Last night, New Hampshire shook up the presidential race and roiled what were already less-than-calm waters, in both the Democratic Party and the GOP. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks a lot weaker than she did a few weeks ago. Republicans, meanwhile, are having to finally come to grips with a fact that’s been staring them in the face for months: Donald Trump is indeed their frontrunner, and he might actually win their party’s nomination.
Let’s take the Republicans first. The head-in-the-sand-ism that many establishment Republicans have been engaging in since last summer is now officially over. The fantasy that “Trump will collapse — it’s inevitable” never actually came to pass, guys. Get over it. There was even a secondary myth that also lies on the ground in tatters: Trump would drop out of the race in a sulk if he lost Iowa or any other state. Um, no, that didn’t happen either — instead, Trump stayed in the race and won New Hampshire. In the midst of all this myth-busting, things have actually gotten even worse for the establishment guys. Not only is Trump leading the party, but the guy solidly in second place is even less acceptable to the party bigwigs. And they can’t even figure out who should be in third place to challenge Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. That’s a pretty disheveled state of affairs. In fact, Machiavelli would be rolling on the floor with laughter over this spectacle, were he still alive. No wonder many of the GOP establishment have been choosing to ignore this reality for so long — it’s certainly easier to pretend it’ll all magically go away somehow.
Two more Republican candidates are exiting the race today, as Carly Fiorina has already dropped out and Chris Christie is expected to officially do so very soon. Two other Republicans really should hang up their spurs as well, but probably won’t. Ben Carson is now (probably literally) praying for a South Carolina miracle, and Jim Gilmore apparently just likes seeing his name on primary ballots — whether anyone chooses him or not.
This leaves three viable contenders for the “save us from Trump and Cruz” lane of the party. Marco Rubio placed third in Iowa. John Kasich placed second in New Hampshire. Jeb Bush still has oodles of other people’s money to waste. So none of these three candidates will be giving up any time soon (at least until after the Super Tuesday votes are counted). The fact that there are still three of them, however, will work against their ultimate goal of defeating Trump and Cruz. The three remaining non-Trump non-Cruz candidates are going to be squabbling with each other instead of attacking either frontrunner. Since the voters are split between the three, it’ll take that much longer to coalesce around any one of them. At this point, Kasich is probably the strongest of the three still left standing, because he hasn’t had a debate meltdown and his last name is not “Bush.” But he is definitely not running the strongest campaign, and will need to siphon off some big donors from either Bush or Rubio to have much chance in the states going forward.
The longer all this takes to play out, the stronger Trump and Cruz get. Trump is unquestionably the strongest candidate right now, having chalked up a second-place finish and a solid win. But Cruz isn’t that far behind, as he out-performed expectations in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He wasn’t supposed to win Iowa, and he wasn’t supposed to do as well as third in New Hampshire. This could be because his ground game is a lot better than most reporters have noticed. If he can continue beating expectations through Super Tuesday, then he’ll be the biggest challenger to Trump throughout March.
Trump, meanwhile, is riding high. Not only did he win New Hampshire solidly, he got twice the votes that (second-place) Kasich did. This margin, of course, is yuuuuge. So far, Trump has been able to turn voters out to the polls by ignoring all the “conventional wisdom” rules about how to do so. He hasn’t spent a whole lot on advertising, and he continues to rely on the fly-in, fly-out giant rally rather than attempting the “retail politics” that all the other campaigns are slogging through. His voters are (to a large extent) both committed and enthusiastic. And the South (where many early March primaries will happen) seems almost custom-fit for Trump’s persona. Trump is also enjoying a kind of immunity from attacks, since everyone else in the race now seems determined to attack each other harder than they’re attacking Trump. This probably won’t last, but it certainly helps Trump in the meantime.
Turning to the Democrats, Hillary Clinton just had a very bad night. She lost the two-person New Hampshire race by over 22 points. This was a bigger margin than many were expecting — indeed, it was the biggest margin in any Democratic New Hampshire primary, ever. Even Clinton’s stock excuse (“Bernie’s from the state next door, so of course he was always going to win”) doesn’t bear up to historical examination, when you consider that Howard Dean lost New Hampshire to John Kerry.
Clinton lost almost every demographic measured. She lost among women, even. Bernie Sanders got 84 percent of the young-Iowan vote, and 85 percent of the youth of New Hampshire. Those are stunning numbers. But Clinton is in no way down for the count, at this point. One state (and a small one, at that) simply does not determine the nominee. The Clinton campaign is counting on her doing much better than Sanders among minorities, and they may turn out to be right.
The next state for Democrats is Nevada, with a large percentage of Latino voters. Clinton’s edge with Latinos has never been as large as her edge with African-Americans, and Latinos who are for Clinton are less committed to her than other supporters. This means Bernie has a chance of convincing Latinos to vote for him next Saturday. He’ll have to make the case fairly quickly, but the other thing that Bernie’s got going for him is the fact that there are a lot of Union members in Nevada. Hillary already got the S.E.I.U. to endorse her, but there are a lot of pro-Bernie supporters among the rank-and-file Union voters. His agenda is a lot closer to what they want to see done, after all. So Bernie Sanders has a decent shot at doing well in Nevada.
South Carolina may be his toughest challenge, though. Clinton’s African-American support so far shows no signs of defection, although it’s anyone’s guess what will happen now that Bernie has a solid win under his belt. African-Americans took a while to flock to Barack Obama, mostly because they really didn’t think he had a believable chance of winning. Once he started winning primaries, they became convinced. That could happen this time around with Bernie, or it could fail to materialize. Everyone’s going to be watching the South Carolina polling very closely over the next few days, to see if any signs of such movement are detectable.
Bernie Sanders had a very good night last night. But it could turn out to be his biggest night of the entire campaign. Sanders supporters would do well to contemplate this possibility. Hillary Clinton learned one lesson from her 2008 defeat, and she learned it well. She has already locked down an enormous amount of the superdelegates to the convention. Even if Bernie stays neck-and-neck with her throughout the primary season, Clinton may still be the party’s nominee. In fact, she is still the prohibitive favorite, even with the impressive Sanders victory last night.
To put this another way, Sanders needed to win last night. Clinton really didn’t. No matter how Nevada and South Carolina go, Sanders will also need to win multiple states on Super Tuesday. He does have a path to get there, and it’s a lot more solid a path than it was last week. But he’s got to show improvement among minority voters to get there, while holding on to the demographics who are already “feeling the Bern.”
Democrats are going to get a real race, now that Bernie won New Hampshire and essentially tied Hillary in Iowa. There will be no coronation. But here’s the thing — no matter which candidate you prefer, a hard primary season will probably help the eventual nominee get stronger before the general election gets going. Remember 2008? By the time Barack Obama and John McCain faced off, Hillary had already hit Obama hard on several fronts — which allowed him to brush off similar attacks from McCain, later. The same will likely happen this time around too. Hillary Clinton has already tacked in a noticeably more populist direction due to Bernie’s continuing popularity with the party’s base, and if Bernie Sanders thinks Bill and Hillary are now “throwing the kitchen sink” at him, just imagine what the Republicans are going to heave in his direction. Whether Hillary or Bernie ultimately stands on the stage at the convention to accept the nomination, they’ll likely have thicker skins when they get there.
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