Highline—American Electoral: 7 Days on the Trail

(reported and written with Jack Hitt)

Day 2:  Hate Trump?  Just Wait Until 2020.

KEVIN BAKER: Everybody has his own golden age. For Republicans, it’s usually some vague period before 1965, or maybe the Reagan era. For Democrats, increasingly, it’s the Bill Clinton years. And for Karl Rove, it’s when Bill McKinley was president and you could still get a free pickled egg with your five-cent beer.You have to go all the way back to the Vietnam War, though, to find a moment when people all across the political spectrum raged so fiercely against “the establishment” as they do now. And yet even amidst all the turmoil of those years, the establishment didn’t fall. The reason was that most Americans were living better than they ever had before.The first three postwar decades were truly the golden age of working- and middle-class life in this country. In 1963, the average assembly-line worker in Detroit was making the rough equivalent of $100,000, in wages and benefits. It was tough, grueling work, but the wife could stay home and look after the kids, there was a vacation cabin on the Upper Peninsula for a few weeks in the summer and the next generation could go off to a cheap and excellent public university.

Even among the considerable parts of the population that had been savagely oppressed for decades and who were denied the full benefits of the postwar boom as a result, there was rising hope. (Detroit also boasted the highest rates of black home ownership in the nation.)

What the more radical protesters of the era never understood was that most of the country was never going to abandon the establishment when they had it so good. The question is: does that firewall of hope exist today?

JACK HITT: That’s what’s so striking about New Hampshire this year: The fear is palpable everywhere we go. At a Christie “town hall,” held at the Gilchrist Metal Fabricating Company in Hudson, New Hampshire, yesterday, a woman in the audience told the governor, “I haven’t decided yet [who I’m going to vote for],” at which point Christie raced across the room and took a knee before her chair.

Everybody laughed, but then the woman said, in a tremulous voice, “I am 53 years old and very nervous about retiring. My husband works his ass off and he paid into social security. And I am really afraid of it going away.”

At the same rally, I encountered five college students from a State University of New York (SUNY) branch who were going to see every candidate, Democratic and Republican. They were bright and smart and ambitious—and worried that their futures had already been narrowed because they couldn’t afford to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for private colleges.

Spend enough time talking to these voters, and it becomes clear that the anti-establishment candidates, Bernie and Trump, wildly different though they may be, are largely talking about the same anxiety. Poll after poll shows that the two centers of economic concern now are “well-paying and secure jobs” and “college tuition.” Both sets of voters are deeply apprehensive that the economy of the near future is going to exclude them. They feel as if it’s been set up for somebody else.

KB: The establishment narrative in America is broken, which is why everyone, absolutely everyone in this race is an “outsider” candidate. (Except poor Jeb.)

At a rally on Sunday afternoon, Carly Fiorina—the daughter of a high federal judge, and a corporate executive whose golden parachute from Hewlett Packard alone was worth $21 million—ended her talk with an exhortation to her fellow “citizens” as if she were Robespierre calling for the heads of the Girondists before the National Convention:

“Citizens, it is time. We must take our future back. We must take our politics and our government back. Citizens, join me, fight with me, win with me. We can, and we will, take our country back!”

For Chris Christie, swaggering about New Hampshire yesterday like a saucy bear after his debate performance, the outsiders are governors, like himself, unlike those insider members of “the United States Senate [where] they tell you when to show up, where to sit, what to do, and they give you a list of questions beforehand, tell you to vote yes or no on them.”

Even Bill Clinton, his voice in full campaign mode, hoarse and ragged, tried to insist to the crowd overflowing the gym of Manchester Community College that Hillary Clinton—former first lady, former U.S. senator, former secretary of state—was really an outsider, because of all the fights she had waged on behalf of children’s welfare, legal services and women’s rights.

The prevailing establishment narrative—its Democratic version, at least—is one that Bill did a lot to popularize: the idea that if you “play by the rules,” work hard and get a college degree or two, you’ll make out fine in the globalized economy of the twenty-first century. But not much of that feels true anymore.

If many people all across America seem to have been flirting with what were once considered fringe candidates such as Trump or Sanders, it’s because the establishment’s solutions now ring even crazier.

