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The Democratic race was over the second that polls closed in New Hampshire at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday night, when Vermont Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders was instantly declared the winner.
By the time all the votes had been counted, five hours later, Sanders had defeated his rival Hillary Clinton by an eye-popping 21 percentage points, the largest margin of victory in a contested Democratic primary in the Granite State since the start of the modern era.
To be sure, the chattering classes “expected” Sanders to triumph Tuesday. He had been leading in opinion surveys for months, and New Hampshire borders his home state.
Still, it’s worth stepping back for a moment to reflect on how improbable this result — a Bernie Sanders primary victory — seemed just a short time ago.
When Sanders announced his presidential bid back in April, with a ramshackle press conference in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, almost no one in Washington, D.C., took him seriously. At the time, Sanders was averaging 5.6 percent in the national polls; Clinton was averaging 62.2 percent. As recently as Dec. 1, Clinton was leading Sanders by more than 4 percentage points in New Hampshire and more than 10 percentage points in Iowa. Clinton was supposed to be inevitable; Sanders, a Democratic socialist, was supposed to be inconsequential.
“We started out at zero,” Burt Cohen, a member of Sanders’ New Hampshire steering committee and a former state senator, told Yahoo News. “Everybody knew Hillary Clinton just six months ago. We did not have any kind of home state advantage. Nobody knew Bernie Sanders.”
Yet now that the dust has settled on the first two Democratic nominating contests of 2016, the race suddenly looks very different. Last week in Iowa, Sanders came within one-quarter of 1 percentage point of upsetting the former secretary of state. And Tuesday in New Hampshire, Sanders clobbered Clinton among the very voters who, in 1992, transformed Hillary’s husband, Bill, into the “Comeback Kid” and who stunned pollsters and pundits 16 years later by picking her over Barack Obama.
According to one of his closest aides, Sanders pumped his “fist in the air” when the networks announced that he had won New Hampshire. Supporters cheered and danced as they awaited his victory speech in the Concord High School gymnasium.
“We were feeling good, but this is something else,” Karthik Ganapathy, Sanders’ New Hampshire communications director, told Yahoo News. “To have this margin, this moment, this energy in here…”
“Hear that?” Ganapathy asked, as the crowd chanted Sanders’ name. “That’s something.”
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., center left, watches election results with his wife, Jane, at a primary party at Concord High School Tuesday night. (Photo: John Minchillo/AP)
Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” won the primary by focusing on income inequality, campaign finance reform, universal health care and free public college education. When he finally took to the stage, about an hour after the results were announced, Sanders characterized his victory as a message to the nation’s elites.
“Together we have sent a message that will echo from Wall Street to Washington, from Maine to California, and that is 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,” Sanders said.
Citing the exit polls, which showed Sanders winning 83 percent of voters under the age of 30 and 72 percent of independents, Ganapathy said he had “two takeaways” from Sanders’ performance in the Granite State (where “undeclared” voters are allowed to cast ballots in either party’s primary).
“Young people and the independent, undeclared voters — they came out and they made the crucial difference in this election,” Ganapathy said. “People think they’re sort of unreliable. But they’re here and they’re voting.”
The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, was clearly unsettled Tuesday night.
Amid reports that her husband, Bill, was unhappy with the results, and of a pending staff shakeup, Clinton formally conceded in a statement from her campaign manager, long before most of her supporters had even been admitted to the sports arena at Southern New Hampshire University, where her final New Hampshire event took place.
The campaign was also quick to feed reporters a prewritten “strategy memo” that downplayed the significance of Iowa and New Hampshire, and argued that Clinton would defeat Sanders in the contests ahead, where voters are less culturally homogeneous.
“Whereas the electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire are largely rural/suburban and predominantly white, the March states better reflect the true diversity of the Democratic Party and the nation — including large populations of voters who live in big cities and small towns, and voters with a much broader range of races and religions,” the memo read. “The nomination will very likely be won in March, not February, and we believe that Hillary Clinton is well positioned to build a strong — potentially insurmountable — delegate lead next month.”
At SNHU, the mood was defensive. Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” blared over the PA system. Asked about polling data showing that Sanders had won independent voters by an overwhelming margin in New Hampshire, Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri was quick with a comeback.
“Most of the states we’re going to now, Democrats vote in them,” she said. “Not independents.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, at her side, addresses supporters Tuesday night in Hooksett, N.H. (Photo: Elise Amendola/AP)
Large portions of Clinton’s speech, meanwhile, seemed to be as much about Sanders’ candidacy as her own: his issues, his critiques, his supporters. Clinton pointed out that her concern for campaign finance reform was personal, that the Citizens United Supreme Court decision “was actually a case about a right-wing attack on me … that ended up damaging our entire democracy.” She promised to crack down on corporations and address unfair global trade practices. She even conceded that she had yet to connect with millennial voters.
“I know I have some work to do, particularly with young people,” she confessed. “Even if they’re not supporting me now, I support them.”
Luther Lowe, 33, a San Francisco-based Yelp public policy executive, spoke for many in the room when he attributed Clinton’s loss to Sanders’ position as a senator from a neighboring state.
“It’s almost like an incumbent situation,” Lowe said. “I’m looking forward to Nevada, South Carolina, the SEC primary. I’m confident she will become the nominee.”
But not everyone was so quick to let Clinton off the hook.
“I think that Sen. Sanders developed an effective enemy by talking about the middle class and Wall Street, and an emotional message by talking about income inequality,” Paul Hodes, a Clinton supporter and former U.S. congressman from New Hampshire, told Yahoo News. “I’m hoping that Hillary takes a real look at an authentic emotional message that connects with voters from here on.
“She’s enormously intelligent, she’s well-versed in policy, and voters have a short attention span,” Hodes continued. “They’re happy when they’re promised puppies and rainbows.”
In her speech, Clinton hit on a similar theme — that Sanders is overpromising, with his talk of “political revolution.”
“We’re going to fight for real solutions that make a real difference in people’s lives,” she said. The question of the campaign, Clinton added, is “Who is the best change-maker?”