Bernie breaks the primary system, and other takeaways from New Hampshire

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, with his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders, arrives to at a primary night election rally in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 11. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, with his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders, arrives to at a primary night election rally in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 11. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It has never been part of his platform, but Bernie Sanders may be able to take credit for ending the tradition of giving Iowa and New Hampshire the power to choose presidential nominees. After getting 26.5 percent of the popular vote in the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Sanders won the New Hampshire primary with 25.7 percent—a bit less than the 27.3 percent Pat Buchanan got in winning the Republican primary there in 1996. (Mr. Buchanan did not win a single primary after that.) Mr. Sanders is the shakiest frontrunner since Iowa and New Hampshire staked out the front of the line, and complaints about the power of two rural, overwhelmingly white states to determine presidential nominees may finally reach a tipping point.

Mr. Sanders may take the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29 (the first contest with a mostly nonwhite electorate), and he may increase his winning percentages as other candidates fade away, but New Hampshire has not been as conclusive as it has in the past. Still it has provided some insights about politics in 2020.

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1. The two-party system is straining at its seams. For the past century, the Democratic Party has been committed to two principles. First, there must be only two viable political parties in the United States; second, neither one of these parties can be socialist. (Until 2016, the Republican Party was also committed to two principles: There must be only two viable parties and neither one can be overtly white nationalist.)

So the Democratic establishment is not happy with Mr. Sanders’s rise or the emergence of a socialist voting bloc. Throughout the 20th century, socialists ran outside the Democratic Party and considered it a success to get 1 percent of the vote. But the financial crisis of 2008 seems to have both energized the socialist movement and given it the savviness to recognize that its only route to power is through a takeover of the Democratic Party. This is a rude surprise to party leaders who had hoped for a united center-left opposition to President Trump. But in working to preserve a two-party system (often by keeping other parties off the ballot or out of debates), it can be said, the Democrats brought this dilemma on themselves.

In working to preserve a two-party system, it can be said, the Democrats brought this dilemma on themselves.

Other than Mr. Sanders, the most high-profile leader of the socialist movement is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congresswoman from New York, who recently told New York magazine, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” Indeed, just yesterday Ms. Ocasio-Cortez got a challenger in her own Democratic primary later this year: former CNBC host Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, the author of the book You Know I’m Right: More Prosperity, Less Government.

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The Republican Party has capitulated to Mr. Trump, but the Democratic Party has a choice: Embrace a transformation to a European-style leftist party (the preferred option of the party’s younger half) or work toward a reform of the electoral system that gives a socialist party the chance to win some political offices.

2. No one knows what a majority of the party wants—or will settle for. A couple of years ago, it seemed a fairly easy task to stop a Sanders takeover of the Democratic Party: The party could unite behind his strongest competitor. But the stop-Sanders movement may be divided between Democratic voters who generally support his platform (but don’t think he can win) and Democrats who genuinely oppose the party’s shift to the left.

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That means the mix of social progress and fiscal responsibility is no longer the unifying message it was for Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. It may be impossible to assemble an anti-Sanders coalition from supporters of Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Mike Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. For example, though Mr. Buttigieg seems to arouse the most antipathy among Sanders supporters, his base is not exactly conservative: New Hampshire exit polls indicate that he finished second, with 22 percent, among voters who favor a “government [health care] plan for all instead of private insurance,” and a Pew Research Center survey found that 48 percent of Mr. Buttigieg’s supporters believe that government should “provide more assistance to the needy.”

The mix of social progress and fiscal responsibility is no longer the unifying message it was for Barack Obama or Bill Clinton.

The Democratic Party may be moving left, but if Mr. Sanders ends the primary season with only a plurality of delegates but not a majority, there is still a good argument that he should not get the nomination. That is, it would be undemocratic to change the party platform so radically without the support of most of its voters. The Sanders campaign will surely argue that “first is first,” but it was never the intention of the architects of the primary system to eliminate the party convention as a decision-making body.

Also: There is still a widespread perception that socialism is not compatible with small-d democratic principles, so a Bolshevik insistence that a more disciplined minority should prevail over a more diffuse majority may provoke a backlash against the Democrats in November.

3. Sanders is not Trump…yet. Some Sanders supporters correctly point out that Donald Trump was not taken seriously by the pundits in early 2016, so they may be similarly underestimating Mr. Sanders. It should be noted that Mr. Trump won the New Hampshire primary by 19 points, not two, and was well ahead in national polls at the time, so the comparison may not hold up. And neither Iowa nor New Hampshire demonstrated Mr. Sanders’s ability to turn out many new voters. (CNN reports that a record number of votes were cast in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, but it surely helped that there was no competitive Republican primary this year.)

