Republican, Democrat establishment facing cold facts in presidential race

Cold facts have intruded so rudely on comfortable assumptions in both the U.S. Democrat and Republican parties this season that it’s hard to imagine politics in either will ever be the same again, writes Keith Boag.

Reality is intruding rudely on the comfortable assumptions of both U.S. parties: Keith Boag

Hillary Clinton is accompanied by her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, as she speaks at her final 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary night rally in Hooksett, NH. She has battled perceptions of dishonesty, and critics say Clinton has misread the mood for progressive change so far in the campaign. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Bill Clinton, in particular, could not hide his shock. He stood next to his vanquished wife Hillary Tuesday night with the enormity of her loss splashed across his face.

They'd expected to lose, but not by the biggest margin in the 100-year history of contested New Hampshire primaries. 

And what's with the women voters, why did they abandon her? Clinton lost them by 11 points to Bernie Sanders, an aging white male whose utopian ideal seems to be Denmark.

"I know I have work to do," she said.

Cold facts have intruded so rudely on comfortable assumptions in both parties this season that it's hard to imagine politics in either will ever be the same again.

Anger and frustration

To the Bush and Clinton families the political upheaval might seem to have come from nowhere.  It didn't, but warnings are often only clear in retrospect.

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have had plenty of attention. Their aims might be vague, but their anger and frustration have always been on clear display.

Misjudging the currents of social change is not Clinton's only problem.

Though polls show Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming choice among non-white Democrats, Bernie Sanders is seen to be making inroads into Hispanic and African American communities. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)
There are trust issues and Sanders has pounced on them.

Clinton took money for speaking to Wall Street big shots. People want to know what she told them. She hasn't released that.

There's the complicated business with the State Department emails on her private server, and the confusing reaction to the Benghazi attack just before the 2012 election.

Clinton has been on the national stage for 25 years. No one in the race can match her resume, but impressions of her, for better and worse, hardened long ago.  Her unfavourable ratings — 50-plus per cent — are the second highest among the candidates (second only to Donald Trump, the all time Gallup record holder.)

Clinton still has the best chance of getting past all this, through the primaries, and on to her party's nomination. But it's looking more and more like it will be what they call "winning ugly"— winning fair and square, but with fumbles and turnovers.

Joylessness vs. facts

The flip comments last week from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and feminist icon Gloria Steinem disparaging women for not rallying to Clinton highlighted what some see as a joylessness to her campaign.

Joy is judged by even some plain and serious political folk as important, if not quite essential, to winning.

Hillary Clinton has been collecting endorsements from scores of Democratic senators, representatives and governors since 2013, while Bernie Sanders has secured only two. (Justin Sullivan/Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
But the cold facts on Clinton's side are these:

The relevant demographic in the next primaries is race not gender, and so far she's kept her advantage there.

Polls show she's the overwhelming choice among non-white Democrats, though Sanders is making inroads into Hispanic and African American communities. (He's also pulling in millions more in donations after winning in New Hampshire.)

In southern states — Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and others — polls have Clinton ahead of Sanders by margins bigger than the one he had over her in New Hampshire on Tuesday night.

And, despite how she's answered her critics, the truth is she locked up the important approval of the Democratic establishment, the so-called "invisible primary," long ago. She's been collecting endorsements from scores of Democratic senators, representatives and governors since 2013.

Sanders has only two of those.

Riding the tiger

There are Democrats who won't vote for Clinton if she's the nominee, or will vote for her only begrudgingly to prevent a Republican win.

But if you think that's rough, take a look at the Republican side - it's much rougher.

Trump is riding the tiger of the Tea Party revolt.

Donald Trump's share of the Republican vote was just 35 per cent, but it still delivered him an impressive winning margin. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Some of his supporters are the same people who brought down the Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a surprise primary upset in 2014.

They claim to be working now to unseat the new House Speaker Paul Ryan in his Wisconsin district later this year. (His sin is accepting the compromises of fellow Republicans to try to make Congress work.)

Ask and they'll tell you their goal is to burn down the Republican Party as we know it.

They're confident Trump can win the nomination and the Presidency, but they don't hesitate to say they'd happily see the party lose the election if it chooses, say, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush instead of him.

So far things are working out pretty well for them. They may be a minority in their party, but they have leveraged their influence to take the majority by the throat.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz captured 12 per cent of the vote in New Hampshire. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Look how Trump won New Hampshire: his share of the Republican vote (35 per cent) was actually smaller even than Clinton's share of the Democratic vote (38 per cent), but it delivered him an impressive winning margin.

Two things about that are noteworthy.

First, 35 per cent support is about the level Trump had in polls. So despite what skeptics claimed, Trump's people vote.

Second, the split on the Republican side is serving him exquisitely. 

Trump's advantage has always been that as long as he has many opponents, the vote against him will be divided.

Former Governor Jeb Bush (centre) took 11 per cent of the vote in New Hampshire, placing fourth in the Republican race. (REUTERS)
New Hampshire was supposed to weed out all but a couple of contenders; instead, only New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina have packed up.

That's not much of a winnowing. 

Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio are still clinging to their dreams and moving on to the next round in South Carolina, all hoping to be "the one" the anti-Trumpers gather around.

They'll split the votes once more and Trump could beat them all again with just 35 per cent of the vote, which polls say is about what he's getting there.

How long can this go on for Trump? It's looking more and more like long enough.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.


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