America’s great wintertime presidential contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, are now in the books. The nation’s first campaign rallies, the cable gabfests, more than 750,000 votes are telling us — what?
Some answers seem obvious. It was clear three months ago that outsider candidates had captured the imaginations of activists in both states. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ warm promises of free college and birthright health care electrified Democratic audiences. Donald Trump’s New York populism overcame worries about the vagueness of his promises.
But political pros have long expected both candidates to fade once voting extended beyond the true believers. They have not. That’s telling us something important.
First, a warning: Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t the whole story. Both states are unique campaign battlegrounds, whiter than the rest of America, older, sometimes crankier. Voters in both states are extraordinarily self-conscious about their first-in-line status, an approach that can lead to message-sending elections that favor fringe candidates.
And voters in both states have fetishized presidential politics, demanding to see candidates in the flesh, more than once. That can skew results too. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio nabbed a spot in New Hampshire’s GOP top tier only after campaigning in the small state for weeks.
That’s coming to an end. The 2016 campaign is entering its arena tour phase, where intimate club appearances will be replaced by commercials, fundraising, polling and other large-scale efforts. The change will favor candidates with solid organizations, money, stamina and strategic wisdom.
Sanders and Trump can compete on those grounds, but their margins for error will shrink. Elected officials and opinion leaders in both parties are aghast at the ascendance of the two outsiders and are chatting constantly about alternatives. Their voices will now grow louder.
For Democrats, that means Hillary Clinton. Party leaders are deeply worried about her flawed campaign style, the constant hum of potential scandal and a general Clinton fatigue. Yet they think the alternative — a self-proclaimed socialist — would cost them seats up and down the ticket, in all but the bluest of states. Look for a major effort to overtake the Sanders-nistas in the next primary states.
The GOP path is less clear. The fear of Trump is exceeded only by the distaste for Sen. Ted Cruz, whose fundamentalist approach withered in New Hampshire. Elites are searching for an alternative to both, but who? Jeb Bush? Kasich? Sen. Marco Rubio, whose poor debate performance alienated thousands of New Hampshire voters?
The race remains wide open. February elections in Nevada and South Carolina will further cloud the picture.
You probably sensed that. What you may have missed — what all of us in the pundit class have missed — is not the unsettled nature of the race, but the unsettled nature of the electorate.
That’s what Iowa and New Hampshire are really telling us. It isn’t just the rabble-rousers. Real voters are so disgusted with their government they’re willing to gamble on outsiders who share their outrage. It may no longer matter what elites think. In the next weeks, tired approaches and recycled rhetoric won’t be enough.
The first candidates to grasp that reality will be their parties’ nominees. They may be Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, or someone else.