Never a state to kow-tow to any establishment, New Hampshire remained true to type this week, selecting the two mavericks – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – as its presidential nominees. The Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, and the long tail of Republican hopefuls were both left far behind. But to respond with either dread (Trump) or glee (Sanders) would be premature.
While the opening caucuses and primaries are not to be dismissed – Iowa and New Hampshire present, in a way, two poles of the United States which together give at least a hint of how the wind is blowing – there is a long, long way to go. More to the point, the primary system in general and the early primaries in particular tend to favour extremes. It is a cliché (but no less valid for so being) that to win the nomination a candidate must appeal to the party base, but the successful nominee must then tack to the centre.
The only conclusion that can reasonably be drawn from New Hampshire and Iowa is that US voters are more than usually disillusioned, or bored, with mainstream politics this year, and that demagogy (Trump) and a particular US brand of socialism (Sanders) seem to be playing as well in the US as they are doing in many European democracies.
Given the way young people, in particular, appear to be newly engaged with these versions of politics, you could argue that popular anger over Iraq and the financial meltdown have skipped a generation and the change will be increasingly real. In the end, though, the numbers may not add up to a popular revolution from either left or right come 8 November.
With all those precautions, there are still observations to be made about what may happen next. In the space of eight years, Clinton has completed the transition from bold pioneer to establishment pillar. The qualities that made her courageous and interesting have not gone away: she can still lay claim to having been a serious first lady who overcame a multitude of slights, personal and political, and succeeded in politics on her own account. And she still has the best chance of becoming the first female president of the United States – but her chances are diminished.
New Hampshire showed that Clinton is no longer seen, by any manner of means, as an insurgent. Having won a Senate seat and then served as Secretary of State, she is not considered a mould-breaker. In recent Democratic debates she has had to defend herself against closeness to Wall Street and her conduct in office.
Many of the young (and not so young women) who flocked to her campaign eight years ago have transferred their allegiance elsewhere. It was almost sad to see her strongest endorsement in New Hampshire come from former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. The pictures were not kind. Clinton may still make it to the White House, but together she and Albright looked like a jovial pair of has-beens.
Donald Trump erased all other Republicans in New Hampshire, but it is worth recalling that Iowa hardly tweaked to him at all – and Iowa is Middle America in a way New Hampshire would proudly boast not to be. He may well win other states, because his appeal lies less in bread and circuses than in his willingness to articulate sentiments that many Americans hold, but would hesitate to say. If he does capture the nomination (or even the presidency), it will be because he has convinced a sufficient number of Americans not only that he speaks for them, but that he is capable of being president. And this is where we Europeans need to keep a more open mind than we are wont to do.
All-American populists tend not to go down well in Europe, but this does not mean that they are unelectable in the US. While Trump may seem a caricature of the species, that does not mean he is either stupid or incapable of moderating his stated views. He gives the impression most of all of a trader, a barterer: setting out an extreme position that can be whittled down through negotiation. We shall see.
Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were both populists in their own way. The electoral chances of both were widely dismissed in Europe until a very late stage. But both became two-term presidents, and – however you judge their policies – both succeeded in one area where Obama has mostly failed: in the wheeler-dealing needed to handle Congress.
Ridicule Trump if you like, but if he makes it through the protracted tournament that is the US presidential election, it will be because American voters judge him up to the job. And if he fails at it, they will acknowledge their mistake and boot him out after four years. That’s democracy.
The betting has long been on for the duel in November. Clinton-Trump would be the classic insider-outsider clash. Clinton-Kasich – against John Kasich, the Ohio governor favoured for the Republican nomination by the New York Times, and who unexpectedly came second to Trump in New Hampshire – would be the failsafe, boring match. Trump-Sanders – well, that is hard to imagine even now, but it would have the sports stadium rallies packed coast to coast.
There could be another twist still to come. Michael Bloomberg was thought to have ruled himself out, so long as Clinton remained in contention. He seems now to be changing his mind. As a successful businessman, he could trump Trump. As a former mayor of New York City, he has political experience. As an independent, he would have outsider appeal.
It is true that independents do not have a strong record in running for presidency (though someone of Bloomberg’s national stature might be different). In 1992, however, Ross Perot’s intervention effectively gifted the White House to Bill Clinton. Who knows how a strong independent might skew this race? Let’s hope we are about to find out.Reuse content