Manchester, New Hampshire
Democrats almost all agree that Donald Trump is ruining America and must be removed from the White House in November. The trouble is, nobody is sure who can or should do that. Democratic or Democrat-leaning voters talk nervously about the various candidates using their first names, as if trying to pick a love match in an episode of Blind Date. Should it be Bernie? Or Pete? Or Amy? Or Liz? Or Joe?
New Hampshire isn’t meant to be like that. ‘Live free or die’ is the state’s motto. New Hampshirites are famously independent: they know their minds, at least that’s what everyone says. But in the Democratic primary this week, they all seemed indecisive. Outside one polling booth, a woman admitted she had decided to vote for Amy Klobuchar using the ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ method.
The results of Tuesday’s primary reflected this ambivalence. Bernie Sanders won, but not by much. Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg, to give him his extraordinary full name, came close second. Klobuchar, whose luck was clearly in, surprised almost everyone by coming third. The two big losers were two former hot favourites: ex-vice president Joe Biden and senator Elizabeth Warren. The early polls got it badly wrong, again.
In the New Hampshire primary four years ago, Bernie destroyed Hillary Clinton with 60 per cent of the vote. This year, in an admittedly more crowded field, he only won by just over 1 per cent. He trails Buttigieg in the overall Democratic delegate count — thanks to the quirks of the primary system and the shambles of the Iowa caucuses last week.
Still, Bernie won, and he and his team were understandably keen to emphasise their achievement. He’s blown away the threat Warren was meant to pose for him on his left: she only got 9 per cent.
‘This victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald Trump,’ said Bernie in his winner’s speech. His fans roared. ‘Bernie beats Trump!’ they chanted.
Over in Trumpworld, Brad Parscale, the Trump 2020 campaign manager, fired out a delightfully ungracious statement: ‘No matter which Democrat emerges from this dumpster fire of a primary process, we know the contrast will be President Trump’s record of accomplishment and optimistic view of the future versus Democrats and their socialist, job-killing agenda.’
Who says democracy isn’t beautiful? Trump chipped in, too. ‘A lot of Democrat dropouts tonight, very low political IQ,’ he tweeted, as news broke that the minnows Andrew Yang and Michael Bennet had pulled out of the race. ‘Bootedgeedge (Buttigieg) is doing pretty well tonight,’ he added later. ‘Giving Crazy Bernie a run for his money. Very interesting!’
What’s arguably more interesting is that Trump seems to think that part of his role as President is to give a running commentary on the state of the opposition. But listen carefully to the Trumpian gloating and you detect a note of anxiety about Crazy Bernie.
Sanders has always had high ‘likability’ ratings because he seems to be a man of firm principles, even if those principles are too left-wing for many Americans. In a recently leaked tape of Trump in conversation with donors at a private dinner, he conceded that, in 2016, he worried Hillary Clinton was going to pick Sanders as her running mate. Trump understands that Bernie is ‘a big trade guy’. He appreciates that the key to his electoral success has been his appeal to workers who are angry about globalisation.
Trump would surely rather face married gay man Buttigieg, or ‘Wall Street Pete’ as Bernie fans call him. Buttigieg is a bit like Emmanuel Macron. His technocratic centrism somehow wins votes, but it jars with the times. Worse, his vocabulary seems to have been generated by some marketing jargon algorithm. Trump could have a lot of fun at his expense, without resorting to naked homophobia.
Klobuchar, who likes swearing and talking about her father’s alcoholism, is now emerging as the elite’s alternative. But her success feels freakish, since she has benefited not just from random votes but from the spectacular implosion of Biden.
For a long time, pollsters have said that Biden could beat Sanders and then Trump because, despite his long career in Washington, he connects with blue-collar voters. That now seems fantasy. In fact, in three presidential runs, spanning 32 years, Biden has never finished above fourth in any caucus or primary. He’s still supposed to do well in South Carolina on 29 February because of his much-touted appeal among black voters, but that might also be somewhat mythical — an advantage that evaporates as the vote approaches. It was sad to see Biden pretending to engage with people at his event in the gym of a Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Monday night. After he spoke, his volunteers turned up very loud music while he glad-handed his way through the small crowd. Perhaps it was a trick to make sure nobody could record Biden saying something inappropriate, as is his wont.
Even Sanders’s campaign, while undoubtedly powerful, lacks its old vim. He has masses of volunteers, young people still love him, and cool rock stars play at his rallies. But the Bernie of 2020 has lost some of the populist edge he had four years ago. He also looks tired: watching him speak to volunteers behind a supermarket in Hudson, rural New Hampshire, I thought he might pass out. Bernie, 78, has only recently recovered from a heart attack, and running for President of the United States is about the most exhausting task any human being can undertake. Can he really last?
His politics still has a retro appeal, and his campaign is having some success in targeting black voters and Hispanics. But Sanders may find that the lower-middle-class voters he attracted last time have now gravitated towards the man in the White House. On Tuesday night, the Sanders fans sang: ‘We are unstoppable!’
But Trump supporters feel the same way. The night before, Trump packed out the SNHU arena in Manchester with a crowd of 17,000 — a conspicuous display of support intended to alarm the Democrats. As they left the event, his fans all hailed their hero. ‘It was wonderful. He always is,’ said one attendee. ‘Four more years!’ Unlike Democratic voters, these people know what they want.