The New Hampshire earthquake: Trump and Sanders vs. the laws of political probability

Remember when it seemed like party leaders had things nicely wrapped up for 2016? Those days are over

Published February 19, 2016 10:59AM (EST)

Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump   (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Carlos Barria/Photo montage by Salon)
Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Carlos Barria/Photo montage by Salon)

Six months ago the party elites had everything wrapped up, nice and tidy. On the Republican side, Jeb Bush raised an eye-popping $120 million right out of the box. A long parade of the best and the brightest conservatives waited in the wings if he faltered. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton touted one of the most impressive résumés in decades and awaited coronation over token opposition.

Now, the New Hampshire earthquake: two parties in full rebellion – against their own leaders, against the laws of political probability. Start on the Republican side. Donald Trump won almost every demographic and almost every precinct in New Hampshire. The Republican establishment is horrified. Why? It’s a lot more than his reality show bombast.

Trump exposes a deep rift between Republican orthodoxy and Republican voters. He’s a fire-breathing populist shouting out that the system – the great, proud American capitalist system—is rigged. Trump blithely commits the primal conservative heresy: He disparages the rich more than he disparages the government. Goodbye, party of Reagan.

Worse, the Republicans have long been, sotto voce, the White People’s Party.  Over the last nine elections the Democrats have averaged just 39 percent of the white vote in presidential elections. The Republicans have artfully managed to tend the racial divide with winks and nods. Trump, scorning political correctness, offers blasts of unapologetic racial and ethnic vitriol – precisely as the United States hurtles toward its majority-minority destiny. Goodbye, party of Lincoln.

And it really is different this time. For the first time in American history, the parties have sorted themselves by race – minorities and immigrants in one, native white Americans in the other. And here’s Donald Trump, shrugging, throwing caution to the wind and saying it all out loud.

The Republican establishment searches for a non-Trump with increasing desperation. Coming out of Iowa it was Marco Rubio. Until he quite incredibly embraced the negative rap his rivals were trying to pin on him – scripted, inauthentic, not ready for prime time—by repeating the same line four times in one debate. The great question for Republicans after New Hampshire: Can anyone stop Trump?

Over on the Democratic side, authenticity is giving the party elites heartburn. Bernie Sanders won all nine New Hampshire counties by margins ranging from 15 percent to a whopping 41 percent. Populism on the left matches populism on the right.

Many Democratic leaders like Sanders’ message about economic inequality. What they don’t like is the memory of defeat. Between 1968 and 1992 (skipping the anomalous Watergate election) the Democrats managed to win Electoral College votes of 191, 17, 48, 13, 111 (it takes 270). Bernie Sanders reminds the gray hairs of those years in the wilderness. They believe – incorrectly, but that’s a story for another day -- that voters punished the Democrats for zigging too far leftward.

Can Sanders win the nomination? He still faces two formidable barriers: the skeptical non-white voters who comprise 40 percent of the party. And the 712 unelected party “super delegates” – who were empowered precisely to avoid quixotic candidates. The only way to win them over is to, well, keep winning big.

Oddly, the New Hampshire results look more familiar from a distance. European elections vibrate over rising inequality, immigration fears, dispossessed young people, and the occasional bombastic media mogul. Come to think of it, that’s just what Rubio kept saying and saying: Watch out, we’re becoming European.

James Morone is a professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, as well as the director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. 

By James A. Morone

MORE FROM James A. Morone

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Donald Trump