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US 2016: Life after New Hampshire primary

World

World

US 2016: Life after New Hampshire primary

Now that the New Hampshire primary for 2016 is history, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at what it meant and what it may portend for the rest of the electoral race for the American presidency this year.

America is now well and truly into its 2016 presidential electoral cycle as New Hampshire held the nation’s first primary election on Tuesday, 9 February. All of the rest of the primaries and caucuses across the nation now follow, with many bunched together in just three days in March.

Like Iowa (the site for a voters’ caucus and the first test of support for candidates), New Hampshire is not a demographic model of America. It is mostly white, with minority populations numbering just five percent.

It is also on the decidedly small-sized in population terms; population just over a million. In that sense, with Iowa and New Hampshire combined, only around one per cent of the country has yet exercised any say in who will be Barack Obama’s successor in the White House, come noon on 20 January, 2017.

That said, these limited, initial results are already sufficient to give some impression of where this year’s electoral process is taking America. Among Republican voters, New Hampshire delivered big time for that bombastic, Narcissus of a reality show TV star and property developer businessman, Donald Trump.

Once all the votes were counted, his vote total left his many challengers largely in the dust. Interestingly, the Iowa caucus victor, Senator Ted Cruz, and the third place finisher there, Senator Marco Rubio, were both outpaced in New Hampshire by Ohio Governor John Kasich. Kasich’s campaign had been rumored to be ready to throw in the towel if their candidate did not do well in New Hampshire. In his campaign appearances, Kasich tried to present himself as a moderate conservative – a can-do, let’s all be adults here, let’s keep it civil candidate who is trapped in a room of middle-aged, squabbling, unruly children.

Coming in second to Donald Trump, Ohio Governor Kasich did unexpectedly well in New Hampshire, according to analysts, by carrying out a full-scale, semi-old style New Hampshire campaign, winning his votes one-by-one in a demonstration of that state’s “retail” style politics. As a candidate, Kasich had virtually moved there for the past several months, where he spoke at innumerable coffee “klatches” in private homes, in drop-bys at small restaurants and diners across the state, and in dozens of face-to-face encounters with small groups of voters interested in interrogating the candidates, up close and personal.

It is often explained that New Hampshire voters have historically liked to see their choices up really work hard before the citizens make up their minds on who to vote for – thereby taking their civic duty seriously as the first real vetting of potential presidents – and Kasich did his campaigning just that way, with a footnote. His retail politics were joined with some state-of-the-art computer modeling and contact tracking of the potential voter pool to help maximize the use of his time in reaching potential supporters. Based on the results of the Republican side of the ballot that emerged, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie “suspended” their campaigning efforts as funds run out and the enthusiasm about their bids waned.

Somewhat surprisingly, Marco Rubio did rather poorly in New Hampshire, something that had not been expected to be the case in the days that came right after the Iowa caucus with his strong third place finish.

There was a sense among a growing number of pundits, analysts and GOP activists that he could be “the one.” The smart money was beginning to say he could be that hoped for centre-right figure around whom Republicans could finally rally if they were repelled by Ted Cruz’s hard edged evangelical fervour and right-wing positions, or if Donald Trump’s in-your-face, chest thumping, nativist populism kept one up all night in a cold sweat.

But the governors, particularly led by Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, hammered Rubio, forcing him into a televised error of stupefying proportions as he repeated a line, word for word, meant to be a put down of the other candidates by way of a backhanded swipe at Barack Obama, four separate times during a final pre-New Hampshire vote debate. This led to his being seen as something of an empty suit by some voters, with nothing but memorized stump speech rhetoric to hand as he joined the debate.

Among Democrats, now with only two competitors remaining, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders devastated his competitor, former Secretary of State, former New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sanders’ victory was sufficiently comprehensive among Democrats that he seems to have won in virtually every demographic category of voters, based on exit polling and other follow-up surveying.

Sanders had been expected to do well given that he comes from the neighbouring state of Vermont, but the scale of this win has now taken some significant energy out of the Clinton juggernaut (including being “out fundraised” by Sanders) – at least until the results from the next primary, in South Carolina’s on 20 February, are in place.

South Carolina’s demographic profile, at least among Democratic voters, includes a big block of African Americans and relatively poorer people. It has been expected that this would be a much more favorable ground for a Clinton victory- or so the conventional wisdom has gone. Given how things happened in New Hampshire, even these bets have been hedged.

