sent a powerful anti-Washington message.” A xenophobic Republican demagogue “stoked citizen anger against the inside-the-Beltway establishment, loudly invoking the ’30s populism of Huey Long.” The triumphant candidate fed off the “anxieties” of his fans. He “speaks his mind and damns the consequences.”

    I wrote that on primary night in New Hampshire — 20 years ago. In February 1996, when the Republican winner was red-meat uber-nationalist Pat Buchanan.

    I guess that’s my way of saying that we’ve heard Granite State primal screams before, and that the disgrace of last night’s Donald Trump triumph may hopefully prove ephemeral. I also take comfort in the fact that Trump’s final vote total — it’s roughly 100,000 — won’t come close to the all-time Republican record (John McCain’s 115,606 in the 2000 contest), and barelky topped establishment fave Mitt Romney’s 97,591 four years ago. And he was dwarfed last night in total votes by Bernie Sanders, who, on the Democratic side, finished with 151,000 — an all-time record for any New Hampshire primary.

    But.

    A win is truly a win when you’ve topped your Republican foe by 19 points; there’s no denying the dominance of “the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory.” Commentator Ezra Klein wrote that overnight, and kudos to him, because you didn’t hear that kind of reality check on TV when the returns were rolling in. The talking heads tend to sprinkle triumphalist fairy dust on whoever finishes first, and so, sure enough, Trump was typically described last night as “a New York real estate” guy, as opposed to what he really is.

    Take it away, Ezra:

    He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying.

    Yet the Republican primary voters chose to honor this dangerous character — across the board. According to the exit polls, Trump topped all the categories, finishing first among the “very conservative,” the “somewhat conservative,” the “moderate,” and the non-Republican independents who chose to join the primary. He finished first in all income categories. He finished first among the ill-educated and the college-educated.

    Oh, and there’s this: A plurality of Republican primary voters said Trump was the candidate they’d trust most to handle an international crisis. They actually want to give this guy the nuclear football. If there’s one piece of evidence that best demonstrates grassroots distrust of the GOP establishment, this is it.

    And if it appears that the Republican voters are lurching to the raging right, it also seems (if New Hampshire is any guide) that the Democrats are moving further leftward. To quote W. B. Yeats, “The center cannot hold.” Bernie buried Hillary Clinton so badly that when Bill came on stage with her last night, he looked as if he could barely keep himself vertical. Bernie won the non-Democratic independents by 45 points. He won “moderate” voters by 19 points. He even won women by 11 points. And, except for the oldest age cohort, he won registered Democrats. They were supposed to be Hillary’s strength.

    We’ll see how well Bernie does when he moves to the southern primaries (South Carolina, Feb. 27), where, unlike in New Hampshire, a huge share of registered Democrats are black — black voters have been loyal to the Clintons since the ’90s — but the fairy dust of victory can only help him. However you slice and dice Iowa and New Hampshire, it appears that the Democrats are bracing for a long slog. Hillary’s team is already saying this, in a memo that was released to the press in an attempt to say, in effect, that, hey, the tie in Iowa and the wipeout in New Hampshire are no big deal.

    A key passage from the memo:

    It’s important to understand why the campaign is investing so much time, energy and resources in states with primaries and caucuses in March. The reason is simple: while important, the first four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina) represent just 4% of the delegates needed to secure the nomination; the 28 states that vote (or caucus) in March will award 56% of the delegates needed to win. And whereas the electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire are largely rural/suburban and predominantly white, the March states better reflect the true diversity of the Democratic Party and the nation — including large populations of voters who live in big cities and small towns, and voters with a much broader range of races and religions. The nomination will very likely be won in March, not February, and we believe that Hillary Clinton is well positioned to build a strong — potentially insurmountable — delegate lead next month.

    So, another slog. It feels like 2008 all over again.

    It’s hard to know whether Republicans will tread a similar path. The other “winner” last night was John Kasich, the Ohio governor, who finished a strong second. But he’s short of funds and South Carolina voters, on Feb. 20, might not love his decision to participate in the Obamacare Medicaid expansion program. Jeb Bush finished a tepid fourth last night, but he’ll soldier on because he still has the money and because South Carolina has long been a Bush family firewall (1988 for his dad, 2000 for his brother). And Marco Rubio will still be around, hoping to survive his fifth place finish and his debate humiliation.

    Which means there are still three “establishment” candidates in the race. Problem is, if they keep divvying up the sane non-Trump electorate, the easier it will be for the demagogue to march onward. And the sane non-Trump electorate will arguably be small in South Carolina, because Ted Cruz will be in the mix for the sizable evangelical vote. (As for Chris Christie, the other “establishment” candidate, doomsday has arrived. He finished a wretched sixth last night, and now he’s back in Jersey trying to decide whether he’s DOA or toast.)

    One caveat about last night: The last three presidents — Obama, W, Bill — all lost the New Hampshire primary. They all finished second, and recouped down the road. So it’s possible that a Trump-Sanders faceoff will never happen. I stoked that hope last night when Trump came out to preen in triumph, with his phony tan or whatever that was. (I’ve eaten orange sherbet that has less artificial color than his face.) At one point, he previewed what he would say in an autumn race. He said of Bernie Sanders, “He wants to give away our country!”

    And so the sliming begins. For that, we can thank New Hampshire’s primal screamers. To tweak the immortal words of Marco Rubio, “Let’s dispense with the fiction that they don’t know what they’re doing. They know exactly what they’re doing.”

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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