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The Sanders coalition: Not what we thought it was

Bernie Sanders’ coalition may be quite different -– and much bigger -– than has been assumed.

Bernie Sanders’ coalition may be quite different – and much bigger – than has been assumed. That is one of the takeaways from his New Hampshire primary rout, in which Sanders scored impressively with voters who had been crucial to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 victory in the state.

Sanders bested Clinton across virtually all regional and demographic boundaries in the Granite State, crushing her overall by 22 points. But he fared best with economically downscale voters and won over a number of blue-collar cities and towns that had been Clinton redoubts in her 2008 campaign. In so doing, Sanders essentially flipped the ’08 script, in which Clinton’s main challenger, Barack Obama, relied disproportionately on higher-income voters and those with college degrees.

RELATED: New Hampshire primary could fundamentally change both political parties

For instance, among voters making less than $50,000, Sanders defeated Clinton by 33 points. By contrast, Clinton won those same voters by 15 points over Obama in ’08. Sanders’ margin was only half as big – 17 points – with voters making more than $50,000, a group that Obama actually won by 5 points. Similarly, Sanders rolled up a 36-point spread among voters without college degrees, while winning college-educated voters by only 13 points. In ’08, though, it was Clinton who won voters without college degrees by 8 points, with Obama taking college graduates by 5 points.

There’s also the geography of Sanders’ win. While he claimed almost every city and town in the New Hampshire, he didn’t fare much better than Obama in many of the state’s more upscale liberal areas. In Hanover, home of Dartmouth College, Sanders ran just 281 votes ahead of Clinton, a margin of 6.5 points. Eight years ago, Obama won that same town by 32 points, a plurality of more than 1,500 votes. In the coastal city of Portsmouth, another liberal enclave, Sanders performed only modestly better (a 12-point win) than Obama (6 points).

But it was a very different story in the state’s older, post-industrial cities and towns, where Sanders improved by leaps and bounds over Obama’s ’08 performance. Take Berlin, a struggling mill city in the North Country, where Obama actually ran third, behind John Edwards. Clinton was so strong in Berlin in ’08 that her vote total actually exceeded that of Obama's and Edwards' combined. But this time, she lost the city by 13 points to Sanders. Rochester, another blue-collar mill town, was another Clinton stronghold in ’08, where she ran up a 976-vote plurality over Obama – a 16-point margin. Sanders, though, won Rochester Tuesday by 21 points.

Sanders’ success with blue collar voters in New Hampshire carries potentially significant implications. Conventional wisdom has held that his campaign is fueled by the same liberal white voters who sided with Obama in ’08 – but doomed by his inability to make inroads with black voters, who were essential to Obama’s triumph.

But the New Hampshire result suggests that Sanders is winning over white voters who shunned Obama in 2008. Eight years ago, it was blue collar whites who sustained Clinton’s campaign through the end of the Democratic primary season, providing her edge in must-win contests in Pennsylvania and Ohio and powering her to landslide victories in “Greater Appalachia” states from Oklahoma to West Virginia. If Sanders can continue to win these voters over, he may be in position to win far more states than most have assumed.

Sanders still faces a stubborn deficit with black voters, who looms large in the upcoming South Carolina primary, and he’ll have to make gains with them to win the nomination. But after New Hampshire, it may be time to stop measuring Sanders’ 2016 campaign against Obama’s ’08 effort and to consider the possibility that Sanders is creating a new coalition right before our eyes.