In the days before last Tuesday’s New Hampshire Democratic primary, reporters and veteran politicians reported an unusual degree of uncertainty as voters sought to sort the merits and ultimate electoral prospects of five major presidential hopefuls.
In the end, the expected prevailed as Sen. Bernie Sanders repeated his 2016 primary victory, albeit by a far narrower margin than in his rout of Hillary Clinton. But much of that uncertainty persists, especially among his rivals, as the Democratic race heads west and south, from predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire to multiracial Nevada and South Carolina.
The good news for the 78-year-old Vermont senator, who emerged from the first two contests of the nominating contest as the front-runner politically, financially and organizationally, is that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s poor showing is helping him to consolidate support among party progressives. The bad news is that, with just over one-fourth of the votes, the self-avowed democratic socialist showed again he might have difficulty in expanding his base when the field narrows.
So far, he is being helped by significant divisions among his three more moderate rivals, Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden, although they far outperformed Sanders and Warren by taking more than 52% of the votes combined.
But Buttigieg, who basically split Iowa honors with Sanders, got a boost by finishing a close second, as did Klobuchar, who parlayed a strong performance in the previous Friday night’s debate into a surprisingly strong third. Biden, who conceded he would lose the primary in that debate, left the state early and finished a dispiriting fifth.
The three face an uphill challenge in raising enough money and putting together enough political infrastructure to challenge the far better organized Sanders in Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucuses, which he narrowly lost to Clinton in 2016. In South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary, Biden hopes an electorate likely to be 60% African American can revive his near-moribund candidacy.
Until recently, Biden’s rivals have been unable to reduce his hold on African American voters, who are crucial not only for winning the Democratic nomination but the presidency itself. But the Real Clear Politics poll average shows his South Carolina support has slipped, and that billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent heavily there and in Nevada on television ads, has joined Sanders as his chief rivals.
In the past, one Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton in 1992, failed to win either Iowa or New Hampshire. In some ways, however, the first four contests are merely the prelude to the major contests, the primaries in 25 states in the first three weeks of March that pick most delegates.
The Iowa and New Hampshire results could have major impact in Texas and California, where early voting starts before South Carolina votes. Awaiting the current contenders there is yet another aspirant for the role of Sanders’ top rival, Mike Bloomberg.
The billionaire former New York mayor has already spent more than $350 million — more than all rivals combined — on television ads in the 14 Super Tuesday states including Texas and California that vote on March 3, and the 11 others whose primaries come the following two Tuesdays.
Bloomberg might get his first opportunity to engage with the current leaders in the next televised debate scheduled for Feb. 19 in Las Vegas, provided he meets the Democratic National Committee’s revised requirements.
The New Hampshire results reflected pre-primary polls more than those before the Iowa caucuses. Still, the unexpected results so far — Buttigieg’s strong showing in both states and Klobuchar’s in New Hampshire — illustrated again that national and state polls taken before Iowa are virtually worthless as forecasters once voters begin to cast ballots.
Here are some potentially significant New Hampshire footnotes:
Sanders: As in Iowa, Sanders ran poorly among older voters and well among younger ones. A smaller turnout among the latter, reflecting a new law raising residence requirements for students, helps explain the closeness of the final tally. Sanders had the lowest winning percentage in a contested Democratic presidential primary, more than two points below Jimmy Carter’s in 1976. Carter, however, went on to win the nomination and the presidency.
Buttigieg: Though far younger than his main rivals, Buttigieg did poorly among younger voters. Addressing cheering supporters, the 38-year-old former South Bend, Ind., mayor noted the pattern of past Democratic victories showed that “putting forward a new perspective is how Democrats win the White House.”
Klobuchar: Exit polls showed the Minnesota senator got the biggest boost for her campaign from her strong showing in last Friday’s debate, which influenced half of all voters.
Warren: Despite the poorest showing by a New England candidate since Joe Lieberman polled 8.6% in 2004, Warren showed no sign of leaving what she said might be “one of those long primary fights that last for months.”
Biden: He insisted in South Carolina that, despite a second poor showing, “It ain’t over, man. It’s just getting started.” Democrats can’t win, he said, “without overwhelming support from black and brown voters.”
Nevada and South Carolina will test if his third try is, in fact, over; if Buttigieg and Klobuchar can build on their New Hampshire showings; and if Sanders can consolidate his front-runner status.