Letter from Portland

David Biespiel on the New Hampshire primaries

Over the next year, as the United States goes through the process of electing its 45th president, poet, critic, and Politico contributor David Biespiel will occasionally send us a letter from his home in Portland, Oregon, on the status of the campaign. Read his first letter here.

HERE IN OREGON an armed group of mostly white, anti-government militia members just ended a standoff with the FBI that began on January 2nd when the group seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon’s remote Harney County. The high desert refuge—about 300 miles southeast from Portland—is famed among birdwatchers. The protestors, however, aren’t bird enthusiasts. They’re connected to the so-called “sovereign citizens movement” that wants control of federal lands in the West turned over to the states with all law enforcement powers going to local sheriffs. The protest leaders cited divine messages ordering them to defy the government, and were demanding ownership of the refuge. Their call for reinforcements was met, by January 11, nine days after the start of the takeover; dozens more armed militants traveled to Oregon from out of state to join the occupation. The whole business wasn’t quite Masada. But some of these guys did seem like they were willing to die for their cause, and one did. The rest are now under arrest by federal authorities. 

All along you could hear a small hissing leak in the anti-government balloon out there in Harney County. For one thing, neither the county nor the state wants the land that the refuge is on. For another, on that same day of January 11, the militia protestors began demolishing stretches of fence alongside the refuge to give an adjacent ranch access to land that had been cut off for years. Imagine the militiamen’s surprise when the rancher of the property quickly repaired his fence and told the press he didn’t want the fence taken down nor did he want access to that part of federal land. He preferred these things get worked out business-like between landowners and the Bureau of Land Management, and without guns—though he also expressed frustration for what he sees as the federal government making decisions about land so far away from Washington, DC, and without local input.

All along you could hear a small hissing leak in the anti-government balloon out there in Harney County.

In obvious ways these armed protestors long for an America that remains stuck in time: predominantly white, agrarian, and fundamentalist. Rogue citizens, they hate the government but profess to be true patriots. They are skeptical of environmental protection and federal land use policies, and have equated their outrage against government bullying as akin to that of the Black Lives Matter movement. Their critics on Twitter, meanwhile, have exercised freedom of hashtag and mocked the protestors: #YallQueda and #VanillaISIS. After all, one difference between Black Lives Matter and the Harney County militants is that the latter were armed to the teeth, with firearms, the 2nd amendment, and Biblical ammunition: the books of Luke, Joel, Samuel, Numbers, and even the Song of Solomon: “They all hold swords, being expert in war: every man hath his sword upon his thigh because of fear in the night.”

That’s one America. 


IN THE OTHER America, in the last two weeks of the presidential campaign, different states have voted for a Hispanic, a woman, a Jew, and a plutocrat. 

Similar to the radicals in eastern Oregon, Democrats and Republicans (in Iowa and New Hampshire, at least) were ticked off at the federal government. To borrow an expression from the deflated candidacy of Florida senator Marco Rubio, who got pilloried by New Jersey governor Chris Christie in a recent GOP debate (not just pilloried, mind you, but “You’re no Jack Kennedied”): let's dispel once and for all with [sic] this fiction that the American people don't know what they’re doing. The American people know exactly what they’re doing. 

The American people of New Hampshire who are Republicans, for instance, handed celebrity businessman Donald Trump, who has no formal political experience, the most dominating GOP primary victory in New Hampshire in 16 years. His closest competitor, Ohio governor John Kasich, was almost 20 points behind, which is crazy given that Kasich spent 75 days campaigning in the state, compared to Trump’s 27. Behind Trump and Kasich the contest was a pile-up. 

The amount of money spent in New Hampshire by GOP candidates piled up, too. Here are the obscene totals: 

$36M Bush
$18.5M Christie
$15.2M Rubio
$12.1M Kasich
$3.7M Trump
$1.8M Fiorina
$580K Cruz

It’s worth noting that for his $3.7 million, Trump dominated in most of the important, measurable categories

  • He won the vote in every age group.
  • He won with voters at every level of education. 
  • He won men 3-to-1 over the second place finisher, and women, 2-to-1.
  • He topped the vote with all income levels, winning 39% from voters earning less than $50K a year. 
  • He won both the conservative and the moderate vote. 
  • Among evangelical Christians, Trump tied Texas senator Ted Cruz who is the evangelical candidate still in the race.
  • He won 52% of voters who said the economy was the most important issue. 
  • For voters who said electability was the top issue, Trump won 32%. 
  • 64% of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire support a temporary ban on Muslims coming into the U.S., and Trump won 44% of this group. 
  • Finally, Trump won the plurality of votes in each of New Hampshire’s 10 counties. 

