New Hampshire Was Practically Made For Bernie And (Maybe) Trump

The state's contrary voters don't like anything predictable or establishment.
New Hampshire voters resonate with Bernie Sanders' rage against Wall Street.
New Hampshire voters resonate with Bernie Sanders' rage against Wall Street.

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The next pivotal point in American politics is custom-built for protest candidates. That, as much as anything, explains why Sen. Bernie Sanders and scaremongering billionaire Donald Trump are leading in New Hampshire primary polls by wide margins.

At the same time, the biggest risk for Sanders and Trump is that the conventional wisdom says they will win. New Hampshire hates to ratify the conventional wisdom.

Nowhere else in America is as suspicious of any and all establishments, as dedicated to its own vast array of local officeholders, and as resistant to being told what to do or think by Washington, Wall Street or national media bloviators.

All of this is reflected in the shape of government here. New Hampshire has no state income or general sales tax; a weak governorship; a state legislative body with 400 members (fourth largest in the English-speaking world); over 200 cities and towns, many of long lineage; and some 7,000 elected officials in a state with only 1.3 million inhabitants.

"Almost every adult here either is or has been or will at some point be elected to something," former Gov. John Sununu told me Thursday night in Durham before a debate there. "They don't like being told what to do by anybody."

That over-caffeinated desire to participate -- and push aside the big boys -- finds perfect expression in the state's first-in-the-nation primary, which takes place next Tuesday. If there are races in both major political parties, as there are this year, more than 500,000 or so voters could turn out in New Hampshire. According to Sununu, the total could be an astounding (by U.S. standards) 70 percent of eligible voters.

"This isn't Iowa," said Sununu, "where you've got an intense process but one that relatively few people take part in. Here everybody is part of the primary. This is what we do."

They don't like being told what to do by anybody. Former Gov. John Sununu about New Hampshire voters

New Hampshirites of both parties are wont to surprise the "experts" and often go for "outsider" candidates. And they decide late -- often in the last day or two.

The state's motto, "Live Free or Die," reads like the voters' rule book. It's easy for people to vote in either the Democratic or the Republican contest, and the largest proportion of voters -- this year about 44 percent -- are "undeclared," meaning they may decide at the last minute not only for whom they'll cast a ballot, but in which party.

Indeed, this huge, sloshing tub of unattached voters may be the core fact of the primary. They tend to swim at the last minute to the candidate who can say "f*** you" to entrenched power and maintain their "upset" brand.

Consider the latest Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll: It now shows former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at least narrowing the gap with Sanders, while Sen. Marco Rubio closes in on Trump. 

New Hampshire locals are so immersed in the primary -- and their influential roles -- that they often engage in "strategic" voting. Republican voters might cross over and vote in the Democratic primary for the candidate they think has the least likely chance of winning the White House, and vice versa.

Or voters might cast a ballot not for their true favorite but for the candidate in their own party with the best chance of stopping someone else they like even less.

That's the main hope right now for Rubio, who is looking to benefit from voters who want to defeat Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz, even if they don't necessarily want Rubio to win in the end either. 

"There will be a lot of strategic voting this time," Sununu predicts.

Hillary Clinton walks through the snow after a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Feb. 5.
Hillary Clinton walks through the snow after a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Feb. 5.

Among those who have benefited from New Hampshire's independence, either with a primary win or a last-minute surge to respectability, are Vietnam War foe Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Sen. Gary Hart in 1984, Gov. Bill Clinton ("The Comeback Kid") in 1992, hard-right anti-free-trader Pat Buchanan in 1996, and Sen. John McCain in 2000. That contrarianism helped Hillary Clinton fight off the trendy, Iowa-launched Barack Obama in 2008.

Clinton was also boosted eight years ago by New Hampshire's affection for her husband and the extensive time the two of them had spent in the state. Those factors were supposed to help her this year, too. But she didn't count on the heat-seeking missile from neighboring Vermont.

Sanders is leading in New Hampshire because of his single-minded and clearly sincere critique of big money in American politics. His outrage at Wall Street -- he almost quivers with it -- resonates in a small state of small businesses. There are few grandee families here, unlike in New England states to the south such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. (While some of the nation's fanciest prep schools are here, most of the students are not from New Hampshire.)

Meanwhile, it's very hard for Hillary to refute accusations that she in particular and the Clintons as an enterprise are beneficiaries of Wall Street money, even if it hasn't dictated their policies.

New Hampshire resident Bill Simmons heads off after learning that Donald Trump's town hall meeting in Londonderry was cancele
New Hampshire resident Bill Simmons heads off after learning that Donald Trump's town hall meeting in Londonderry was canceled on Feb. 5. Trump's plane was not able to return from New York due to a snowstorm.

Trump strikes a chord for related reasons. Like Sanders, he doesn't have to take money from Wall Street donors -- not that they'd want to give him any. New Hampshire locals seem to like, or at least tolerate, a billionaire who isn't beholden to any other big shots.

And Trump disdains all politicians and calls Washington a sinkhole not only of corruption -- Sanders' mantra -- but of ineptitude. His most common word for them is "stupid." 

The paradox of New Hampshire is that since everybody is elected to something, nobody here has any respect for politicians either. An elected official is just your next-door neighbor who may have screwed you on a tax assessment.

Take that attitude and multiply it by a thousand with respect to the federal government. No state in the eastern or northern United States has less regard for Washington's efforts than New Hampshire.

"We think for ourselves here," Joe McQuaid, editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader, has told me more than once.

Of course that doesn't keep McQuaid from trying to tell other New Hampshirites what to think. He writes the conservative paper's editorials and long ago endorsed Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

It was a quixotic and un-strategic move. If he had wanted to maximize attention to the paper and, at least in theory, its impact on the primary, he would have waited until now to endorse a candidate.

But McQuaid is under no illusions that his word is gospel.

There is none in New Hampshire.

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe,racistmisogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.