America's post-New Hampshire madness: What you need to know about the state of the 2016 primaries

With Trump and Sanders securing huge victories in the Granite State, what comes next?

Published February 10, 2016 6:01PM (EST)

Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/David Becker/Randall Hil/Scott Morgan/Mark Kauzlarich)
Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/David Becker/Randall Hil/Scott Morgan/Mark Kauzlarich)

Finally we have come to the end of the quadrennial lunacy of giving the state of New Hampshire way, way, way, waaaaaay too much of a say -- relative to its tiny and homogenous population -- in choosing the next leader of the free world. Now we can turn our attention to warmer climes and the next two major primary contests: the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primaries.

There are many important questions about these two elections that will be answered over the next couple of weeks, such as: Will the contentious debate around South Carolina’s removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of its statehouse boost voter turnout amongst the seditious, anti-government Confederacy romanticists who vote Republican and still think parties like this are a good idea in the 21st century? Will South Carolina governor Nikki Haley earn herself some talk as a possible vice-presidential candidate despite her debilitating case of lockjaw? How much about the mindset of the Nevada public can campaign correspondents accurately report by exclusively hanging around the blackjack tables at the Venetian? (Kidding, campaign reporters! Love your work!)

Scouring my notebook from the few days I spent bouncing around New Hampshire, I came up with a handful of observations that could be important as candidates try to build on whatever momentum they bring with them out of the Granite State.

Of all the Republican candidates, the supporters of Ted Cruz have the most enthusiasm.

This seems odd, considering how difficult it was to find anyone who admitted to supporting the Texas senator. But of the town halls and rallies I attended, by far the loudest, most boisterous crowd was at a Cruz event in Nashua. (Granted I didn’t get to any Carly Fiorina events, but I feel safe in assuming, based on her public profile and visibility, her crowds don’t have nearly the fervor of Cruz’s.) It was a genuinely unsettling event.

By comparison, the voters at town halls for Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio all felt like window-shoppers strolling 5th Avenue before Saks has even finished putting up its Christmas displays.

The big question is, what is the ceiling for Cruz’s support? Will the fact that he is such an unlikable dick, disdained by nearly every human being who has ever spent more than three minutes in his company, be a factor with voters as time goes on, or will the conservatives continue pulling for the man because he pisses off every Republican in Washington? Are there enough terrified, bloodthirsty nativists in the GOP base who will be swayed by his appeals, and who will come to see him as more electable than Donald Trump?

Speaking of Trump, just how solid is his support?

Honestly, I have no idea. I couldn’t find anyone who supports the real-estate mogul. At his rally in Milford, some of the huge crowd started trickling out about 20 minutes into his speech, and they didn’t stop before the end. All of which made me wonder how much of his support is genuine, and how much of it is just people enjoying a show.

Of course, his resounding win in the primary last night complicated those observations.

There is still a big question about how organized Trump’s team will be in getting people out to caucus in Nevada. Can he turn out enough conservatives to counter the poor reception his anti-immigrant shtick will get in Nevada, with its large Latino population and his big-city gaucheness might get in the refined and genteel precincts of South Carolina? Or are there enough golfers in both states who will say, “Man can build a good course, why not hand him the codes to our nuclear arsenal?”

Hillary Clinton may not be in as much trouble as you think, but she has her work cut out for her.

Conventional wisdom has it that the New Hampshire electorate is one of the most favorable to Bernie Sanders. Whether that's enough to account for Sanders' impressive 22 point victory last night is another matter entirely.

Still, now that the campaign shifts to states with more diverse populations where loyalty to the Clintons runs deep, her chances of picking up delegates between now and 1esday improves quite a bit.

A quick story: Outside a Rubio town hall, I spoke to a couple of protesters from New York who were volunteers for the United Auto Workers. Neither one of them particularly disliked Clinton, though one did observe that dirt seems to follow her and her husband everywhere. But both acknowledged how historic an act it would be to elect the nation’s first female president, especially to succeed our first African-American chief executive. Neither man could point to anything in particular about Clinton or her positions that bothered them, other than what Gawker's Alex Pareene expressed the other day: That Hillary is not so much bought by a broken and terrible system so much as she has simply bought into it.

So if it comes down to it, both these guys were willing to support Clinton. But they were also likely going to go knock on doors for Bernie Sanders after the Rubio protest ended, and were likely going to support him when New York’s primary comes around.

Therein lies the problem for Hillary Clinton. She’s got her enthusiastic supporters, but she doesn’t have nearly as many believers. It’s partly because she’s pragmatic at a time when people who have been suffering and languishing and getting screwed in our economy can’t wait any longer for relief. College students, for example, are graduating in the next year or two or four with huge debts and poor job prospects, and Sanders seems to share their urgency about what they face.

But it might also be something as simple as Clinton’s time has passed her by. Her husband’s neoliberalism might have been the salve the Democratic Party needed in 1992 after getting knocked on its butt in three straight presidential elections. It might have brought the Democrats back to power in the '90s. And now, having served its purpose, and combined with the reactionary nature of the uncompromising and far-right Republicans, it might simply be time to retire the last vestiges of the Third Way. And that includes the candidate who still espouses it, even if her policy positions are well to the left of the party’s 20 years ago.

In this case, Clinton is trying to fight the tides of history. Maybe the loyalty of much of the Democratic Party and a large chunk of its base can overcome them, but it’s going to take a large lift.

Like screenwriter William Goldman once said about Hollywood, nobody knows anything.

It’s possible this is the point that negates the previous 1,100 words of this column. But if there was ever a primary season in American history that illustrated Goldman’s thesis, it’s this one.

By Gary Legum

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