MANCHESTER, N.H. — Long lines formed at polling places after the 7 p.m. closing time for voting. Minutes earlier, supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were still in the streets, hunting for last-minute votes in what would turn out to be huge victories for both men.
State officials had predicted a record turnout. And while the numbers were not quite final, it seemed clear they were right.
The message from New Hampshire is loud and clear and twofold. One: The American people are more ideologically divided by political party than they have been in a generation. Two: Voters are deeply, passionately involved in the campaign, and are likely to remain so throughout 2016.
The bottom line: The U.S. is looking at an election of vivid contrasts with an intensity not experienced in decades, arguably since the Vietnam era in 1968. True, the 2000 “hanging chad” presidential election went to the U.S. Supreme Court before it was settled. But 2016 is less likely to be about procedure than deep ideological contrast in an electorate that is passionately engaged in the process.
Love them or loathe them, Trump and Sanders both are bringing hordes of new voters or those who previously had been disaffected into the process. Sanders supporters are furious at any comparison between the two men — Trump, after all, is a fountain of racist insults and authoritarian thinking. But the fact remains that both New Hampshire winners are expanding the voter pool.
Sanders is doing it primarily among young voters — at Hillary Clinton’s expense; Trump is doing it among middle and lower-middle class voters who prefer his strongman business approach to the Sanders answer of more government.
On the corner of Mechanic and Elm streets in downtown Manchester, David Teed, a Trump volunteer, stood in a small pile of snow with a set of Trump posters as he tried to convince an undecided Republican to vote for his man.
“He’s a businessman, not a politician,” Teed said. That was supposed to be enough.
Down the street at the Reine coffee bar, the Sanders supporters behind the counter were showing off the plastic spoon they had painted to look like their hero’s professorial face.
“I lived in Austria for a few years and saw what real health care is,” said Meghann Louie-Heintal, who hails from Derry. “So I’m for Bernie’s plan for national health here.”
These contrasting pitches show the other side of the intensity and interest: Stark ideological division of a kind that is rarely seen in American presidential elections that are supposed to be — and usually are — a race to the middle.
Iowa is all about reaching the most intense and extreme wings of each of the two main parties; New Hampshire, famous for its vast horde of independent “undeclared” voters and its mix of libertarian thinking and community mindedness, often rewards candidates who run to the center.
Not this time. Even though there is a long road ahead, not to mention a general election in the fall, the polarization of New Hampshire is worth noting on this night.
The exit polls, in which news staffers interview voters on the way out of polling places, tell the story of involvement and division.
Among Republicans, 21 percent more call themselves “conservative” this year than four years ago. Among Democrats, 12 percent more than last time call themselves “liberal.”
Among GOP voters, two-thirds support a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country — an idea overwhelmingly rejected by Democrats. Four out of 10 Republicans want to deport all undocumented immigrants, compared with 10 percent of Democrats. No wonder Trump won here.
Same for Sanders, who advocates cradle-to-grave government-funded health care, free public college education and other measures funded by new taxes, mostly on the rich.
A generation of Democrats led by the Clintons steered away from such “Big Government” answers during the ascendency of Ronald Reagan and his ilk. But that era is over and so, apparently, is the willingness of the Democratic grassroots to buy the idea that they should furl their flag.
By a more than 2-1 margin, Democrats here favor a single payer government health care plan, despite Hillary Clinton’s argument that to do so would “throw out” the progress that had been made by passing the Affordable Care Act, which depends on cooperation from insurance and pharmaceutical companies and the private market.
In a bad sign for Democrats, the Republicans seem somewhat more motivated and angry overall, but a wide majority of all voters say they are concerned or “very” concerned about the state of the American economy.
As one American political sage said in 1992, “It’s the economy stupid” in presidential elections, and it remains true.
For now, voters are saying their want either more government (Sanders), or an authoritarian businessman (Trump).
That’s an argument for the ages.
See more coverage of the New Hampshire primary here: