Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump speak to supporters following their wins in Tuesday's New Hampshire primaries. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times; David Goldman/Associated Press)
Just a few weeks ago, 17 candidates were seeking either the Republican or Democratic nominations for president. After Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, won in convincing fashion by Republican Donald Trump and newly minted Democrat Bernie Sanders, that number has been whittled down to four or five Republicans and two Democrats.
Has there ever been as wild and unpredictable an election as this one?
Maybe 1972, when, in the beginning, there were 18 candidates (Nixon, Muskie, McGovern, Lindsay, Jackson, Wallace, Humphrey, Kennedy, Bayh, Chisholm, Harris, Hartke, Hughes, McCarthy, Mills, Yorty, Ashbrook and McCarthy).
One of them, George Wallace, running as a Democrat, was shot and badly wounded in a shopping mall in Maryland.
Some of them had no business running. Sam Yorty, inept mayor of Los Angeles, bumbled around New Hampshire in the "Yortymobile," touting his endorsement by William Loeb and his arch-conservative Manchester Union-Leader. Vance Hartke was the junior senator from Indiana. Birch Bayh was the senior senator and, together, they were called "Bayh and Bought."
There were some parallels to this year's race. "Put Wallace in some 1972 Democratic primaries," Kevin Phillips said in one of his columns, "and it would be the best political show in years." Mr. Wallace, he said, "would drive the fashionable Establishment nuts with his gutsy populist attacks." So, too, Donald Trump.
Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was basically a one-issue candidate, a liberal deeply opposed to the tragic war in Vietnam. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is pretty much a one-issue candidate too, deeply opposed to the power of Wall Street and the plight of middle- and working-class Americans.
Almost everyone's favorite to win the 1972 Democratic New Hampshire primary with at least half the vote was Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, and he did win the primary, but with only 46 percent of the vote. So the celebration was all about Mr. McGovern, who finished second with 37 percent. He said it was a "moral victory."
Mr. McGovern, it turned out, was too liberal, and his timing was bad, for the Watergate scandal was just unfolding by Election Day, when he was easily defeated by Richard Nixon. .
Is Mr. Sanders, like Mr. McGovern, too liberal to win the nomination and be elected president? He was after all a self-proclaimed socialist until last year, when he registered as a Democrat. Is Mr. Trump too outrageous, like Mr. Wallace, to win the big prize?
Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Sanders is interested in moral victories. They might actually win, unless voters, acting so far like spoiled children, ask themselves questions like these: Do you really want Mr. Trump appointing Supreme Court justices? Do you really want Mr. Sanders as commander-in-chief?
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, contributes regular observations to post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.