But one reason for Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 was that he identified one issue—immigration—where almost all of his competitors were out of step with Republican primary voters. Mr. Sanders has his own signature issue, health care (specifically, Medicare for All), where almost all his competitors look timid by comparison. Ms. Warren, for example, seemed to stumble badly when she suggested that it may take a few years to abolish private insurance. (Barring a Democratic tsunami in congressional elections, she is correct.) If Mr. Sanders can convince Democratic voters in future primaries that their party’s leadership is hopelessly out of touch on health care—and stories like this, about “surprise” surgery bills, will help—the path to a majority becomes much clearer.

4. The religious vote is up for grabs. New Hampshire is an outlier on faith—tied with Massachusetts for dead last by the percentage of adults who say that they are “highly religious”—so the results here may not be a harbinger of how primaries will play out, especially in the South. For what it’s worth, New Hampshire exit polls indicate that Mr. Sanders did best (34 percent) among voters who “never” attend religious services and worst (15 percent) among those who attend at least once a week. Ms. Klobachar won among weekly churchgoers, and Mr. Buttigieg won among “occasional” churchgoers.

Mr. Sanders did best (34 percent) among voters who “never” attend religious services.

New Hampshire is also an outlier on views about abortion (66 percent said it should be legal in most or all cases in 2014), and it ranks seventh in the percentage of adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (according to a Gallup estimate from 2017). So it may not be the best indicator of how well candidates would do in the swing states of a general election.

5. The nonwhite vote could break the deadlock. As everyone knows by now, Iowa and New Hampshire do not have many black, Hispanic or Asian voters. Mr. Sanders did poorly with nonwhite voters in the 2016 primaries, though he seems more competitive this time (especially with Hispanic voters), and Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Klobuchar so far have negligible support among nonwhite voters. Mr. Buttigieg has been clumsy, at best, at answering questions about his record dealing with racial justice as the mayor of South Bend, Ind.; and Ms. Klobuchar is now facing scrutiny about her record as a prosecutor in Minnesota.

That leaves hope for Mr. Biden, counting on his association with President Obama to help him restart his campaign in South Carolina, where most Democrats are black. It may also be an opportunity for Mr. Bloomberg, who has been blanketing Super Tuesday primaries with advertising and has picked up endorsements from U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York and Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser, among other black leaders. Mr. Bloomberg has his own obstacles to winning over black voters, especially his support for “stop and frisk” policies as mayor of New York, but he does have the advantage of having had more nonwhite constituents than anyone else in the race.

The nonwhite vote has some overlap with the big-city vote, also absent from Iowa and New Hampshire. But Mr. Sanders can point out that he easily won the three most densely populated communities in New Hampshire: the college town of Durham, the former mill city of Manchester and Newmarket, at the edge of the Boston metropolitan region.

6. The debates can still be important. Ms. Klobachar’s surprisingly strong third-place finish came four days after she got strong reviews for a debate in New Hampshire. The website FiveThirtyEight crunched the data and concluded that “Klobuchar outperformed her pre-debate favorability ratings more than anyone else.” Exit polls suggested that Ms. Klobuchar got only 4 percent among voters who had made their choice last year but 26 percent among those who had made their choice in the last few days before the primary. (Mr. Buttigeig won among those who decided the day of the primary.)

Ms. Warren, according to FiveThirtyEight, “got a middle-of-the-pack performance score” for the New Hampshire debate, which contrasted with “her relatively high pre-debate favorability ratings.” That analysis suggests that she may have peaked too soon, as she generally got high marks during last year’s debates, but it also suggests a ray of hope for Ms. Warren if she can bounce back in debates on Feb. 19 and 25.

7. The dirty tricks are only beginning. Buried in an Associated Press story about President Trump’s primary-eve rally in New Hampshire: “[The president’s] advisers hoped that Secret Service moves in downtown Manchester to secure the area for the president’s arrival would also make it harder for Democratic candidates and their supporters to transverse the state’s largest city in the hours before the primary’s first votes are cast, according to Trump campaign officials not authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly.”

During that rally, Mr. Trump urged his supporters to vote in the Democratic presidential primary “for the weakest candidate possible” and repeated a debunked conspiracy theory about massive voter fraud in New Hampshire in 2016.

8. Tuesday night is the new Friday afternoon. While most political journalists were focused on the New Hampshire results, NBC News reported confirmation that Attorney General William Barr will “take control of legal matters of personal interest to President Donald Trump.” It also confirmed that Mr. Barr had intervened in the sentencing of Roger Stone, an associate of President Trump, after Mr. Stone was found guilty of obstructing the congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. After Mr. Barr intervened, four prosecutors quit the Department of Justice.

Friday afternoons are traditionally the time for “news dumps” by government officials looking to avoid attention. But Tuesday nights during the presidential primary season may be a good time to take a close look at news alerts.

9. Voters are beginning to give silly polls the respect they deserve. In a late January poll conducted by UMass Lowell, 62 percent of Democrats and independents said they would prefer that “a giant meteor strikes the earth, extinguishing all life,” rather than see President Trump re-elected this fall. The pollsters and respondents are to be commended for maintaining their sense of humor in this rocky political year.

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