On the Democratic side, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders crushed former Secretary of State, former New York senator, and former First Lady Hillary Clinton 60% to 38%. So far his coalition is formed primarily of white liberals who feel Barack Obama hasn’t been liberal enough. Yes on “Hope," but change? Bernie’s supporters say, “Nope."

But Obama’s presidency has been consequential. ObamaCare, the Paris climate change treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, ending the war in Iraq, rescuing the auto industry, ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, supporting universal marriage: Obama’s accomplishments are tough to run against—I mean, for a Democrat. But Sanders speaks for a left wing frustrated with the Obama presidency. He won New Hampshire and nearly Iowa, too. In New Hampshire, he won men 2-to-1 and women 55% to 44%. In addition:

  • He won the vote in every age group except people 65 and over.
  • He won the vote in rural towns, suburbs, and cities over 50,000 people.
  • He won the vote of people with college degrees (56% to 43%) and without college degrees (67% to 31%).
  • He topped the vote in all income categories except those earning over $200K.
  • He won the moderate, somewhat liberal, and very liberal vote.
  • 40% of the electorate in the Democratic primary were registered as independents, and Sanders won 72% of these voters.
  • 23% of voters said health care is the issue that matters most, and Sanders won 54% of this group; 33% said the economy matters most, and Sanders won 59%; 9% said terrorism, and Sanders won 50%; and for the 32% of voters who said income inequality is the issue that matters most, Sanders won 71%.

Sanders is calling for banks to be broken up, billionaires to be heavily taxed, and corporate Wall Street power to be hemmed in. He promises universal health care, tuition-free college, and a living wage. He rails against a “rigged economy” that produces income inequality. His victory speech in New Hampshire was preceded by a long drink of water, which he definitely needed; the gulp was followed by a half-hour oration that had the sweaty, spiritual fervor of the old-time Democratic Party religion. It was beautiful to hear those old hymns from the Huey Long coalition of the Great Depression era, with Sanders calling for revolution against big money lobbyists and the Washington establishment. 

ObamaCare, the Paris climate change treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, ending the war in Iraq, rescuing the auto industry, ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, supporting universal marriage: Obama’s accomplishments are tough to run against—I mean, for a Democrat.

Interestingly, Trump, in his victory speech in New Hampshire, sounded similar themes, even as he muddles conservative orthodoxy. He assailed attempts to weaken Social Security, and also attempts to weaken the 2nd amendment. He even promised to strengthen Christmas. “They’re chopping away at Christianity…soon we’re going to start saying Merry Christmas” again. (Huge applause.) Who the “they” is, Trump doesn’t say. In New Hampshire on election night he attacked lobbyists for rigging drug prices and promised to “take care of people without health care…those drug companies are going to hate me so much.” And there’s his gold-plated wall to keep out Mexicans, and his ban on Muslims. In the debate last Sunday in South Carolina, he had positive things to say about Planned Parenthood and seemed to blame 9/11 on George W. Bush. 

Sanders’ and Trumps’ iconoclasm isn’t that far from the angry dudes who were hunkered down illegally in eastern Oregon. They wanted local ranchers to reclaim their land and shut down the refuge forever, and for the federal government to relinquish control. Sanders’s supporters want to shut down banks in order to get Wall Street to relinquish financial and political control of the system. Trump’s supporters want to shut down the U.S./Mexican border and deport undocumented immigrants so that—if you follow the logic—white Americans don’t have to participate in multiculturalism and globalism. Rejecting the “establishment” is a constant refrain.

Pundits don’t know what to make of Sanders and Trump. And it’s fun to watch political groups on the left gloat about Trump's win and political groups on the right gloat about Sanders’ win. If Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders could be merged into one hybrid guy, he would lead Occupy Tea Party. On the GOP side at least, Trump and Cruz’s ascendancies aren’t difficult to fathom; for years now, the Republican party has chased establishment officials from elected office in favor of FOX News-sanctioned, Sarah Palin-style right-wing radicals, including Joni Ernst, Thom Tillis, Raul Labrador, Tim Scott, David Brat—plus Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—and other members of the House Freedom Caucus that last year overthrew former speaker John Boehner. 