KB: So, can the establishment survive New Hampshire? To divine the results, we turned to our secret West Coast source, a former political operative we will refer to only as “Big Rosie,” a.k.a. Rick Rosenthal, a former Democratic operative turned hotshot Hollywood lawyer.

JH: Big Rosie is somewhere over six-foot-eight and wears an enormous fedora. As a former field organizer, he is extremely sensitive to structural problems for a campaign—such as the inability to raise money—and factors that usually elude the poltroons of the big media, such as the energy of the candidates and the ground-game competency of their supporters. Big Rosie actually outdid Nate Silver when it came to predicting the 2008 and 2012 election totals. This year, he looked at Trump’s lack of a real organization—and his supporters sitting on their hands at rallies—and called his demise in Iowa weeks before it happened. Here in the Granite State, Trump’s people didn’t even ask for the voting rolls, so they are essentially operating blind.

Over the next four years, someone in a state house, or maybe on a reality television show, is going to do a better job of harnessing all the fear and rage.

KB: In New Hampshire, Big Rosie also notes that the state’s voters, especially on the Republican side, “tend to look for electability” in a candidate. They’re not always right, but it’s still a major factor in making up their minds.

Trump doesn’t seem especially electable—and, Big Rosie astutely notes, his big hobbyhorse, immigration reform (“reform” in this case meaning “ceaseless persecution”), ranks only fifth on the list of what New Hampshire voters consider the most important issues in the race.

So Big Rosie calls tonight’s race this way:

Kasich 26; Trump 23; Jeb! 16; Rubio 13; Cruz 11; Christie 6;

Fiorina 4;Carson 1

On the Democratic side, he thinks that Bernie Sanders will score a victory over Hillary Clinton, but not by a massive margin, “maybe ten points or so.”

JH: Big Rosie describes John Kasich as a candidate almost “tailor-made for New Hampshire.” People here perceive him as highly electable in a general election. He is also rising steadily in the polls, seems to be increasingly well-organized and has engaged with the state’s problem with opioid abuse (a topic we’ll tackle tomorrow.)

It’s no wonder that on election morning a biting commercial from a mysterious Super PAC went up denouncing Kasich for his “banking” and “Wall Street” background. (He once managed the Lehman Brothers office in Columbus, Ohio.) There are 44 ads a day in New Hampshire denouncing Kasich as either a bankster or “an Obama Republican.” Jeb Bush, we’re looking at you.

KB: In other words, the establishment should survive its test in New Hampshire, and it will probably survive the general election, too. But the problem isn’t with the revolution—it’s with its would-be leaders. The Donald is oozing back into a puddle of his own sloth—and, probably, ambivalence at the prospect of actually having to fix the country. And for all of Bernie’s authenticity, it’s doubtful that the American people are going to elect a 75-year-old man whose default gesture is signaling for a new soup spoon at Dubrow’s. (Hillary Clinton must be thanking the sweet Lord that Elizabeth Warren chose not to run for president.)

Meanwhile, voters remain skeptical, anxious, angry. All they need is a viable alternative. In the next election or two, someone in a state house, or on a reality television show, is probably going to do a better job of harnessing all that fear and rage. If that happens, we’ll have an election that offers fundamentally different choices from anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

Worst Argument: Bill Clinton lauded his wife as “the best change-maker” in the race. “She always makes something good happen,” he claimed, and went on to praise her famous, failed “Hillarycare” effort. She had “an excellent plan … but we just couldn’t get 60 votes in the Senate.”

Which, when it comes to “making change happen,” is the whole point, no?

Most Ominous Sign: I swear we’re not obsessed with lawn signs, but there really is something going on with them this year. Where there used to be entire slopes of interstate cloverleafs jammed with dozens of different signs, now a few sit tilted in the snow. Several people told that us campaign organizers don’t even ask them about them anymore. Maybe it’s the result of Citizens United, where every candidate has a billionaire or two in the pocket, or maybe it’s the rise of surgical campaigning where social media can isolate individual voters by their very own private hot-button issue. The exploding lawn signs of elections past were emblems of mass grassroots participation in politics. No longer.

Best Solutions-Oriented Approach: “Common sense isn’t common anymore,” a machinist called Phil told us at a Fiorina rally, hearkening back to his own golden age. “We have to put labels on everything. Remember jarts, those giant lawn darts? You can’t get them any more. We should get rid of the warning labels and thin out the herd.”