The results of the New Hampshire primary were chaotic and dispiriting for the two parties' establishments, suggesting that both primary contests will last much longer and be much uglier than elites had hoped.
For the Republicans, Donald Trump not only won but won in a landslide. Emerging mainstream favorite Marco Rubio not only stumbled but plummeted. Jeb Bush wasn't driven out of the race as some Republicans had hoped, but instead leads Rubio, meaning the "establishment lane" will remain crowded. And the second-place winner wasn't someone with a national organization, it was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who hasn't raised much money and has been focusing solely on New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, a 74-year-old "democratic socialist" sharply critical of the party's direction didn't just win — he won in a remarkable landslide, crushing party elite favorite Hillary Clinton by 20 or so points.
Now, as with the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire results aren't important because of the puny number of delegates the state sends to the party conventions. The results matter because of what the political world — the media, elites, activists, donors, the candidates themselves, and to a certain extent voters in other states — takes away from them.
And overall, the takeaways tonight were really ugly for elites in both parties.
The Republican contest is not wrapping up anytime soon
For months, Republican elites have stared at the train wreck of their Trump-dominated campaign, hoping something better was just around the corner. And after Iowa, they finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Rubio's better-than-expected third-place finish, it seemed, would catapult him to second in New Hampshire, knock his establishment-friendly rivals out of the race, and spur Republican elites and mainstream voters to fall in line. Perhaps, some even dared to dream, Rubio could even supplant Trump and come in first.
And then the glitch happened.
When Chris Christie accused Rubio of being unable to do anything except repeat a "memorized 25-second speech," Rubio responded by repeating the same line he had just said minutes earlier. "There it is," Christie said. "The memorized 25-second speech." It was the moment of the debate — and it seems to have made both GOP elites and New Hampshire voters have second thoughts about consolidating behind Rubio so quickly.
But even after the glitch, few could have dreamed such a disaster for the GOP establishment as the one that unfolded on Tuesday.
Elites had dreamed that the second-place New Hampshire finisher would be able to unite the party against Trump — yet it ended up being John Kasich, the little-known Ohio governor who infuriated conservative activists by supporting Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, who's raised little money and has no discernible national organization.
Many in the party had hoped the New Hampshire results would finally spur Jeb Bush to throw in the towel, so his well-funded Super PAC would stop airing millions of dollars' worth of negative ads against the other establishment-friendly candidates. Yet at press time, Bush was actually ahead of Rubio — and even if he slips behind him when more votes are counted, he's clearly not going anywhere anytime soon.
And Rubio, far from being carried to a strong New Hampshire finish by his "third place victory" in Iowa, ended up being badly wounded by his debate glitch. Instead of the "3-2-1" strategy his team had previewed — third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, first in South Carolina — Rubio failed to rise above the pack, and it's not clear when he'll manage to actually win a state.
The upshot is that while Trump and Ted Cruz ride the momentum from their early victories, the Republican mainstream vote will remain divided around at least three squabbling candidates — Rubio, Bush, and Kasich — for the foreseeable future.
Donald Trump is for real
Pundits of all political stripes agog at Trump's rise have long predicted that at some point, he will completely collapse. And after Iowa, it looked possible. Trump, who lacked even a rudimentary ground game for the caucuses, fell embarrassingly short of his polls. Perhaps, some hoped, his aura of invincibility would finally be dispelled — and his supporters in New Hampshire would suddenly view him as a "loser" and abandon him.
Yeah ... that didn't happen.
Trump won the New Hampshire contest handily, getting about a third of the Republican primary vote. It is now abundantly clear that he will be in it for the long haul. It's also clear that his lack of a ground game didn't hurt him much in New Hampshire, since he outperformed his polls rather than underperforming them.
Now he's heading on to South Carolina, where he's been leading polls for months. He'll have to take on Ted Cruz to win there, of course. But that speaks to the extent of the problem GOP elites are facing. The two candidates they loathe most are, yet again, the top two contenders, while the party's mainstream remains divided. And it's not clear whether this dynamic will be upended in time to stop Trump or Cruz from winning.
Bernie Sanders utterly crushed Hillary Clinton
Yes, Bernie Sanders is from the state next to New Hampshire. Yes, the Granite State is overwhelmingly white, and Sanders hasn't yet proven he can win over black and Hispanic voters. Yes, Sanders has been leading state polls since the summer.
But Sanders didn't just win. He crushed Clinton, beating her by around 20 points in the state that was the site of her memorable 2008 comeback. There is just no spinning this. It was a landslide, and it will guarantee Sanders a yuuge amount of positive media coverage in the days and weeks to come — coverage that could well boost his poll numbers nationally and in other early states.
Now, Clinton shouldn't be considered the underdog just yet. She's still got the near-unanimous support of party elites. There's still the not-at-all-small matter that she's been polling far stronger than Sanders among the nonwhite voters who are so crucial to the Democratic coalition nationally. And Democrats outside the Northeast may get cold feet about making a democratic socialist their nominee for president.
But all that looks far less assured than it did last year or even last month. For instance, according to BuzzFeed News's Ruby Cramer, the Clinton campaign is already predicting that the next contest, the Nevada caucuses, will be closer than previously expected. And the assumption that black voters will remain overwhelmingly supportive of Clinton is just that — an assumption.
Overall, Sanders has used his anti-establishment credentials, his small-donor fundraising army, his overwhelming support from young voters, and his very liberal platform to mount a formidable insurgent challenge to the combined might of the Democratic Party. This is unmistakably a real contest now.