NOW THE CAMPAIGNS head west and south. I don’t know what the white militants who were holed up in Harney County are going to think about America in these upcoming contests, especially in the Democratic race, now that the campaigns have departed mostly-white Iowa and New Hampshire. At least 60% of South Carolina Democratic voters and 40% of Nevada Democratic voters—where the race now turns—are non-white citizens, comprised largely of Latinos and African-Americans. In New Hampshire and Iowa, non-whites comprise just 2% of the population. 

Pundits don’t know what to make of Sanders and Trump. And it’s fun to watch political groups on the left gloat about Trump’s win and political groups on the right gloat about Sanders’ win. If Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders could be merged into one hybrid guy, he would lead Occupy Tea Party.

Clinton has to put up solid wins—if not in Nevada’s complex caucus, then in South Carolina’s primary, to prove Sanders can’t compete among the party’s minority voters. Her concession speech in New Hampshire was directed squarely at African-American voters: she began and ended with outrage over the Flint, Michigan, water contamination crisis. Sanders’ enormous, small-dollar fundraising, meanwhile, should be able to keep him in the campaign deep into the spring. Since he claimed victory in New Hampshire, he’s already raised over $6 million.

Sanders is already advertising in Minnesota, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma, states with large populations of white liberal voters in the Democratic party and few minority voters. But delegate-rich states—and more racially diverse states—such as Illinois, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and, finally, California in June (if the campaign stays competitive that long) are thought to be Clinton’s firewall. At the risk of getting egg on my boots, I should think the race will be decided in Clinton’s favor by April. Sanders hinted as much when he chastised the sexist “Bernie Bros” and called on supporters to remember that Democrats will have to unite in the fall: 

I want to take this opportunity again to congratulate Secretary Clinton and her organization and supporters for waging a vigorous campaign. I hope that in the days ahead we can continue to wage a strong, issue oriented campaign, and bring new people into the political process.

But, I also hope that we all remember—and this is a message not just to our opponents, but to those who support me as well. That we will need to come together in a few months and unite this party, and this nation because the right-wing Republicans we oppose must not be allowed to gain the presidency.

As we all remember, the last time Republicans occupied the White House, their trickle down economic policies drove us into the worst economic downturn since the depression of the 1930s. No, we will not allow huge tax breaks for billionaires, we will not allow packed—huge cuts to social security, veterans needs, Medicare, MedicAid, and education. No, we will not allow back into the White House a political party which is so beholden to the fossil fuel industry that they cannot even acknowledge the scientific reality of climate change.

On the Republican side? Search me. This morning I thought Cruz had a bead on the nomination, by lunch, I was thinking, Trump. Right now, well, Bush has a lot of money. Later today I might think, but Cruz has even more. 

So it’s on to South Carolina, where the race goes for the ‪February 20‬ primary. It’s a state with a reputation for dirty tricks and political violence. (In 2000, Bush smeared  Arizona senator John McCain with a mailer alleging that the Arizona senator “chose to sire children without marriage” and seized control of the GOP campaign thereafter.) Trump is currently up in the polls. Cruz, relying on the state’s Christian voters (as he did in his victory in Iowa), is highly competitive there, too. And headed into the state (even as I write) to campaign for his brother is former president George W. Bush, popular with South Carolina’s large veteran population. ‬

Knife fight is not too strong a characterization of what’s to come between the two politicians from the state with the prettiest name.

Speaking of Bushes, Jeb’s first task is to gain some sort of momentum and assure his donors he can last into the spring. He finished a “winning” 4th in New Hampshire. First order of business for Bush: dispense with panicked Rubio. If you watch the clip again of Christie pulverizing Rubio, you can hear Bush trying to get into the conversation. (He could smell blood.) South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham’s operation is already working for Bush, while some of Rubio’s top aides actually come from South Carolina. Rubio’s campaign has been geared for a showdown there all along, and is already attacking other candidates in campaign appearances.

About those Rubio aides. Back in October, McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed reported that Rubio’s top operatives have a history of cutthroat campaigning in South Carolina: 

The Rubio campaign is being helmed by a combative strategist, Terry Sullivan, who once (allegedly) dispatched interns dressed in prison stripes to crash a 2007 Mike Huckabee rally and protest the former governor’s controversial parole record.

The leading pro-Rubio super PAC is headed by Warren Tompkins, an infamous South Carolina operative who was widely suspected of orchestrating a whisper campaign during the 2000 Republican presidential primaries to convince voters that John McCain was hiding a black love child. 

And in a more recent episode that could have lasting political repercussions in next year’s primaries, Rubio’s chief digital strategist, Wesley Donehue, is said to have actively hyped unsubstantiated rumors in 2010 that Nikki Haley had an affair with a local South Carolina blogger.