Clinton now must convert this hypothetical result in South Carolina into a real victory – and thus gain or regain some momentum or traction in order to be ready for the major bunching of primaries, largely in the South and Midwest that will come along in the first fifteen days of March. She must achieve that, lest her battle with Bernie Sanders descend into the political equivalent of a war of attrition and the possibility she becomes a sufficiently bloodied candidate in a pyrrhic nomination victory that poisons her chances in November in the general election (assuming she is even the eventual winner). Sanders’ task is now simpler than before New Hampshire. In gaining delegates, even if not necessarily straightforward wins in the primaries, he continues his momentum of being seen as a legitimate candidate, capable of winning support across the nation in spite of the initial improbableness of his candidacy.

The Democratic primaries largely split delegates won along proportional lines from the voting and so a close second place finish in a primary can still result in a substantial delegate haul for the loser. (It should be noted, however, that Clinton has already garnered pledges from a significant share of the “super delegates” – office holders and other party figures – now built into the Democratic Party’s delegate total for the nominating convention, and so her delegate count at this early stage would still put her in the lead.)

Although it remains very early days, given the growing possibility the two parties could end up nominating Donald Trump to face Bernie Sanders – two distinctly older white guys originally from New York City – former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken to making more noises about running as a third party or independent candidate for the presidency. His first comments about this came out the weekend of the “Snowzilla” blizzard that had paralyzed much of the Northeast, from Washington to New York City.

Given his enormous wealth, he would be able to self-finance his own campaign entirely and Bloomberg aides have already intimated he might be prepared to invest a billion dollars of his own money in such an effort. Bloomberg has decried the outrageousness of either of those two men and is apparently now trying to position himself as the sane alternative to a wild man with a serious narcissism complex and an infantile approach to public policy on the one hand, and a messianic dreamer for the impractical, outrageously expensive political revolution that would somehow wipe away all the foul odours in politics that emanate from the corruptions of big money.

In practical terms, the Bloomberg team has determined that they must make a go/no go decision by mid to late March in order to get the would-be candidate listed on the ballots of every state, given the intricacies of gaining entry to those ballots. Some states impose major hurdles such as petitions signed by a certain number of registered voters from each county, for example, and that requires some serious organization and a real sense of urgency once, or if, they decide to go forward. If he gets in the race, which would, interestingly, make it three older men with New York ties in the race. (And Hillary Clinton would be a fourth if she somehow found her own way onto the ballot and Trump, Sanders and Bloomberg were there as well.)

American history is littered with the remains of unlucky third party candidates, usually hived off of one of the two major parties in an ideological split. Given the first past the post/winner take all system of gaining electoral votes for victory one state at a time, the road for a third party candidacy is a tough one. In reality, the only one that really seems to have worked out well was the election of 1860, as Abraham Lincoln gained the presidency with a minority of popular votes (but a majority of those electoral votes) as the Democrats split into two halves – a northern fragment that remained ambivalent about slavery and a southern portion that pushed for its survival and a struggling Whig Party, now rechristened the Constitutional Union Party, that had argued for a delay in any decisions about slavery until national tempers had cooled. That election was the death knell for the Whigs, and the Democrats failed to win a presidential election again until Grover Cleveland succeeded towards the end of the 19th century.

As a final comment, while it is easy to caricature Trump and Sanders, it should be noted that both men have succeeded so far in significant measure because they have positioned themselves as outsiders to politics as usual who will fulfill the hopes of voters – a new version of Clinton’s old “The Man from Hope” perhaps. In Trump’s case it is, of course, a mixture of both hopes and fears. In among all the slurs and smirking obscenities, there is the hope that he can make America a winner again and the strongest nation on Earth that others will tremble at the feet of, as well as that major dollop of fear over Chinese/Muslim/Mexican hordes massing just over the horizon for the invasion to come.

And in Sanders’ case, it is the hope he can rid politics of its money pollution and the malign influence of the big banks and Wall Street, even as he offers the hope of a new dispensation on national health care, reprieves from student university debt, improvements in the minimum wage and the possibilities of a Swedish-style welfare state in his political revolution. Sadly for Hillary Clinton, she is left with arguing that she is a moderate progressive or a progressive moderate who can get limited changes done because she knows how to game the system.

The rest of the Republican challengers – Cruz, Rubio, Christie, Bush, et al – are left to figure out how their version of the American dream differs from any of those would-be Camelots on the Potomac already on offer. With all of this on display, one can see why someone like Michael Bloomberg would entertain his late night dreams after a lifetime of building a humongous fortune and a major business empire, running the intricacies of New York City and dispensing good works through his foundation.

There’s a lot more to come. DM

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts on stage during his victory speech at his 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary night rally in Manchester, New Hampshire February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Bourg.

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