Politics
Analysis

New Hampshire exit polls display vulnerabilities for Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton's bracing 22-point defeat in New Hampshire came at the hands of voters who seemed to reject not so much her policies, but Clinton herself — making her rebound all the more complicated unless the state proves to be an outlier.

That verdict comes through clearly in the exit poll of New Hampshire’s Democratic primary voters. Just over a third of them cited honesty and trustworthiness as the most important attribute for the next president, and Clinton’s opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, won those voters 91% to 5%. Asked if one candidate or both shared their values, a third said only Sanders did, and he won those voters 97% to 2%.

The repudiation was across the board. Sanders won almost all categories of voters, including women. Clinton had made them a specific target, but Sanders won women's votes by 11 points.

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New Hampshire is almost wholly white, more liberal and less religious than most states, which may make the defeat here a blip when the election season is concluded. But the sharp divisions evident Tuesday suggest trouble ahead for the national front-runner.

As the campaign moves into more diverse states, one big question will be whether African American and Latino voters decide by virtue of race and ethnicity or age. If minority voters form a bloc, Clinton’s strength in states like South Carolina and Nevada is assured. But if young minority voters break away from their elders to back Sanders, Clinton’s advantage would be diminished.

New Hampshire lacks enough minority voters to draw any conclusions about the impact of race and youth. But as in Iowa, young voters overall proved to be a potent army for Sanders. Among those aged 30 and under, he won more than 4-in-5 votes. The only age category that Clinton won was voters 65 and older, 55% of whom supported her.

In crafting his victory, the Vermont senator accomplished something remarkable. Most Democratic insurgent campaigns in recent elections, dating back to Sen. Gary Hart in 1984, have attracted upscale voters and not those lower on the economic ladder. Sanders reversed that as he became the first Democratic challenger to win here since Hart upset former Vice President Walter Mondale that year.

Among those making $50,000 a year or less, Sanders beat Clinton 2-1. He also defeated Clinton among voters without a college degree, by 36 points.

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Those lower-income, less-educated voters formed the backbone of Clinton’s 2008 campaign, giving her advantages that kept the race going for months against then-Sen. Barack Obama, who had a coalition of black voters and upscale whites. That year, among New Hampshire voters making less than $50,000, Clinton defeated Obama 47% to 32% in a multicandidate race.

New Hampshire’s voting populace is young and extremely mobile, a circumstance that benefited Sanders. About 30% of voters were either not old enough to vote or were not residents the last time Clinton ran in a primary here. In that way, however, New Hampshire is similar to states like California, where young and new voters abound, even if many of them don’t register or vote regularly.

Sanders has appealed to those voters’ desire to be part of a cause — what he calls a "political revolution" — that has proved far more invigorating than Clinton’s call for pragmatic and sensible change. Sanders’ argument dovetails nicely with the idealism of youth, just as Clinton’s more incremental, building-on-the-past approach matches the political instincts of many older voters.

The results confirm that Democrats in New Hampshire, like the nation as a whole, have grown more liberal. In the 2008 New Hampshire primary, 57% said they were liberal; by Tuesday that figure was 68%. And there were signs — at least at this early date — that it will not be easy for Clinton to rally those liberal Sanders voters to her side if she manages to wrest the nomination.

Asked in the exit poll whether they would be "satisfied" if Clinton won the nomination, 36% of those voting in the Democratic primary said they would not be. Virtually all were Sanders voters. Only 20% said they would be dissatisfied if Sanders was the nominee, suggesting Clinton’s voters are more receptive to Sanders than Sanders’ voters are to her.

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And there was no doubt that Sanders drew new voters into the process: He won first-time voters, 78% to 21%. Among veteran voters the gap narrowed to 10 points.

The type of loss Clinton suffered — if it extends elsewhere in the country — can be extremely hard to reverse. Rather than trying to convince voters that her policy views are acceptable, Clinton appears to be in the position of having to prod them into trusting her and believing that she cares about them. (Among the quarter of Democratic primary voters who said that a candidate caring about them was most important to them, Sanders won by better than 4-1.)

In some ways, the Clinton brand works against Hillary Clinton. She has been on the national stage for so long that she can seem like a less-approachable figure than Sanders, who was little known nationally before this race — more a figure for the history books than a candidate to embrace.

In debates and town halls here, she seemed somewhat resigned to the figurative distance between herself and some voters.

"I have to really demonstrate as clearly as I can who I am, what I stand for, and what I've always done," she said during a town hall last week. "I've always been guided by the same values. I have always listened to people. And I've always worked as hard as I could to produce results for people."

That wasn’t enough, in New Hampshire, to make the sale.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker . For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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