Knife fight is not too strong a characterization of what’s to come between the two politicians from the state with the prettiest name. To date, Bush has spent $10.3 million in ads in South Carolina. Rubio: $9.4 million. If Rubio can’t rebound in the Palmetto State, he really has no other place to make a stand. It’s hard to tell which of the states that vote on Super ‪Tuesday, March 1‬, is Rubio country. AL, AR, CO, GA, MA, MN, ND, OK, TN, TX, VT, VA, WY? Perhaps Michigan with its large suburban electorate. But if Rubio doesn’t win, place, or show in SC, all that may be left for him is his campaign’s professed Plan B: a contested convention.‬

Then there’s Trump v. Cruz. Cruz is now attacking Trump—with child actors playing with a Trump action figure—in a weird web ad arguing that Trump is a fake Republican. As reported by Ben Schreckinger in Politico:

Already, Cruz campaign reinforcements were streaming into South Carolina from New Hampshire on Tuesday, sending a clear signal to Trump’s team that it’s in for a fight.

Cruz is appealing to the electorate there and if you take that and combine it with the fact that he actually has a very, very, very good data operation, it makes it dangerous for Trump,” said Weathers. He added that he would be "extremely worried" if it were not for his faith in Trump's team in that state.

But Trump insiders concede, the businessman is becomes increasingly vulnerable to his Texan rival as the primary rolls ahead as the reality of the differences between their infrastructure and ground organization set in.

For all the talk about wins and popular vote totals, it’s worth remembering that what’s at stake going forward is not the tally of voters but the tally of delegates those votes represent. Some states will award delegates proportionally to the popular vote, while others will award them winner-take-all. Two of the latter states include Florida and Ohio, the two battleground states of the general election come the fall. The campaigns are now in the business of winning delegates all the way to the conventions. That’s the story. Even if you’re a part-time observer of the presidential campaign, keeping an eye on the delegate count is a must. On the Republican side, a candidate needs 1,237 delegates to win. To date the contest looks like this:

Trump: 17
Cruz: 11
Rubio: 10
Kasich: 5
Bush: 4
Carson: 3

For Democrats, the winning candidate will need 2,382 delegates to win. The big wrinkle in the Democratic party's nominating process is the inclusion of so-called superdelegates who are unelected delegates free to support any candidate. The superdelegates are comprised of elected officials and select national committee members. With superdelegates included, the tally now stands:

Clinton: 394
Sanders: 44

Sanders supporters are already infuriated by this official count, given how much he’s dominated the two contests to date. But, if I may repeat myself in the manner of Marco Rubio, let’s dispel with [sic] the fiction that the Democratic National Committee doesn’t know what it’s doing. The Democratic National Committee knows exactly what it’s doing and that’s why it put the superdelegate formula into place several decades ago—in order to try to prevent just the kind of grassroots revolt from the left that is going on right now. 

BEFORE THE STANDOFF down at the wildlife refuge came to an end in the late morning of February 11, I’d watched some riveting live feed of the armed protestors. Their vulgarity, racism, sexism, and narcissism are on full display. They appear angry and unpredictable and reckless. And they are exactly the kinds of Americans Donald Trump especially appeals to, with his instinct for arousing the mob. At a recent rally in Manchester, NH, he gleefully repeated a woman in the crowd who called Ted Cruz a pussy. Later, he said he was just essentially “retweeting" her words to the crowd. The media lapped it up, of course—there’s advertising to be sold with those clicks and hot takes about Donald Trump’s taking the Republican party hostage. His demagoguery, racism, and sexism make for good copy. In a word, like the militia protestors, Trump is shameless. 

But we should not underestimate the importance of shaming politicians. When they are exposed as uninformed or liars or corrupt or empty suits, the citizens’ right to mock and protest them is a special power. That’s what voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are doing to the leaders of their parties right now: expressing displeasure with the current political order. It might wear off. The death of conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia over the weekend might sober up voters. But right now, with New Hampshire done and Super Tuesday on the next horizon, it can be said of someone like Donald Trump that just because you can take a party hostage doesn’t mean you can pass a bill through Congress, negotiate a nuclear treaty, respond to a world crisis, confront national challenges, etc. That skill set, and whether voters care about it or not, is what the campaigns will be fighting over for the next six weeks.


DAVID BIESPIEL's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Slate, The New Republic, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and The New York Times. His latest book is A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns (2015).

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