In a North Country snowstorm, when the winds howl down from the notches, the people of New Hampshire know how to communicate. They don’t whisper. They shout. And the shout that roared down from the hills to the cities, the seacoast and the anxious nation beyond the state’s natural boundaries had an unmistakable message: Outsiders rule, or at least should rule.
But as clear as that message was — it carried businessman Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders to decisive New Hampshire primary triumphs — there was a strong undertone to the raging tempest. It suggested that while New Hampshire had decided, one of the things that it had decided is that there were far more decisions to be made.
For the Democrats, that didn’t mean that Sanders, who as a socialist is an outsider’s outsider, has a lock on the Democratic presidential nomination. It meant merely that he had the combination — three turns to the left, one to the right, four more turns to the left — to the hearts of the contemporary Democratic Party. For the Republicans, it meant that Trump had discovered and captured a powerful sense of rebellion that even the establishment Republicans who performed well in New Hampshire must in the next several weeks heed and harness.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still must be regarded as the favorite for the Democrats’ August prize, but her slight victory in Iowa combined with her devastating defeat in New Hampshire is a sure sign that her campaign lacks the profile and passion expected or required of a front-runner.
Indeed, Clinton’s performance put her on the low, losing side of a landslide, for the margin that Sanders built against a once-inevitable candidate was roughly the size of the 1972 Richard Nixon defeat of Sen. George McGovern, a candidate for whom Clinton campaigned.
The signs behind her as she gave her concession speech read “Fighting for you,” but clearly the message for Clinton is that she has to fight for herself to regain the momentum — which, with Southern contests now beckoning, is within her gasp.
And, for the Republicans, the (relatively) strong showings of Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida are fresh signals that, while Trump has won the heart of many Republican rebels, these two men — with extensive executive experience and robust establishment credentials — still have a claim on the GOP’s head. The struggle in the Republican Party, which still includes Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who won the Iowa caucuses, is one between insurrectionists and insiders.
In the months to come, Tuesday’s verdict will be lost in memory’s fog, though if Kasich manages to win the Republican nomination, it will be remembered as the turning point. But New Hampshire certainly will be remembered as the humbling hour of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who, in an unforgettable weekend debate confrontation with Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, was revealed to have a political persona as thin as the glaze on a Coos County windshield on a frosty February morning.
For only eight days earlier, Rubio, after delivering a remarkable Iowa speech that somehow transformed a third-place finish into a near triumph, was regarded as the candidate with the highest ceiling. Yet from the start, Rubio was an awkward if not a bad fit for the Granite State. Earlier in the campaign, a reporter for The Conway Daily Sun, up in the Mount Washington Valley, compared listening to Rubio to “watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points,” adding: “He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play.”
The night surely belonged to the unlikely couple of Trump and Sanders, but it also belonged to Kasich, who ran a classic New Hampshire campaign, even forgoing six of the seven final days before the Iowa caucuses to campaign in the small towns, fraternal lodges, church basements and college-commons rooms of the state.
“Six months ago, nobody knew who John Kasich was in New Hampshire,” said former Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, who introduced Kasich to the state, accompanied him to its farthest corners and helped organize his get-out-the-vote effort. “Three months ago, no one took him seriously. But tonight he has changed this campaign. It tells you that there still is room for a responsible conservative with a humane heart.”
But that message also belonged to Bush, who, bloodied and bowed in Iowa, fought back in New Hampshire and won, if not a primary, then an exit visa from the Granite State to the contests that follow. That may not seem like much, but only 24 hours earlier it was no sure thing. In fact, it might have seemed unrealistic.
It turned out that Bush, punished for months for being a foil to Trump, profited by that profile in New Hampshire. In a Twitter message, he taunted the billionaire, saying: “You aren’t just a loser, you are a liar and a whiner.” Trump dismissed his rival as having a “breakdown” and being “an embarrassment to his family,” some prominent members of which (former President George W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush, the candidate’s mother) jumped into the New Hampshire fight.
Cruz was unable to match his Iowa performance, but that was more adherence to form than a break from custom. Four years ago, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania won the Iowa caucuses only to finish in single digits in New Hampshire. Cruz, who, like Santorum, profited from the support of religious conservatives in Iowa, now points to South Carolina, where that constituency is a powerful force.
Sanders, in his victory speech, spoke with derision of “the political and economic establishment of this country,” the very same target at which Cruz and Trump have taken aim.
For months, that establishment was on the defensive, and in the Republican Party it nearly disappeared. It remains in retreat even in the Democratic Party, for, despite all her groundbreaking work in previous decades, Clinton today is hampered by an establishment profile. There is now no question what these nomination fights have become. They are a referendum on the past several decades of both parties.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.