The Populist Earthquake

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Overturn American Politics

Donald Trump (AP)
February 9, 2016

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders overturned American politics with their stunning wins in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday. As I write, with two-thirds of the vote in, Trump leads John Kasich by almost 20 points on the Republican side and Sanders leads Hillary Clinton by 21 points on the Democratic side. Those numbers are incredible. Trump outperformed his ideological precursor Pat Buchanan, who won the New Hampshire primary in 1996. And Sanders—well, what can one say about Sanders? He won every demographic group except seniors and voters with incomes of more than $200,000. And he did this against an opponent who has spent 30 years in the public eye and is supported by basically the entirety of the Democratic Party. What's more, he's competitive with Hillary Clinton in fundraising because of a tremendous outpouring of generosity of small-dollar contributors.

What's fascinating about Trump and Sanders is that their ideological profiles are similar. Both candidates believe the American experiment is terribly out of whack and requires fundamental change if it is to be rescued. They both are happy to attack Wall Street, corporations, trade deals, and the supposedly corrupting influence of money in politics. They both support single-payer health care. They are evidence that a large contingent of New Hampshire primary voters believe something is seriously out of whack in America. And that is a repudiation not only of the Republican "establishment" but also of the Obama administration in which Hillary Clinton served.

I can't get over the reluctance Democratic voters have to embrace Hillary Clinton as their nominee. Here is President Obama's former secretary of State, wife to the forty-second president and twice-elected senator from New York, and she ties in Iowa and loses by double digits in New Hampshire to a septuagenarian Vermont socialist. There's also an enthusiasm gap at work here—Republican turnout is up in both Iowa and New Hampshire, suggesting that GOP voters have had it after eight years of Obama and are ready for change. Clinton is a candidate of the past, she has no discernible message, she is compromised ethically and under investigation by the FBI. This is the candidate Democrats want to put forth in November?

The Republican picture is much cloudier. I admit I thought that by the end of Saturday's debate Marco Rubio had recovered from Chris Christie's furious assault. I was wrong. As I write, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Rubio are in a fight for third place in New Hampshire. But with 72 percent of the vote in Rubio seems to be coming in fifth behind both Cruz and Bush. Christie at Saturday's debate was a heat-seeking missile aimed at Marco Rubio's presidential ambitions. He blew Rubio up, and himself up too. Christie is likely to suspend his presidential campaign on Wednesday.

John Kasich's second-place finish in New Hampshire is impressive, but it's hard to see where he goes from here. He got about the same vote share as Jon Huntsman did in New Hampshire in 2012. And Huntsman, you'll recall, was not the Republican nominee. The result in New Hampshire means that Trump, Cruz, Kasich, Bush, and Rubio will all duke it out in South Carolina over the next week and a half. I don't think Kasich will emerge on top.

Cruz, though, is a different story. He won the Iowa caucus and has shown himself to be competitive in New Hampshire. His problem is that his support is deep but narrow. He needs to broaden his coalition to include some of the "somewhat conservative" voters who typically determine the Republican nominee. But he doesn't seem interested in doing that. Maybe his tactics will change during the fight for South Carolina. Or maybe evangelical voters will put him over the top in the Palmetto State just as they did in Iowa. If that happens, he'll be a strong contender for the nomination.

Where does that leave Jeb Bush? He has to come in first or second in South Carolina to prove that he's the party's best shot to defeat Trump and Cruz. And he may have it in him. He's improved with every debate and he's been willing to go after Trump in the past. I'll also note that Right to Rise has begun airing an ad featuring his brother, my favorite living president, endorsing him. That has got to have some pull with lifelong Republicans. The problem is he'll also have to fight Kasich and Rubio in South Carolina. That will split the non-populist vote and potentially lead to another muddle.

Ross Douthat wrote the other day that the GOP is a party on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I can't disagree. There was a chance, after Iowa, that Rubio would consolidate the "somewhat conservative" vote in New Hampshire and foil the populists. But Chris Christie (and Rubio) ensured that didn't happen. We're left with a dogfight among so-called establishment Republicans and a wily billionaire who hopes to execute a populist takeover of the Republican Party.