Inevitability Index

Clinton's Loss to Sanders Exposes Weakness of Message—and Messenger

The Vermont senator beat Clinton in much the same way Barack Obama beat her nationwide in 2008.

Hillary Clinton: I Still Love New Hampshire

Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire drubbing by Bernie Sanders probably won't cost her the nomination, but serves as an embarrassing reminder of Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate, her oft-muddled message and how badly she's out of step with key parts of the Democratic base.

The state that made Bill Clinton “the comeback kid” in 1992 and saved Clinton's campaign in 2008 sent an entirely different message Tuesday night. In the second contest in a row, it wasn't Clinton but Sanders, a 74-year-old, white, male democratic socialist, who rode a wave of young and populist anti-establishment discontent.

“What began last week in Iowa, what voters here in New Hampshire confirmed tonight, is nothing short of the beginning of a political revolution,” Sanders said in his victory speech. 

The New Hampshire results are forcing Clinton to look forward sooner, reassessing her approach in the Super Tuesday contests on March 1 that represent more than half of the delegate count. Aides signaled a shift in messaging: she will do more to acknowledge voter anger with the status quo, while engaging with mothers, anti-gun groups and black voters.

Clinton's path to the nomination should get clearer here on out, as the race turns south and west. But Sanders beat her in New Hampshire in much the same way Barack Obama beat her nationwide in 2008: by speaking to sectors of a Democratic Party that viewed him as the future and her as the past.

delegate tracker story-tout

That problem persists for Clinton when the campaign leaves New Hampshire. And it may persist even if Clinton goes on to win the Democratic nomination and face a Republican candidate in the fall, a mismatch with parts of her party that Clinton hasn't been able to erase in the eight years since her last campaign.

“This is the first glimpse we’re getting at the post-Obama Democratic Party,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“When you hear Bill Clinton lamenting, ‘This has not been the new Hampshire that I knew,’ it’s telling. There’s lot of pent up energy, dissension, frustration and Clinton is kind of the unhappy torch-bearer of continuity, and all the chickens are coming home to roost for her.”

“New people have come to play,” he continued. “And eight years can be a lifetime in politics, and there are fault lines in the Democratic Party that are all coming to the fore.”

Despite Sanders' built-in advantages as a senator from neighboring Vermont, the double-digit margin of Sanders' victory suggests factors that go well beyond geography: the breadth of anti-establishment anger this year among Democrats as well as Republicans, the affirmative enthusiasm for Sanders, and Clinton’s weaknesses with blue-collar workers, independents and young people.

Andre Tartar/Bloomberg

“I know I have some work to do, particularly with young people,” Clinton said in her concession speech, and repeated a promise to young voters who are backing Sanders that “even if they are not supporting me now, I support them,” Clinton said.

Sanders won across most demographic groups, coming in ahead of Clinton with women as well as men, those without and with college degrees, moderates as well as liberals, and income groups earning under $200,000 a year, according to a New York Times analysis of exit polls. Preferences broke along age lines, with Sanders winning the support of voters under 45, Clinton winning the support of voters 65 and older and the two dividing the voters in between.

Sanders, too, is re-calibrating his message for the contests ahead. In his victory speech in New Hampshire, he emphasized how his father was an immigrant who couldn't speak English and had no money when he arrived in the U.S., and Sanders is expected to emphasize his college civil rights activism ahead of the South Carolina contest.

By the time the polls closed in New Hampshire, the results were projected to be bad enough for Clinton that her campaign manager Robby Mook issued a memo boasting of her advantages over Sanders in upcoming contests from a “mathematic perspective” and pledging a “data-driven approach to maximizing delegates.”

“Fired up, ready to go”—one of Obama's 2008 slogans—it's not.

Both Democratic rivals are turning their immediate attention to the next two contests ahead, in Nevada, where union members and Latinos are key constituencies, and in South Carolina, which votes on Feb. 27, and where black voters are disproportionately important. Both are states Clinton should win.

Mook's memo pointed out Clinton's built-in advantages in the upcoming contests—including that they include far more minority voters than Iowa and New Hampshire.

“While important, the first four states represent just 4 percent of the delegates needed to security the nomination,” Mook wrote. He said the 28 states voting or caucusing in March will award 56 percent of the delegates needed to win. Iowa and New Hampshire voters are largely rural or suburban and predominately white, Mook wrote. The March states “better reflect the true diversity of the Democratic Party and the nation.”

The most concerning segment of weakness for Clinton may be white, working-class voters, Scala said. “Maybe it’s the case that Sanders can only appeal to blue-collar voters in his backyard, in New England. Maybe he couldn’t appeal in the South, in Ohio, in Michigan. But at least it would give him hope.”

What will keep Sanders going is the grassroots financial support he's gotten from millions of Americans who have given to him online and will be motivated by a win. Instead of heading to Wall Street to raise campaign cash, Sanders said in his victory speech that he was holding a “fundraiser right here right now” from the stage where he spoke. Sanders raised $20 million in January—$5 million more than Clinton—without the wear, tear and time of the dozens of fundraisers that Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea Clinton, plus top aides and surrogates, put into it.

Sanders' fundraising success has made it possible for him to match the staffing levels of the Clinton campaign in many places across the country and to outspend Clinton on TV, radio, and the Web.

It's also allowed Sanders's campaign to begin airing television ads on Wednesday in four Super Tuesday states: Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma and two new markets in Massachusetts.

The Clinton campaign's first New Hampshire TV ads aired in early August and though the Sanders campaign didn't start until October, it outspent Clinton by a 3-to-1 ratio in the final weeks before primary day. A rush of post-win cash will make it possible for Sanders to keep spending on ads, introducing himself to voters who may not know much about him.

Tad Devine, Sanders’s top media adviser, said that any margin over 15 percentage points is “an enormous victory,” especially since Clinton won the 2008 primary in the state. “That’s going to lead them to take a look at Bernie,” he said of Democratic voters in upcoming contests. “It is a demonstration of strength on our behalf.”

Clinton, meanwhile, will have to face big-money donors concerned that she'll be edged out yet again in the race for the Democratic nomination. In her concession speech, Clinton said, “We’re going to fight for every vote in every state.”

But if Clinton had hoped for an early finish to save energy and cash for the fall, Sanders almost certainly denied her that in New Hampshire.

“The race is going to be won or lost in the month of March,” said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon.

“New Hampshire was a must-win for him,” Fallon said of Sanders. “I don’t think it fundamentally changes the trajectory of the race.”

—With assistance from Esmé E. Deprez and Arit John in New Hampshire.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.