The resounding wins in the New Hampshire primary by Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders are a good example of the effect that populist political discourse is having on the U.S. electorate. Although the situation is not new – none of the last three presidents won in New Hampshire – the establishment in both parties will have to make a big effort if they don’t want to have candidates in the presidential election in November who are difficult to control.
Appealing to voter fears – of Islamist terrorism, immigration, and the possible return of the economic recession – Trump has managed to win the biggest Republican primary victory in this state since 2000. The multimillionaire has permitted himself the luxury of scorning the traditional way of conducting politics in elections of this type: he hasn’t gone door-to-door calling on voters, nor has he made a large number of public appearances at small functions in town halls and community centers. While his opponents are picking up neighbors in the snow, Trump flies into New Hampshire on rare occasions in his private plane, exclusively attending major events. His most sophisticated utterance on foreign relations has been his proposal to “knock the hell out of” the Islamic State.
The Republican leadership, which is yielding to evidence of Trump’s momentum, is trying to search for another eligible candidate. The one coming out of New Hampshire in the best shape is the governor of Ohio, John Kasich, who finished second, but still almost 20 points behind Trump.
And although there are some differences in the situation facing the Democratic contest, there has also been a populist revolt there. Sanders – whose future doesn’t seem as clear as Trump’s – has done considerable damage to the official favorite, Hillary Clinton. The senator from Vermont appeals to the anger and frustration of a middle class hit by the economic crisis and not finished feeling the effects of the recovery. His proposals, which would be very difficult to carry out, sound like the solution sought after by millions of voters. He constantly aims at Wall Street and the establishment, and Sanders has been skillful enough to link Clinton with both targets. Faced with this strategy, the ex-secretary of state is herself experiencing the difficulties of imposing a rational discourse on an emotional one.
In this situation where so many voters feel betrayed and abandoned by conventional politicians, politicians whom they strongly reject, it’s not surprising that ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is thinking about whether to launch a campaign as an independent. New Hampshire is more than a warning: It is a wake-up call. But it is only – with Iowa – the beginning of the primary process. Now that the forecast predicting that Trump and Sanders would lose steam on their own has been disproven, the moment of truth has arrived for all the presidential hopefuls. An angry electorate is looking for answers. For the moment, candidates offering simple solutions to complex problems are winning.