Change is a constant, especially in politics, but some changes last longer than others
illustration by peter noonan
We don’t talk about the 1896 election as much as we should in New Hampshire.
At that time, New Hampshire was already trending to become a Republican state, but the 1896 election ensured the state’s reputation as solid Republican for another 100 years. In 2016, the same thing could happen, but this time the election could cement the Granite State’s recent course toward becoming a Democratic stronghold.
Before that 1896 election, Republicans had the governorship for 20 years straight, largely driven by the lingering post-Civil War climate of the Republican North.
Before this 2016 election, Democrats have essentially held the governor’s office for 20 years, aided by the Republican Party’s move to embrace the values of the country’s south and west.
Back in 1896, the politically polarizing issues on the table were eerily similar to what is being discussed on the campaign trail today. The final years of the Gilded Age ushered in some of the highest rates of income inequality that the country had ever seen. The Industrial Revolution transformed the workplace in ways similar to how the computer and Internet revolutions have disrupted industries in the last few decades. Like today, a huge chunk of Americans relied on credit to make ends meet, and there was much hostility toward the banking system. When it came to politics, the game was not just rigged; it was explicitly run by party bosses and their financial backers.
In that election year, Democrats were divided heading into their national convention in Chicago. For years, there had been calls at state Democratic Party conventions to admonish Democratic president Grover Cleveland for being too closely aligned with corporate America and the rich.
No one knew who would be the party’s presidential nominee that year, but the odds-on favorite was a former Missouri congressman who had won many delegates, but not enough to secure the nomination. On the fifth ballot, Democrats nominated a populist who preached the same kind of rhetoric that one might hear at a Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders rally today. His name was William Jennings Bryan. The Nebraska native was an unusual pick. At 36, he was the youngest person ever nominated for president, but he could deliver rousing speeches and get covered in the media.
Most believe he “stole” the nomination in a rhetorical flourish when he delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech about which precious metal the nation should use to base its finances (he was a proponent of silver). The speech reportedly roused the crowd to a frenzy as he ended with his famous proclamation, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
His views on the nation’s financial standards appealed strongly to many facing economic anxieties, but it also turned others off. Immigrants, those in urban centers, and a rising middle class rejected Bryan and, therefore, rejected the Democrats. The party’s plan not only didn’t serve them; in some cases, it offended them. Droves of voters in places such as the immigrant West Side of Manchester didn’t trust the Democratic Party again until the New Deal.
That pattern could be repeated this year as the Republican Party has been fractured between its ruling elite and the party’s grassroots Tea Party populists. It’s a dynamic that the Trump campaign has exploited and one that the local Republican Party knows well. When a Tea Party leader was elected as party chair in 2011, he was ousted in a coup nine month later. Even the current GOP chair, Jennifer Horn, faced calls to resign when she told The Boston Globe that there was no way that Trump would win the New Hampshire primary. Trump supporters saw this as proof that she was not neutral in the race as party rules bound her to be. It didn’t help matters that she turned out to be so wrong: Trump won the state by 20 percentage points.
A University of New Hampshire poll released in April shows that, if Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee next month, he is viewed favorably by just 21 percent of New Hampshire residents and unfavorably by 75 percent. Perhaps more damagingly, it also says that he would lose in a match-up against Democrat Hillary Clinton by 21 points, which would be the largest margin of victory in the state in nearly 30 years.
Some of the rhetoric in Trump’s primary campaign offended women and immigrants, even though it played well in primary contests. While he won the New Hampshire primary handily, most Republicans didn’t vote for him. Some, not thrilled with any of the choices, explicitly voted against him, and he heads into the 2016 convention with much in question.
While Trump’s views appeal to a generation of the white working class, that demographic is shrinking as both New Hampshire and the country grow more diverse.
Should Trump not only lose but, in doing so, fundamentally hurt the Republican brand, then there might be a generational repercussion. The state has already been leaning Democrat in nearly every election for the last 20 years.
Republicans have had big years when it counted the most, particularly in 2010, which allowed them to write legislative redistricting lines that helped Republicans maintain majorities at the statehouse. But the demographic trends have been clear.
On a national level, the once-successful Republican playbook of the past 40 years has recently only worked for them in mid-term elections. It’s unclear how New Hampshire Republicans can stop this tide, and there are few emerging leaders offering new alternatives other than those pushing for a more libertarian approach.
The state has gone for Democrats all but once in presidential races since 1996, and the same goes for gubernatorial races. Another close win by a Democratic presidential candidate will be part of the trend, but if it is an epic sweep, then it could, like 1896, be a major turning point in the state’s history.