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Hillary Clinton Needs To Win The Voters She Lost In 2008

Just as in 2008, Tuesday’s New Hampshire’s primary created an “a-ha moment,” illuminating the contours of each Democratic candidate’s coalition.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Hillary Clinton is relying on a coalition that looks almost the opposite of the one she assembled in 2008. Eight years ago, she prevailed among working-class whites while losing well-educated whites and African-Americans to Barack Obama. But her path to overcoming Bernie Sanders and winning the 2016 nomination now appears to rely on a marriage of upscale whites and African-Americans.

As in 2008, Clinton supporters are still likelier to be older voters, women and self-identified Democrats rather than independents. But in terms of class and race, Clinton’s support looks surprisingly similar to Obama’s. Maybe that shouldn’t be so shocking: Clinton has talked up her connections to Obama, bringing him up repeatedly during the debate Thursday night, and primary voters who preferred to “generally continue Obama’s policies” backed Clinton by 42 percentage points in Iowa and by 25 points in New Hampshire.

Eight years ago, in the run-up to New Hampshire, Obama seemed poised to simply run away with the nomination after Iowa gave him a convincing win and signaled the viability of his candidacy to African-American voters elsewhere. But Clinton’s stunning upset in New Hampshire revealed for the first time that she could count on working-class white Democrats, who loudly and clearly told Obama, “not so fast.” In fact, her entire 7,589-vote victory was attributable to big margins in just five working-class Granite State towns: Manchester, Nashua, Rochester, Salem and Berlin. This pattern became a blueprint for Clinton’s later primary wins in working-class states like Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

This year, Sanders carried all five of those working-class towns. But to me, this year’s “a-ha moment” arrived while viewing the vote returns in Hanover, home to Dartmouth College and perched directly across the Connecticut River from Vermont. Considering Sanders’s reputed frenzy of support among young and very liberal voters, as well as those living near his home state, I expected Hanover to be one of his best towns in the state — much as it had been one of Obama’s best towns in 2008. Instead, Clinton took a very respectable 47 percent there, by far her best showing of all 26 towns bordering Vermont. The key, as it turns out: Hanover’s median household income is $94,063, one of the highest in the state.

Much has been made of the generational divide between Clinton and Sanders, and rightly so. But as my colleague (and Dartmouth alum) Harry Enten observed, one of the other biggest dividing lines in the Democratic race, at least among white voters, now appears to be income. If Sanders’s attacks on the “top 1 percent” resonate with young and low-income Democrats, they might also be giving older and higher-income Democrats pause. (In 2008, Clinton’s coalition was older but lower-income.) In New Hampshire towns with a median household income above $100,000, Clinton took 45.1 percent of the vote. But in towns with a median household income below $50,000, Clinton took just 31.7 percent.

Over $100,000 45% 53%
$90,000 to $100,000 42 56
$80,000 to $90,000 39 59
$70,000 to $80,000 39 60
$60,000 to $70,000 38 61
$50,000 to $60,000 37 61
Under $50,000 32 66
How income split the New Hampshire primary vote

This is a confirmation of a phenomenon we witnessed in Iowa, where entrance polls showed Clinton taking 55 percent of voters making over $100,000 a year, 50 percent of voters making $50,000 to $100,000 a year, 47 percent of those making $30,000 to $50,000 a year, and just 41 percent of those making less than $30,000. On the map, Clinton carried 9 of Iowa’s 12 highest-income counties.

Nationally, Clinton’s vote skewed decidedly downscale in 2008. In primaries eight years ago, Clinton took just 48 percent of the vote among whites making $100,000 or more, but 54 percent among whites earning between $50,000 and $100,000 and 60 percent among whites making less than $50,000.

Another turnabout from 2008: Income has been a starker divider than education. In 2008, Clinton beat Obama among whites without college degrees by 31 points, 62 percent to 31 percent, while virtually tying Obama among whites with college degrees, taking 48 percent to Obama’s 47 percent. This year, according to entrance/exit polling in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders has performed an average of just 7 points better with non-graduates than graduates, 57 percent to 50 percent.

It’s unlikely that Clinton can replicate Obama’s margin among African-Americans, a group Obama dominated 82 percent to 15 percent in 2008. But because she begins this primary campaign ahead by 354 superdelegates rather than trailing by 106 as Obama did, she may not need to1. According to last month’s NBC/WSJ/Marist survey of South Carolina likely Democratic primary voters, Clinton led Sanders 74 percent to 17 percent among African-Americans, and she just received the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC.

Another key for Clinton to overcome Sanders’s strength among downscale whites will be to hold on to her 2008 advantage among Latinos, who were 12 percent of all Democratic primary voters eight years ago and favored her 61 percent to 35 percent. That’s why Nevada could be just as important a harbinger as South Carolina. If inheriting Obama’s coalition of African-Americans and upscale whites helps Clinton keep pace with Sanders, keeping Latino voters in her column could be what helps her put him away.

Check out our live coverage of the Republican debate.


  1. Though read this article on our site by Nate Silver for a warning about an over-reliance on superdelegates.

David Wasserman is the U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report.