With the first two election contests of 2016 now in the bag, the outcome of this rollercoaster of a race for the White House remains as hard to predict as ever. Those who were looking to the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary for answers have been sorely disappointed. In the democratic camp, the fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is nowhere near a resolution. On the Republican front, a bloated field of candidates has not got any closer to slimming down. All in all, with his second-place finish in Iowa and resounding victory in New Hampshire, the least-likely frontrunner of them all Donald Trump has actually come out of the starting blocks well ahead of everybody else.
The kick-off of this 2016 voting season has not been kind to Clinton. She barely eked out a win in Iowa and then went on to a glaring loss in New Hampshire, where she had come from behind to defeat Barack Obama in 2008. “I know I have some work to do, particularly with young people,” Clinton said in her concession speech in the Granite State. This is far from the scenario that the former secretary of State, long seen as a shoe-in for the presidency, had planned for. Of course, Clinton vowed to turn the page and move forward. “We take this campaign to entire country,” she told her New Hampshire supporters, “We are going to fight for every vote in every state.” But enduring doubts about her effectiveness as a candidate, about her ability to excite voters, are now bound to harden, casting even longer shadows on her campaign in the weeks ahead. Recent rumblings about a staff reshuffle in the making are also likely to mount.
For the time being, Clinton remains the favorite for the Democratic nomination and the White House. Particularly as the election calendar now takes the contenders toward a string of states – starting with Nevada (February 20th) and South Carolina (February 27th) and culminating in the March 1st Super-Tuesday – whose demographic and socio-economic make up should be friendlier toward her. But she faces a more arduous path than anybody would have predicted even a couple of months ago, and a greatly energized opponent.
If it’s true that everybody loves a winner, Sanders has much to look forward to. He put a whopping 21,6 percentage points between himself and Clinton in New Hampshire; even in Iowa, many hailed his near loss rather as a win; and he enjoys what conservative polling group Decision Desk HQ described as “Kim Jong-un levels of support among millennials.” He has wind behind his back and his campaign is gaining an aura of credibility and possibility that, for a time, had seemed out of reach beyond his core supporters. “Together we have sent a message that will echo from Wall Street to Washington, from Maine to California,” Sanders said in his victory speech in New Hampshire. “That the government of our great country belongs to all of the people and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors and their super PACs.” Over the next few weeks, Sanders will have to prove himself anew, with voters in the American South and West who are more ethnically diverse than those of Iowa and New Hampshire, and less familiar with the Vermont Senator. But he will do so with momentum on his side and with growing media visibility.
On the other side of the fence, a crowded GOP presidential field is coming out of the first two primary contests just as muddled as it was going in. If Iowa seemed to narrow the choice down to a duel for the insurgent vote between Trump and Ted Cruz, with Marco Rubio emerging as the ‘consensus’ option, New Hampshire threw all that back into question. A surprisingly strong finish by Ohio Governor John Kasich, who until now has been struggling to make himself noticed, put him second only behind Trump. “Maybe we are turning the page on a dark chapter of American politics,” an overjoyed Kasich told his supporters in New Hampshire. “Because tonight the light overcame the darkness of negative campaigning. And you made it happen!”
Four other presidential hopefuls, Cruz, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Chistie, followed, coming within inches of each other. None of them received enough votes to make a run for it, but all got just enough to justify staying in the race at least a while longer. To be fair, Cruz, who spent little in New Hampshire, and Bush, whose campaign was trudging dangerously close to the edge, have reasons to be pleased with their performance. While Rubio’s and Christie’s results leave much to be desired (so much so that Christie is in fact dropping out). But besides this, nothing is set in stone yet.
This means that the not so secret wish by the GOP leadership to have the field rapidly winnowed down to only one establishment candidate, upon whom to direct all money and resources in the battle against the outsiders Trump/Cruz, is not about to come true anytime soon. This gives Trump in particular a second cause for celebration, beside his clear-cut victory. He will continue to face a divided mainstream Republican camp, allowing him the chance to wiggle away from otherwise tough opponents who remain preoccupied with attacking one another rather than him.
This same setup may well be replicated in the general election, once again to Trump’s advantage. It is looking increasingly likely that, especially if the real estate mogul wins the GOP nomination, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will enter the race as an independent. Because of Bloomberg’s unusual profile, a social liberal and fiscal conservative from New York, he is more likely to steal votes from, say, Clinton than from Trump. So yes, if you are Donald Trump, things are looking better and better with each day.