The Left-Right Revolt

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Sanders and Trump ride very different populist uprisings in New Hampshire

BN-MN647_1revol_M_20160209223119Americans keep telling pollsters they’re unhappy—or worse—with their political leaders, and on Tuesday they proved it in New Hampshire by handing victories to a 74-year-old socialist and a blustery businessman with no political experience. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are still a long way from the White House, but their victories reveal parallel but very different popular revolts on the left and right.

The uprising on the left is perhaps most surprising given that Democrats hold the White House, and Hillary Clinton campaigned to build on President Obama’s record. But in New Hampshire the revolt was ideological and personal against Mrs. Clinton and the status quo.

Mr. Obama tilted before the Iowa caucuses toward Mrs. Clinton as his preferred successor, but New Hampshire shows that his Presidency has been a hot-house garden for nurturing progressives. According to the exit polls, nearly seven in 10 Democrats described themselves as liberal, up from 56% in 2008. Roughly a quarter described themselves as “very liberal,” and Mr. Sanders won them two to one.

Mr. Obama calls inequality the defining issue of our times, and Democrats believe him. A third of Democrats said it is the most important issue facing the country, and about 70% of those voted for Mr. Sanders.

Mrs. Clinton won the New Hampshire primary in 2008, but this year Democrats seem to have rejected her on personal and character grounds. Mr. Sanders won nine of 10 voters in the exit polls who said that only Mr. Sanders or neither of the two candidates were “honest and trustworthy.” The Clinton campaign has tried, as it always does, to plow through her email scandals by portraying them merely as Republican attacks. But even many Democrats don’t believe her anymore.

Mrs. Clinton now finds herself in a populist showdown she never anticipated and doesn’t play to her strengths. She’s best as a machine candidate of the unions, feminist volunteers and wealthy environmentalists. Mr. Sanders is motivating the younger liberals who were also drawn to Mr. Obama and who are voting for the Vermonter by three or more to one.

The Clinton campaign will console itself that the campaign now moves to states where the electorate will have more minorities and fewer gentry liberals. And to win the nomination Mr. Sanders will have to show that he can expand his support among minorities, especially the black voters who are so important in southern primaries.

The Vermont Senator’s other great obstacle is that many Democrats still fear that a self-avowed socialist can’t win in November. But that argument becomes less damaging as it becomes clearer that Mrs. Clinton has weaknesses that also could be fatal in the fall. As Republicans get closer to nominating the mercurial Mr. Trump, more Democrats may also conclude that even Mr. Sanders could win so why not take a chance on their true heart?

Which brings us to Mr. Trump and the revolt on the right. This is less about ideology and policies than the businessman’s political style and Republican disgust with Washington. The New Yorker dominated the field with some 34% of the vote as we went to press, while no other candidate broke into the high teens. The victory showed that, contrary to Iowa, Mr. Trump could translate polling leads into actual votes. And it showed that the ceiling in his support is higher than many Republicans have believed.

The businessman did especially well among voters without a college degree, but his support was strong across most demographic and ideological groups. He’s the choice of voters who like that he “tells it like it is” and think he can change Washington. But the exit polls also showed some signs of potential weakness. A little less than a third of his voters said they liked Mr. Trump but had reservations. And his share of voters who said he could best handle an international crisis was below his overall vote share.

As for the others, Mr. Trump will be happy that no clear alternative emerged. John Kasich’s investment in the Granite State—100 town halls—paid off with a second-place finish. The Ohio Governor did well among independents and especially moderates. His challenge going forward will be that there are fewer of both of those voting blocs as the primaries head to South Carolina next week and elsewhere in the South on March 1. He will have to raise money fast to be competitive, as well as show he can win over more conservative voters.

Jeb Bush spent heavily in the state and has to be disappointed to finish in the mix for third or fourth place as we went to press. He has been performing better in debates and has the money to fight on in South Carolina, but he will have to show he can beat Mr. Kasich and Marco Rubio to go much beyond that.

Mr. Rubio may be the most disappointed by Tuesday’s result because the Florida Senator couldn’t build on his Iowa surge and suffered from his debate brain-freeze on Saturday. More late deciders turned to other candidates, and some two-thirds said that debates influenced their votes.

Ted Cruz also failed to capitalize on his Iowa victory, notably in failing to make inroads among voters who aren’t evangelicals or very conservative. The Texas Senator will find more fertile territory in the South, but his showing in New England bodes ill for winning swing states if he is the GOP nominee in November.

All of which means that New Hampshire hasn’t performed its traditional role of winnowing the field as much as usual. Chris Christie will find it hard to continue after his sixth-place finish, as will also-rans Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. The rest have a case to fight on. But one big lesson of New Hampshire is that if the non-winners want to become the GOP nominee, they will sooner rather than later have to stop attacking each other and start educating voters about Donald J. Trump.

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