Four years ago, Barack Obama was running unopposed for the Democratic nomination and the Republican contest was a snoozer. Mitt Romney, who had courted the state for the better part of a decade and owned a summer home by its lakes, enjoyed his coronation. The once-rambunctious New Hampshire Union Leader tried to stir the pot by endorsing Newt Gingrich, to no effect. Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman found their niche, but never threatened the front-runner. All in all, the primary was quite comfortable, orderly — and boring.
Yet primaries are intended to be disruptive, not orderly. They were invented more than a century ago to enable democracy to explode the entrenched power of political party bosses. The dangerous invention took several more decades to take full hold in American presidential politics. But when it did, unknown outsiders such as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter seized the day, and the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary became a catalyst for democratic turmoil and renewal.
More recently, observers of American politics argue that modern-day political party “bosses” have regained control of the presidential nomination process, and muzzled the primary. Candidates must court party elites — both those who hold office and those who hold cash — in order to have the resources they need for a campaign. When elites circle the wagons early and promote a favored candidate, the primary is more often a rubber stamp than a democratic choice.
This year, however, has confounded the experts. And the New Hampshire primary, in particular, has not acted its age. In true democratic fashion, the primary has gone out of its way to afflict the comfortable political elites.
New Hampshire’s Republican elite gatekeepers are aghast that Donald Trump — Donald Trump! — is banging on the door, refusing to go away quietly. It’s a scene reminiscent of the classic movie Caddyshack, when the vulgar, nouveau riche Rodney Dangerfield joins the country club, and chaos among the affluent ensues. As Byron York of the Washington Examiner memorably reported, the local elites don’t know anyone voting for Trump. They say Trump’s not doing things the New Hampshire way. He’s a celebrity, not a politician, they sniff. Even the Union Leader, once eager to needle the local GOP establishment, is defending the gates against the intruder this time.
But the intruder has many friends knocking at the gate with him. Nationally, theRepublican Party has become increasingly dependent on white working-class voters in general elections, but its leaders have been slow to respond to their concerns and anxieties about their future and their children’s future. The traditional GOP bromides — free global markets, immigration reform, privatization, less regulation — are, to these voters, a formula for yet more failure. Trump speaks to all this, and the voters who are the furthest from the elite are the most responsive.
Which is why, at the debate Saturday night, when Trump attacked GOP donors and the audience booed him roundly, it only confirmed the suspicions of Trump voters. They almost never are invited to these occasions, which are usually reserved for guests by invitation only. They are not part of the respectable crowd of usual suspects. They see the scorn of elites for Trump and view it as a badge of honor.
Until quite lately, the chaos among New Hampshire Republicans has overshadowed the challenges facing the Granite State’s Democratic elite. If the polls are even remotely on target, Bernie Sanders is about to accomplish a feat we have not seen for more than three decades: an insurgent from the party’s left wing defeating a more moderate establishment front-runner. Hillary Clinton has enjoyed the support of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Gov. Maggie Hassan, the only two state Democratic politicians with organizations that matter. If recent history held true, New Hampshire’s Democrats would have dated Sanders for a while, but ultimately married Clinton. We won’t know for sure until Tuesday night, but this time seems different.
And in no small part, that is because blue-collar, moderate Democratic voters — typically a bulwark of the party establishment — are finding something appealing about Sanders. Historically, insurgents from the left bond with the highly educated progressive elite, but fail to connect with working-class voters. But Sanders’ unvarnished message appears to be resonating here in a way that Clinton’s earnest pragmatism is not.
Few observers of New Hampshire (certainly not this one!) would have predicted Trump and Sanders as winners when this all began. Every so often, the New Hampshire primary teaches a rough lesson to those who claim to understand it. Beneath its middle-aged exterior lurks, still, the wild child of American democracy.
Dante Scala is an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, and co-author of The Four Faces of the Republican Party and the Fight for the 2016 Presidential Nomination.