On February 9, America felt the earth move. It wasn’t just that, for the first time in our nation’s history, a socialist candidate actually won a presidential primary (the first Jew, too, for that matter). It was also the scale of that victory. Behind by double digits in the summer, Senator Bernie Sanders took on the most formidable machine in modern American politics and won the New Hampshire Democratic primary by more than 21 points.
And while Hillary Clinton and the corporate media began discounting the state’s significance from the moment Sanders began to lead, New Hampshire was in no sense a state that Clinton’s campaign wrote off. The state that made Bill Clinton the “Comeback Kid”—and where Hillary’s own wounded candidacy got its second wind in 2008—was too important to her for that. Clinton visited New Hampshire nearly two dozen times—fewer than her visits to Iowa, but many more than any other state. Far from conceding victory and concentrating her resources elsewhere, Clinton outspent Sanders on radio and TV, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG ad tracker. Her campaign also flooded the zone with surrogates, rounding up elected officials from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont to backstop Hillary, Chelsea, and Bill—whose ill-tempered tirade in Milford, New Hampshire, sounded more like wounded entitlement than spousal support.
Taking the stage in the Concord High School gymnasium to an ecstatic crowd warmed up by a playlist ranging from Talking Heads (“Burning Down the House”) to Bruno Mars (“Uptown Funk”), Sanders was in no mood to deny his supporters the significance of their victory. “We have sent a message that will echo from Wall Street to Washington, from Maine to California,” he told them. “Because we harnessed the energy and the excitement that the Democratic Party will need to succeed in November.”
Exit polls revealed that Sanders won among every demographic group in the state except senior citizens and voters earning more than $200,000 a year. His support was strong among young voters, liberals, rural voters, urban voters, white men, and even women. His lead among working-class voters was particularly pronounced—a trend suggested by last week’s results in Iowa, and a stunning reversal of fortune for Clinton, who, in the 2008 election, was seen as the standard bearer for lower-income whites (even more so than Barack Obama was). Asked “Who do you think is honest and trustworthy?,” 95 percent of Sanders voters—and, interestingly, 3 percent of Clinton voters—replied: “Only Sanders.”
New Hampshire also reset the bar for a convincing victory. If the candidate who was dismissed as quixotic from the start can pull off not just a “virtual tie” (as in Iowa) but a 21-point win, can Clinton afford to do any less in Nevada and South Carolina? Especially when the Republican results in New Hampshire mean there is still no “mainstream” challenger to Donald Trump. Sanders, who seemed determined to make the most of his access to the national media on election night, delivered a long victory speech in Concord. But there was no doubting the sincerity—or the urgency—in his voice when, addressing his own supporters as well as Clinton’s, he warned: “I also hope that we all remember…that we will need to come together in a few months and unite this party—and this nation—because the right-wing Republicans we oppose must not be allowed to gain the presidency.”
For the Democrats, New Hampshire marks not an end but a beginning. With actual vote totals available for the first time, it’s clear that this is now a race between two candidates who share a commitment to many policy goals that are anathema to their GOP opponents: the protection of a woman’s right to control her own fertility, increasing access to higher education, ending the epidemic of police violence against African Americans, reining in the corrupting influence of big money in politics, stopping the scourge of gun violence, moving America and the world away from a fossil-fuel economy. At the same time, it is also a debate between two widely divergent views—not just about the best means to achieve those shared goals, but also about the very boundaries of political possibility. Clinton has essentially, and successfully, defined herself as a continuity Democrat, arguing that incremental improvement is all we can hope for. Sanders challenges his supporters to “think big” and believes that in order to bring about change on the scale needed to make a real difference in people’s lives, it will require overturning the prevailing economic and political order—a grassroots electoral “revolution.”
This is not a disagreement that can—or should—be settled hastily. The stakes are too high for that. We hope that the coming months will see not just more debates, but more listening and less dismissing. If Clinton is going to recover, she’ll need to start winning the argument on policy, not electability. Because as her panicked media cheerleaders now surely realize, electability is an argument that can cut both ways.