DERRY, N.H.—A key to understanding the 2016 U.S. election lay beneath the stage where two of its principal antagonists were standing the other night.
Two storeys below the hall where Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders last debated, there’s a museum display chronicling the de-industrialization of Derry, N.H.
It shows machines from old shoe factories that have disappeared, supporting jobs that have disappeared, held by people now disappearing: well-paid, low-skilled American workers.
The local historian who runs it recalls a once-bustling main street. It’s filled today with a high-end shop here, a pawn shop there, and an empty storefront or two in between.
“These were all factories. Shoe factories. Gone,” Rick Holmes said, gesturing at the street.
“Gone, with the middle class.”
New Hampshire clearly counts as an economic success story. It’s among the richest states. It has a microscopic unemployment rate of 3.8 per cent.
But pop open the hood and underneath those numbers you’ll find the same engine powering the discontent now threatening to overrun the establishment of both political parties.
This state has bled middle class manufacturing jobs, like much of the country. And the two insurgent candidates who could win the Feb. 9 primary election have seized upon that sense of loss.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are leading big in New Hampshire polls, a situation that mortifies a political establishment that has until now considered both unelectable.
The rumpled socialist and the bewilderingly coiffed billionaire may be different personalities, with different worldviews, proposing different solutions.
But they’re pointing to the same problems, real or alleged: trade deals, decent jobs shipped overseas or replaced with machines, and an indifferent political class distracted by the priorities of its mega-rich campaign donors.
Sanders’ proposed fix? A drastically expanded social-safety net: free college tuition, Canadian-style health care, and paid parental leave. Trump’s? Kick out millions of illegal migrants from Mexico, who work under-the-table for cheap salaries. And protect existing social programs.
They have one major policy in common: ripping up trade deals.
Holmes predicts they’ll do well Tuesday.
“They both come across as angry men. And I think many of their voters are also angry,” he said. “They’re frustrated, trying to balance the family budget.”
Signs of change surround his town. Around the corner, the last of the old abandoned factories is about to be demolished after it’s stripped of salvageable scrap metal.
Down the street in a popular diner, one waitress says every person she knows is voting for the one of the two candidates: “All Bernie. And all Trump,” Amanda Parker says. “One or the other. It’s strange.”
The diner manager says people are struggling paycheque to paycheque, and politicians don’t listen because they’re too busy squabbling over side-issues: “People are concerned,” said Linda Guilnet. “People want to get back to where they should be. Instead of struggling.”
This Boston bedroom community is surrounded by evidence that many people have benefited greatly in this increasingly digital, global, service-oriented economy.
It’s dotted with McMansions erected during the dot-com and real-estate booms of the last two decades.
But the prevailing negative mood is amply chronicled in numbers found in national economic data, the census and surveys:
Take a wild guess who those groups are supporting.
Sanders took 84 per cent of the youth vote in Iowa, according to exit polls that showed Clinton winning richer, older voters. As for Trump, polls have shown him dominant among Republicans who never went to college. With those who have a degree, he’s a fourth-place also-ran.
An expert on public opinion at the University of New Hampshire says the two men are appealing to very distinct subsets among the frustrated.
”The same economic angst underlies voters in both parties,“ Andrew Smith said. ”But I don’t think there are many people saying, ‘Hmm, should I vote for Sanders or vote for Trump?’… The tone certainly is different.”
A Sanders fan concurs, brushing off a comparison between the socialist who blames billionaires, and the billionaire who blames foreigners. Kim De Lutis says: “They are polar opposites. Trump divides, Bernie unites.”
But there’s enough anger at politicians for them to share. The approval rate of Congress is languishing in the teens, down from its historical trendline between the 20s and the 50s according to Gallup surveys.
Holmes has prepared for the future. He’s built an additional floor above his home—for his kin to live in, with his grandchildren.
“(In the old days) everybody who worked could afford a house. Today, I don’t think that’s true,” he said.
“A lot of people … feel left out. (They feel), ‘We are not part of what is happening to America anymore. America has changed.’… (And) they’re lashing out.”