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Did Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Just Destroy the Myth of the New Hampshire Primary?

The two insurgent candidates brought a reckoning for establishment politicos in the Granite State.
Bernie Sanders (left) and Donald Trump hold their respective rallies in New Hampshire. (Photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images; Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders (left) and Donald Trump hold their respective rallies in New Hampshire. (Photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images; Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the long-shot populists of the Democratic and Republican parties who staged insurgent campaigns in last week's Iowa caucuses, both defeated establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio in yesterday's New Hampshire primaries. Now what does that actually mean for the 2016 presidential election?

First, a brief history lesson. New Hampshire's role as political groundhog is part historical accident and part electoral machination. It was Richard F. Upton, speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, who decided in 1948 to make the state primary "more interesting and meaningful ... so there would be a greater turnout at the polls," by allowing voters to cast their ballots directly for presidential candidates. As historian Elaine Karmark notes for the Brookings Institute, this electoral tweak had an immediate impact on the national political scene: President Harry Truman suffered a major defeat to Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, hastening Truman's decision to not seek a second term, while General Dwight D. Eisenhower triumphed over party favorite Robert Taft, catapulting the former on the path to the White House. It was here that New Hampshire gained its reputation as a test of a candidate's viability. As the number of primaries doubled between 1968 and 1976, New Hampshire's "first-in-the-nation" contest took on more and more influence over the race for the presidency—especially as the state legally mandated that its primary preempt all other states.

But there's a bit of a problem: Winning New Hampshire is not winning America. The state is hardly indicative of the nation's electoral logic. Of its 1.3 million residents, some 94 percent are white, according to the latest Census data. Its African-American, Asian-American, and Latino populations are well below national percentages. It's citizens are also far richer and better educated than the rest of the country, with the percentage of poor residents nearly half that of the United States as a whole. As a demographic and political snapshot of the U.S., it's less representative than, say, Illinois. Why do we hold "as goes New Hampshire, so goes the nation" as political doctrine?

Winning New Hampshire is not winning America. The state is hardly indicative of the nation's electoral logic.

Like its cousin, the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary isn't important because of any demographic or ideological reason. It's important because it's first, and only because it's first, the initial "beauty contest" that gave relative newcomers like Kefauver and Eisenhower a chance to topple presumptive nominees. After all, no presidential nominee has ever finished worse than second in the primary in the last 60 years. As I noted last week, a 2014 study in Presidential Studies Quarterly on the predictive power of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests indicated that "shifts in media attention toward candidates after Iowa affected candidate performance in New Hampshire. Similar shifts in media attention to candidates due to results in New Hampshire predict a candidate's overall vote share across all nomination contests." New Hampshire is the first political contest of an election year with any real electoral saliency, a moment when the establishment—politicians, political operatives, interest groups, and the media—reads the tea leaves, grapples with their first look at the electorate's will (despite demographic discrepancies), and reacts accordingly.

The irony, of course, is that research indicates the Sanders/Trump confounding of media expectations is actually exactly what was supposed to happen in New Hampshire. Another study published in Political Research Quarterly, this one from 2004, indicates that the New Hampshire primary can have a "correcting" effect on electoral predictions, and that this effect is more pronounced for Democrats. "The New Hampshire bounce appears to be limited to the Democratic Party, which typically lacks a clear frontrunner heading into the primaries," the study authors write. "The two dark-horse candidates who gained substantial momentum during the primaries were Democrats. The New Hampshire primary played a major role in advancing both of their candidacies. The Republican candidate fields, being relatively more structured going into the primaries, are not substantially altered by the New Hampshire primary." This sounds exactly like Donald Trump's long-running dominance and Bernie Sanders' sudden insurgency, all borne on the back of media attention in the aftermath of Iowa.

So what does this mean? The establishment forces that translate these victories across future presidential contests are faced with a few choices: Embrace the message sent by voters in those two sacred states, or continue to rail against candidates they can't control. The first option feels like the only appropriate one, a recognition of the populist moment we're living in; after all, both Trump and Sanders have built their campaigns not only on fiery rhetoric that appeals to the varied (but strangely similar) anxieties of two distinct ideologies, but on their rejection of establishment media and the campaign finance system that's made their opponents such easy targets for an increasingly distrustful electorate.

The latter option would be, frankly, disastrous. Not only do continued attacks against Sanders and Trump bolster their (valuable) outsider status, but railing against the two will totally undermine the electoral primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire in the first place, effectively tipping the hands of the media and politicos as unresponsive to the popular will. New Hampshire and Iowa have been the firsts-in-the-nation for 60 years, and to dismantle this political narrative now only reinforces how phony it was in the first place.

What New Hampshire means for the 2016 election is still unclear, as it should be. Sanders won every demographic group in New Hampshire, but Hillary will likely benefit from victories in southern states on Super Tuesday, where southern Democrats are likely to be less receptive to Sanders. But the ascendancy of Sanders and Trump in these two states has given legitimacy to their populism that no viral tweet or blistering stump speech could have achieved. In rejecting this, the establishment must reject the primacy of New Hampshire and Iowa in the first place.

These victories are a reckoning, the end of an era in the interplay between those first-in-the-nation primaries and media narratives that started with Richard Upton back in 1948. If the era of the party-correcting primary is over, what comes next?