Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New Hampshire: Some Things We Learned Last Night

1. The importance of televised debates in presidential nominations, a distinctive characteristic of the 2012 Republican race, has reasserted itself this time around. It is likely that any non-disastrous debate performance last Saturday by Marco Rubio would have guaranteed him at least a third-place finish in New Hampshire and might have put him in the position to battle John Kasich for second place behind Trump. In either case, a sympathetic press corps would have given him positive coverage heading into the next stage of the race while buzzards would have circled around the Jeb Bush campaign. Instead, Rubio wound up placing fifth—albeit only one percentage point behind both Bush and Ted Cruz—and will face serious pressure to bounce back in South Carolina, while Bush lives on to fight another day.

2. The ideologically and stylistically moderate Yankee Republican vote has not completely disappeared in New Hampshire, to Kasich's temporary advantage. However, it will be difficult for Kasich to replicate his performance in the very different electorates of South Carolina and Nevada.

3. Trump continues to be a polarizing figure within the party, with significant proportions of Republicans voicing a dislike for him or reluctance to support him if he were to be the nominee. Yet Cruz and Bush also face resistance from a substantial fraction of Republican voters, and less than half of New Hampshire Republicans told exit pollsters that they would feel satisfied with a Rubio nomination. At the moment, none of the leading Republican candidates engenders broadly positive feelings within the party electorate.

4. Bernie Sanders's bigger-than-expected victory on the Democratic side does not dislodge Hillary Clinton from her position as the heavy favorite for the nomination. Yet it does signal that Sanders will be a serious competitor, perhaps extending the nomination race far into the spring. It is likely that the Clinton campaign will retool its message—Clinton's concession speech in New Hampshire appeared to foreshadow exactly such a development—to echo Sanders's anti-Wall Street themes while simultaneously appealing much more directly to the major social groups within the Democratic coalition, especially racial minorities.

5. Relatedly, Clinton is also likely to hug Obama even tighter (rhetorically speaking, that is) in the coming weeks. The Sanders campaign would be wise to prepare for repeated accusations that it represents a rebuke to the policies—and even the character—of the current incumbent. A race that turns into a referendum on Obama would not be in its strategic interest.

6. The Democratic Party is probably only a few years away from becoming a majority-minority party (about 45 percent of Obama's votes in 2012 were supplied by non-white citizens). After this election, there is likely to be a serious internal challenge within the Democratic National Committee to the privileged status enjoyed by Iowa and New Hampshire in the presidential nomination process, on the grounds that the heavily white electorates of those two states do not adequately represent the party as a whole. This effort may not succeed (Iowa and New Hampshire have beaten back threats to their dominance before), but it's hard to believe that the issue won't be raised. Even some Republican leaders may be sympathetic to a reform of the calendar, given the victories of outsider candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in the first two events of the nomination season this year, though changes to Republican party rules are much more procedurally difficult to implement.