The Democratic debate in New Hampshire, just days before the New Hampshire primary, is not actually about New Hampshire. The shape of the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination is set: after Iowa there is no winnowing of candidates to be done, coronation to be scheduled, or momentum to be generated. The outcome of next Tuesday’s election (at least on the Democratic side of the ballot) will have little bearing on what is certain to be an extended battle in state primaries and caucuses for convention delegates between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Neither a comfortable Sanders victory in New Hampshire nor a surprising Clinton win would change the basic calculus. Sanders will have sufficient resources from an amazingly successful small donor fundraising operation, an army of volunteers, and unusually strong appeal with the youngest cohort, and a novelty in the arena that belies his age and lifetime in politics to carry the fight to his opponent. Clinton retains considerable advantages in the face of the emergence of a serious contender. She has the overwhelming support of her peers and the extensive Democratic Party network. She enjoys a close and supportive relationship with President Obama. She remains very popular among Democrats, especially with minorities and women. Her side of the generational divide is more likely to vote. And by a wide margin, Democratic voters and analysts see her as the more electable candidate in November.
Both candidates have weaknesses as well as strengths. While he caucuses with them in the Senate, Sanders is not a Democrat. His socialist identity, even of the northern European social democratic variety, comes with considerable baggage in an American setting. His views and positions cluster at the liberal extreme in Congress. His rousing call for a “democratic revolution” has a romantic appeal but can be jarring in a country known for its pragmatism, incrementalism, and skepticism of utopias. Clinton bears the scars of decades of political attacks and investigations. Years of experience campaigning and governing at the highest levels of government gives her unmatched visibility but familiarity can breed contempt. Public anxiety generated by economic and social dislocation has been channeled by politicians into an inchoate and angry anti-Washington, anti-establishment sentiment that sits uncomfortably with political dynasties.
Thursday’s debate will launch a series of one-on-one encounters between Clinton and Sanders in which both candidates work to highlight their strengths and minimize or counter their weaknesses. But a much larger story about American politics is unfolding in this election, the culmination of years, indeed decades, of a radicalization of the Republican Party. It can no longer be credibly denied that the polarization between the parties is asymmetric. This has been apparent in Congress where Republicans have become intensely oppositional and unwilling or unable to engage in bargaining and compromise with a Democratic president, one whose very legitimacy they challenge. Now it is unfolding in a very prominent way in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.
Sanders and Clinton understandably place their highest priority on winning the Democratic presidential nomination. But their differences have less to do with values and goals than strikingly different theories of policy change in American politics. The open question is whether their personal competition will sharpen or obscure the profound and consequential divide between the two political parties. This debate and those that follow will help determine whether the Democrats emerge from a spirited contest with an electable candidate and a unified and enthused party well positioned to confront a radicalized Republican Party.