New Hampshire primary voters have long taken pride in subjecting presidential wannabes to a long and thoroughgoing scrutiny — vetting the candidates on their political stands, grilling them at innumerable town hall meetings, assessing their demeanor on the campaign trail. White House hopefuls held themselves to a high standard of civility, or they didn’t win the first-in-the-nation primary.
By handing a victory to Donald Trump in this year’s primary, New Hampshire’s voters may have just blown up that long-nurtured credibility.
In previous election cycles, New Hampshire voters went (twice) for Republican John McCain, an affable and self-effacing war hero. In 2012 they backed Mitt Romney, a man so averse to bad language that his idea of swearing is a G-rated “H-E-double hockey sticks.” On the other hand, when Bob Dole, asked in 1988 if there was anything he wanted to say to his rival George H. W. Bush, snarled, “Tell him to stop lying about my record,” his bitterness seemed to ratify New Hampshire’s decision not to support him.
This time around, the winner of New Hampshire’s GOP primary is a vulgar egomaniac, as ignorant of public affairs as he is gifted at stoking anger and xenophobia.
Trump led every poll of New Hampshire Republican voters since last summer, so his first-place finish on Tuesday came as no surprise. But it was a grievous confirmation of how far the Party of Reagan has drifted from its moorings.
Granted, there are plenty of caveats. Some two-thirds of the vote didn’t go to Trump. Many of those who took a Republican ballot on Tuesday presumably weren’t Republicans. And victory in the New Hampshire primary is no guarantee of eventual nomination.
All the same, New Hampshire voters have just given their imprimatur to a demagogue far removed from everything thoughtful and honorable in the Republican Party’s traditions.
After losing the Iowa caucuses to Ted Cruz, Trump could have moderated his ugly campaign style. Instead he doubled down, using lewd language at campaign rallies, embracing the torture of terror suspects, and whining that Iowa’s results were fraudulent. New Hampshire’s voters have just rewarded those grotesqueries, bestowing on Trump his first official win of the presidential season. In so doing they have stained, perhaps permanently, their reputation for discernment.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.