Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both won big in this week’s New Hampshire primary, but the cards are still stacked against them.
Donald Trump shocked much of our chattering classes on Tuesday night after he was able to come in first place on the Republican side with a little over 35 percent of the vote. Meanwhile there was a bit of a political earthquake as well on the Democratic side where Sanders was able to clobber presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points. As a result the possibility of general election between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is something that even serious professional journalists are staring to say is possible.
Are they right? Have the laws of American politics gone out the window? Sure in politics “anything can happen,” but the reality is that the whole structure of how parties chose their nominees makes it really hard for these sorts of long shot candidates to triumph in the end.
The first big thing to remember is that the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire don’t really pick whose going to win the nomination, rather they contribute to a process of winnowing that goes on week after week until only one candidate is left standing. And despite all those claim that everything is different this time, we’ve already seen a lot of this winnowing happen. Indeed two Republican candidates, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina, decided to drop out of the race after their poor showings in New Hampshire.
It’s this “law of winnowing” that makes it so hard for Trump to win in the long haul. Sure Trump is great at dominating the press coverage and has succeeded at turning that into votes in two states, but the thing to remember is he still appears to be stuck at a ceiling in the 30 percent range. This means he can win or do well in crowded fields like what we saw in Iowa and New Hampshire, but once the field is narrowed to a three or two person race he’ll be in serious trouble. Remember lots and lots of Republicans really dislike Donald Trump.
Meanwhile Sanders’ obstacles are different, but just as hard to surmount. As Seth Masket pointed out at Vox, New Hampshire was basically a state made to play to his strengths as a politican and that won’t last forever:
Sanders has spent most of the past six months in Iowa, betting everything on doing well in a key early contest, and he’s spent his entire public career in New Hampshire’s media markets. What’s more, these two early contests represent some of the highest concentration of white liberals in Democratic electorates. The primary and caucus map from here on out is a lot friendlier to Clinton.
To be fair Sanders’ supporters should be very proud about the victory on Tuesday, defeating a candidate with such a overwhelming advantage in party support is no small matter. And Hillary really did miss her chance to knock out Sanders early, meaning we will be in for a long drawn out battle on the Democratic side likely through at least March.
Never the less, nothing we’ve seen in Iowa or New Hampshire shows that the normal laws of presidential nomination politics have gone out the window. Meaning Tuesday night in New Hampshire might just be another strange story to go down in the Granite State’s political lore.
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